The following paragraph was sent to me by my colleague Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario:
America has in fact transformed journalism from what it once was, the periodical expression of the thought of the time, the opportune record of the questions and answers of contemporary life, into an agency for collecting, condensing and assimilating the trivialities of the entire human existence, […] the frantic haste with which we bolt everything we take, seconded by the eager wish of the journalist not to be a day behind his competitor, abolishes deliberation from judgment and sound digestion from our mental constitutions. We have no time to go below surfaces, and as a general thing no disposition." Journalist W. J. Stillman, writing in The Atlantic Monthly about the negative influence of the telegraph, 1891.
The point of this paragraph—the joke—is in the final fourteen characters: "telegraph" and "1891." This paragraph is circulating followed by this sentence:
Okay, if you didn't cheat and read to the end, you also thought it was another quote about the internet, right?
I didn't cheat and so my answer is "yes." But I was also interested in reading more. Google the first clause and you get 2150 hits, mostly on blogs, discussion boards and "odd spot" journalism. Flicking through a number of these I realised that they all have the same gap: "entire human existence, […] the frantic haste."
After some searching I found the reference in The Atlantic Monthly (Volume 68 - Page 689), but the text is unavailable online (due, no doubt, to some idiotic interpretation of copyright law). After a lot more searching I found the full text, or, at least, a lot more of it, in only one place here, in The Bruce Herald [Milton, New Zealand], Vol. 22, Issue 2343 (29 January 1892), 5: "A Result of American Journalism."
If I had the time it would be possible to untangle the complex descent of this snippet of text from The Atlantic Monthly, via Daniel J. Czitrom's 1979 thesis Media and the America Mind: The Intellectual and Cultural Reception of Modern Communication, 1838–1965 (published in 1982 as Media and the America Mind: From Morse to McLuhan) to Timothy W. Gleason's The Watchdog Concept: The Press and the Courts in Nineteenth-Century America (1990), to Wade Rowland's The Spirit of the Web: The Age of Information from Telegraph to Internet (1999) and Carla G. Surratt's The Internet and Social Change (2001). From one of the latter, no doubt, this snippet was launched into cyberspace where it has multiplied, like administrators at a university.
What amuses me, is that the full text is only available online one hundred and twenty years after it was published because a country newspaper in Milton, New Zealand (some fifty kilometres south of Dunedin—not exactly a metropolis itself) reprinted it. And then this newspaper was scanned and made available online free.
It seems that the circulation of information was more reliable in colonial times than it is now. Most likely it was a physical copy of The Atlantic Monthly that was received by steamer in Dunedin, and the snippet reprinted, all in a matter of months. Of course, it is possible that Professor W. J. Stillman's text reached Dunedin via telegraph, which would be pretty amusing given his sentiments.
Here then is the text that appears in The Bruce Herald
In an article on journalism and literature in the Atlantic, the writer, Professor W. J. Stillman, says:—As the journal of culture leads to scholarship and the sounder and broader general education of the public, its work passes under the classification of science and out of journalism proper; it is a branch and continuation of the university. We in the United States of America are proud of our educational system, and it is not an infrequent boast that we are the best educated people in the world. In fact, we are one of the worst. It may be true that in the United States there are more native boys of a given age who can read and write than in any other country, and that we have more colleges and universities than any two other countries combined; but the number of persons who are profoundly versed in any branch of learning, or who may be said to be really educated, is probably less than in most European countries. In such a question it is not the extent of the primary or secondary education that tells, but that of the superior. Nor is there any validity in the excuse that we are a young nation. We have all the advantages that heredity can give, and the concentrated results of all the culture the world has known, and the proof that we fully enjoy the advantages of this epoch and past epochs is that here and there an individual amongst us rises to the highest attainments of the culture of the day. But our education in any given branch out of the practical, the pursuit of the material, is extremely superficial, and we are content that it should be so. It is peculiarly and almost exclusively a newspaper education, and responds to the demands of the day—calls for information, not for knowledge—and it is almost inevitable that it should remain so, at least for a long time, for the newspaper is the readiest of all appliances for cramming, and cramming is the vice, not only of our own country, but of our race, though eminently of our nation as compared with other nations of our race. America has in fact transformed journalism from what it once was—the periodical expression of the thought of the time, the opportune record of the questions and answers of contemporary life—into an agency for collecting, condensing, and assimilating the trivialities of the entire human existence. In this chase of the day’s accidents we still keep the lead, as in the consequent neglect and oversight of what is permanent and therefore vital in its importance to intellectual character. The effect is disastrous, and affects the whole range of our mental activities. We develop hurry into a deliberate system, skimming of surfaces into a science, the pursuit of novelties and sensations into the normal business of our lives. Our travelling is a competition to see the most in the least time; our learning the collection of the greatest number of facts concerning the greatest number of things; and our pride the multitude of subjects we know something about, rather than the soundness and depth of the knowledge we possess of a few. We desire to be glib; we mistake glitter for luminousness; we force the note in whatever we undertake, for nothing is so repugnant to our standards as the calm of a serene philosophy. The most disastrous consequence of this condition of things is that even those of us who are earnest are driven into materialism in some of its shapes, if we would make an impression on contemporary development, and our lives are little by little deprived of the spiritual leaven that makes their true vitality. We are more proud of this electric-light brilliancy than we are of any of our real virtues, and strain to be sparkling until we but dimly perceive the difference between being funny and witty, more dimly that between being witty and wise. To sum up all that could be said on this score, we are more anxious to seem than to be. Our art, our literature, our politics, and our social organisation are infected with the passion of an ostentation often mendacious, always superficial.