Monday, July 8, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 76: Mark Twain, Running for Governor (#149)

Mark Twain, "Running for Governor" (1870) from Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852–1890:

As I noted here, "journalistic ethics" wasn't that much of a concern for 19th-century journalists, most of whom worked for party-aligned papers; and many of the others were mostly interested in sensationalism. Mark Twain has a bit of fun with this in "Running for the Governor," noting how all these papers report on made-up stories about candidate Twain that they then run with as real. Why won't Twain answer our questions of how he defrauded a widow in China through perjury--which is why we'll call him the Perjurer Twain? Etc., etc.

Even at fives pages, this joke gets to be a little repetitive. And this piece also showcases what, for a reformer, is one of the persistant frustrations with Twain: for all his accurate satire about how terrible things are, there's no hint about how things could be made better. Shitty journalism got you down? Why you could... well, I guess... I suppose... hey, let's invest in a mechanical type-setter!

I don't want to let off the hook today's journalism, and I'd like to hold up for ridicule Peggy Noonan, who in the Wall Street Journal, wrote of an unverified rumor about the Clintons that "It would be irresponsible not to" speculate. Welcome to 1870-style ethics-free journalism, Peggy "let's just walk on by verified stories of torture because they're just too sad" Noonan. I have to say, as much as Twain's joke is unfortunately timeless, I wish he had named names a little more to give his piece some contemporary bite.

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