All you need to know about the modern press, (The Push Cart War Edition)…
…you can find in my kid’s fourth grade reading assignment, that classic, Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War.
In Chapter IX, “The Secret Campaign Against the Pushcarts,” Merrill describes the truckers’ skillful use of captive media. An anonymous columnist in a weekly owned by one of the truck companies wrote again and again about “The Pushcart Menance.” This was the latest in a series of reports that purported to document threats to wholesome living in New York, all of which happen to be, just by coincidence matters of concern to trucks trying to ease their way through the streets.
Trees, it seems were “unsanitary” — the leaves, ya’ know — and that anonymous “people” wanted to banish them from sidewalks in order to widen roadways. Sidewalks themselves — and other obstacles to wider streets, like houses and churches and small candy stores, were “unsound and unsanitary” and hence ripe for removal in support of easing traffic flow.
But trees and shops and sidewalks were as nothing in that last few months and weeks before the war, compared to the overt threat to civic order posed by the five hundred or so pushcarts licensed to do business on the byways of New York. So, in that spring, Merrill reports, the “Community Reporter” produced a flurry of stories “that made it sound as if pushcarts were even more unsound and unsanitary than trees, houses, schools, churches and candy stores.”
Now that would not have mattered much, for the captive rag in which these columns appeared was such transparently crap that Merrill notes, “some grocers had trouble giving it away, as most of their customers did not mind a few leaves falling off trees.” But, cannily, the paper was also sent, gratis, to the influential: “members of the City Council and other important people.”
You can guess what comes next. Some free shopper makes a noise and…
Let Merill tell you how it worked — and still does:
Enough people did see the Community Reporter’s column for one of the more respectable papers to announce a series entitled: “Pushcarts — Are They a Menace to Our Streets?”
When in doubt, don’t question the assertion, report the controversy.
And, even better (or more true to life), the respectable — that is to say, for “respectable,” read “serious” — series, the MSM reporter interviewed not the pushcart peddlars, but Big Moe Mammoth, legendary head of Mammoth Moving, famed for its Baby Mammoths, Mama Mammoths, and the very Mighty Mammoth truck whose assault on Morris the Florist triggered open warfare on the streets of New York City.
In case you were wondering, Merrill published her prophetic tale in 1964. You couldn’t call it fiction today.
Image: George Benjamin Luks, “Houston Street,” 1917