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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: August 6, 2011

by John Wilcock


“There are commentators on Fox News who, if they didn’t have The New York Times, would be selling exercise equipment on late-night TV….I do think you could make the case that Fox News has had more influence on the national consensus than any other single media outlet over the last five to ten years. My gripe with them is not that they are conservative (but) they pretend not to be. I think that ‘fair and balanced’ rubric is the most cynical slogan in the history of sloganeering.”
New York Times editor Bill Keller talking to Esquire


WHEN I WORKED for the New York Times, long ago, personal bias from reporters was no more welcome than today. But the requirement of so-called “objectivity” was carried to extremes, giving the effect that all reports came from some sacred place on high. A “view from nowhere,” as NYU’s Jay Rosen describes it in the Economist’s 14-page report on “the future of news.” Much of the reason why journalism is looser today, is due to the much-underappreciated underground press whose writers had not arisen (as I had) from traditional journalism but were activists who believed there was a clear difference between right and wrong and they had no hesitation in speaking up for what they regarded as “right” (which politically, of course, was invariably left). Actually, the idea of “objective” journalism is historically relatively recent: most of the early papers were highly partisan of the sort that would cause their publishers to come to blows if they met in the street. Because of the quest for larger audiences, writes Rosen, “journalists agreed not to alienate anyone so that advertisers could aim their messages at everyone. That way the publishers got a broader market and journalists got steady jobs but gave up their voices.”


MY ALL-TIME CULTURE HERO died 60 years ago today (July 31), drowning in his swimming pool the day following his 62nd birthday. In his lifetime he was among the most influential people in the country, but today he is barely remembered.

Emanuel Haldeman-Julius at John Thomas Scopes trial, Dayton, Tennessee, July 1925. publisher E. Haldeman-Julius, standing in front of the Defense Mansion, 1925. Photographer Watson Davis

    Emanuel Haldeman-Julius was the first person to introduce Americans to mass publishing with what today would be regarded as a pamphlet, but what he termed Little Blue Books (take an 81/2 x 11 page and fold it twice; that was the format). Each cost a nickel and introduced a mass audience to Shakespeare, Dickens, Mark Twain, Conrad, Voltaire, Upton Sinclair, Thomas Paine — all the classics and many others, too, works that had hitherto been available only in relatively expensive hardcovers.

He declared his aim was to “put books within the realm of everyone, rich or poor…a democracy of literature…a university in print”, and in little more than a decade he published around 2,000 titles, selling in excess of 100 million books. His marketing methods were cheap and simple, announcing only the books’ titles and free postage for 20 titles at a time ($1) Books that proceeded to sell fewer than 10,000 copies were withdrawn and re-titled before being reissued.

One enduring legend was that in those more innocent days, subscribers were too embarrassed to order sex titles alone, disguising their order with requests for other more serious tomes. Naturally among his best-sellers were Sex Life in Greece and Rome, Prostitution in the Ancient World, Catholicism and Sex, and Sexual Obsessions of Saints and Martyrs.

In 1927, for example, 66,000 copies were sold of Margaret Sanger’s What Every Girl Should Know which one might also regard as a How To book, another category that was very popular, irregardless of the subject.

Son of a Russian immigrant who became a bookbinder in Philadelphia, H-J, as he was later known, worked as a bellhop and a theater usher before landing a job as copy boy on the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph and then as a $l5-a-week reporter on the New York Call. Invited by one of his former editors to join him in Girard, Kansas, working for the nationally-circulated Appeal to Reason, he eventually ended up buying it along with its mostly-idle printing press, the money coming from his new wife, Marcet Haldeman, daughter of Girard’s foremost citizen, member of a pioneer Kansas family.

Appeal to Reason, which had been founded in 1897 by an Indiana publisher and founder of a utopian colony, was an early rabble-rouser, by and for the masses, whose huge circulation was enhanced by serializing Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, that notorious exposé about the exploitation of immigrant workers in Chicago packing houses. Early contributors included Tom Paine, Marx and Engels, William Morris, Eugene Debs, Stephen Crane, and Jack London.



By the time H-J arrived on the scene, the magazine had lost much of its circulation after a right-wing smear campaign and attacks by J. Edgar Hoover and his minions in a “Red Scare” that sought out and arrested radicals and left-wingers. But when the magazine died, Haldeman-Julius, his early newspaper career standing him in good stead, made good use of its decrepit presses. He had always loved The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol so he set them in 8pt type, printing them on newsprint in a 3 1/2 by 5-inch format with a blue cover. They were Little Blue Books numbers 1 and 2. His first mailing — offering. 50 titles for $5, mailed five at a time, was to 175,000 former subscribers of Appeal to Reason. It brought in $25,000 and by 1929 the delighted publisher had a thousand titles on his list and his presses were printing 10,000 copies per hour. (During the depression he encouraged students to buy Little Blue Books in bulk — 50 titles for $1 — to resell for a profit.)


FOR A WHILE, Girard, Kansas, became the unlikely “literary capital of the United States” and its publisher — acclaimed widely as a genius — quickly earned a listing in Who’s Who In America. According to his wife, he preferred to be regarded as a Crawford County farmer who nurtured corn, wheat, and beans on his small tract at the edge of town.

“Emanuel loved life and he loved people — all kinds of people, from his celebrated friends to the big red-faced milkman who trudged by our farm daily,” she recalled. “Few men had more diversified friends than did my husband. They included writers, explorers, opera stars, socialites, preachers, hoboes, and a Catholic priest. Any friend or celebrity getting within a hundred miles of Girard was almost sure to detour for a visit with him. All sat by his fireside as did many interesting young college students who, blushing with youthful embarrassment, were probably expecting to have Einstein’s theory of relativity hurled at them and were not quite sure what to say to a genius. But H-J had that charming gift of putting all guests at ease. ‘How nice of you to come’ he would exclaim, and follow up with, ‘Excuse me for not having my shoes on,’ for he loved sitting around in his stockinged feet.

“Books were his life,” his widow recalled. “He once said he had a soft spot for Louis XVI because when he spent 159 days in prison before his head was cut off, he read 159 books. Like Horace Mann, he thought a house without books was like a room without windows.”

The complete list of Little Blue Books can be found at [[AXE Library]—Little Blue Books.


FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS is such an inspired term for what is an increasingly popular social classification, that it’s a pity that Hollywood had to steal the title for a not especially relevant movie. Friends with Benefits — so much more profound than such previous signifiers as Mr. and Mrs., “occasional lovers,” or boyfriend & girlfriend. Without actually saying so, FwB suggests everybody’s overriding desire for sex is mutually catered to without commitment. Viva FwB!

THE WILCOCK WEB: Enough of the same boring TV pundits every Sunday morning! There must be some bright people with different opinions…..The undisputed winner in all elections should be the pol who paid the fewest bribes….“People who value their privileges above their principles,” cautioned Dwight Eisenhower, “soon lose both”…..If the Feds claim the right to bust California-legal marihuana smokers, how come they don’t enforce the Defense of Marriage Act which forbids same-sex marriages?….. ….Trying to end the stand-off with the Feds, Reps. Barney Frank and Ron Paul are introducing a bill that would allow the government only to interdict marihuana in cases of interstate traffic….. Only 14% of the 21 million applicants to China’s Communist Party last year were accepted as members…God created man with a penis and a brain,” wrote Stephen Ambrose, “but only gave him enough blood to run one at a time”…..How ridiculous can the legal system get when dozens of people watch somebody shoot more than 30 people (13 died) and then wait three years for the trial? We’re talking about the “alleged” Fort Hood killings by Major Nidal Malik Hasan in 2009. His trial is set for next year…. You might think that all the billions generated by American Idol and the forthcoming X Factor would be enough to solve any disputes between originators Simon Cowell and Simon Fuller but if there’s enough greed around, legal suits always ensue….Saudi Arabian women don’t deserve the right to drive if they don’t have the guts to fight for a change in the law…Okay then, what is the one big thing the hedgehog knows?…. Commemorating her 60 years on the throne, Queen Elizabeth is planning the planting of six million oak trees…Why are the Canadians building an environmentally destructive pipeline to ship oil to China while we still import oil from the Middle East?….. When they busted former Boston hoodlum Whitey Bulger, they found $800,000 in his Santa Monica apartment but now taxpayers have to pay for his defense because he supposedly doesn’t have any money…. Compared with Michelle Bachman, the often-villified Sarah Palin is beginning to look like a goddess….Candy Spelling says she regrets not having made the gift-wrapping room bigger (one of 123 rooms in the mansion bought for Petra by her billionaire daddy Bernie Ecclestone). Fortunately, Petra, 22, says she won’t be using the house very much …. Suri, the 5-year-old daughter of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes has a $100,000 tree house with running water, electricity, and security cameras… Maybe she’d like to loan it to a homeless person when not in residence?….“Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” — Winston Churchill (1874-1965)