Thursday, May 18, 2017
King News by Moses Koenigsberg: Chapter 3 Part 1
King News by Moses KoenigsbergPublished by F.A. Stokes Company, 1941
The Deadline that Led to a Crusade (part 1)link to previous installment link to next installment
“The tall cypress of the Ouachita” was an arresting appellation. It had been given to Charles Merritt Barnes when he made his first excursion into San Antonio politics. It was intended as a derisive hint that he should return to his Louisiana habitat for political favors. The title became exceedingly irksome to him as city editor of the San Antonio Times. But it didn’t abate his flair for pontifical utterance. He wrapped a mention of the weather in the same sonorous gravity with which he clothed a labored aphorism.
It was Barnes’s duty to outline my first daily newspaper assignment. Intensive concentration on his words could not exclude notice of a piebald individuality. In his presence the eye always competed with the ear. A giant in height, he was slender almost to emaciation. His slimness was said to explain why he carried around only five of the six bullets an adversary once fired at arm’s length.
The new reporter found it difficult to interpret the city editor’s constant smile. Fringed with a straggling amber mustache, it ran the gamut of a restrained risibility. It was a hide-and-seek game between immature smirks, grins and sneers. Close observation later solved the conundrum. Barnes’s habitual guise of imminent levity was a suspense between anticipatory and retrospective contemplation of the merits of mint julep.
“Talk to everybody,” he instructed. “Question them about what they have done and heard. Glean from them every bit of information that may be new or interesting. Then write up what you believe we should publish.
“I shall cover the city hall and the hotels. You will take the rest of the city. Go to the federal court, the post office, the county commissioners, all the offices in the county courthouse, especially the clerk’s offices—where you will get the daily list of real-estate transfers and new suits filed together with decisions in cases that have been tried—police headquarters, the railroad offices and depots, the sheriff, the constables, the justice of the peace, the undertakers’ shops, the hospitals, the headquarters of the foreign consuls, the real-estate board, the clubs, the stockbrokers and all organized centers of activity such as the Live Stock Exchange, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the Epworth League and the Y.M.C.A. Call at the banks and insurance offices. Also, I shall look to you for sporting news. You’ll find items of that kind at the baseball club and the leading saloons and gambling joints. And, remember, a newspaper reporter knows no hours. While this is an afternoon paper, news is news no matter at what hour you get it. It only ceases to be news after it is published. The items you get at night you can write before starting out on your beat in the morning.”
A bit of chagrin is associated with those instructions. I didn’t know enough to ask the city editor, with incisive sarcasm, whether he had possibly overlooked anything. Instead, the eager cub sought even more exertion.
“What,” he asked Barnes, “is the quickest way for a reporter to distinguish himself?”
“There isn’t any quickest way,” came the rejoinder in a bored voice. “The newspaperman must be thorough and accurate to begin with. Next, he must write his reports clearly and interestingly. In time, doing these things will win recognition, more pay and advancement to higher positions.”
“But,” persisted the importunate tyro, “there must be special achievements for which a reporter can set his aim, besides doing his regular work satisfactorily.”
“Oh!” and at that instant Barnes’s smile divided itself between a broad grin and a covert sneer. “It is the goal of every reporter to get a scoop. The item that you land in your paper before any competitor gets it is a scoop. The bigger the story, the bigger the scoop.”
The valor of ignorance sped the stride of the newspaper recruit. It never occurred to him that he was tackling a routine that three trained men could not complete in a day. He was a full-fledged reporter. Nothing else counted. Of course, there was much ground to be covered, but every step led toward a scoop. Jason did a good job finding the golden fleece, but he wasn’t a newspaperman. And Jason won only one guerdon. Each scoop would be like a golden fleece and from scoop to scoop the heights would be scaled.
A complication from which evolved a permanent lesson came in the first morning of reportorial experience. The nascent news-getter had entered the United States District Court with all the aplomb of an envoy extraordinary. A trial was about to start. A number of prisoners were being arraigned en bloc. One of them, the tallest, turned to whisper to his lawyer. A glance identified him. It was the officer who had accompanied Eusebio Barrera on his farewell visit to the little adobe house in Encinal.
The courtroom was thronged with Mexicans. Some were merely watching the proceedings. Others were witnesses. Faces emerged reconstructing the snickering circle around Captain Hernandez’s tent on the Nueces. Felipe Rodriguez was doubtless among the crowd. He would surely recognize the hated gringo kid. There would be an embarrassing confrontation. From that scene the American boy might be yanked into the line of defendants before the bar.
The blithe reporter became for the nonce a harried skulker. Edging into the hall, he made his way to the office of the court clerk. There the facts of my predicament were confirmed. The prisoners were General Francisco Ruiz Sandoval and a batch of his followers. They had been extradited from Mexico for trial in a United States court.
The trial consumed eight court days. One could pass in and out of the clerk’s office without being observed by those in the courtroom. Thus, the story of each day’s proceedings was obtained for the Times. The neophyte reporter was in daily agony of mind. He knew one of the highest traditions of journalism required that he “get the story first hand.” He knew it was his task to question the principals and lawyers and even the judge instead of relying on the haphazard or casual recollections of nonparticipants. Every furtive trip past that federal tribunal etched deeper in his mind a newly formed resolution. Eventually it became the primary canon in a professional code based on precepts extracted from actual crises. It reads:
The gathering and reporting of news constitute a function affecting the progress of civilization. Performance should be limited to those fitted for the responsibility. Such fitness is inseparable from singleness of devotion to newspaper duty. It can subsist only in complete independence from divergent accountability or commitment.This debars any participation in which loyalty to one’s fellows or to one’s stake may conflict with the obligations of journalism. My own adherence to the rule may have at times approached the borders of fanaticism. But from its safe shelter, I have again and again observed how the practice of contempt for this principle has led to the crashing of brilliant careers, to the corruption of newspaper institutions and to the collapse of great journalistic enterprises.
An elaboration of this monitory shield evolved from another criminal trial. Here, too, was the clamp of personal entanglement.
Adam Brown, a huge black Negro, was on trial for the killing of a policeman. The slain officer, a mulatto, had been one of the most respected darkies in town. His beat was in the heart of the business section. He had known me from infancy. He had actually pleaded for permission to subscribe to The Amateur. When my long trousers and a clerkship in a law office came, he appointed me his “special counselor.” A week before he was shot to death, he had drawn me aside for a curbstone conference. His wife, a buxom wench fifteen years his junior, was breaking his heart. He was so deeply stirred that he couldn’t marshal the facts he seemed eager to present. The consultation was abortive. We never met again.
The prosecution of Adam Brown was based on the theory that he had been the paramour of the murdered man’s wife. During the trial the young journalist flitted in and out of a seat beside the district attorney. The defendant eyed him suspiciously. He questioned his lawyer about the busybody. When Brown learned that the young fellow was a reporter and a friend of the slain policeman, he remonstrated. His counsel protested against “this intrusion of an element prejudicial to his client.” The protest was ignored. By the time the jury retired, Brown had whipped his resentment into a fiendish hatred.
The verdict of guilty was expected. The murderer listened stolidly to the announcement. A few moments later he whispered to the deputy sheriff adjusting his manacles. The officer beckoned to me. “The prisoner wants to talk to you,” he mumbled. A tingle of excitement vied with a sense of foreboding. The doomed Negro leaned over until his mouth was close to my ear.
“I’d like to fry your guts in a skillet and make you eat ’em!” he hissed.
The malignity of that malediction remains unmatched in my experience. The deputy sheriff stared for a moment at the prisoner and then savagely jerked the handcuffs.
“Well, cross a tarantula with a rattlesnake!” he exploded. “Now ain’t that something ?”
Was Brown’s rancor in any degree justified? Had friendship for the murdered policeman trespassed on the role of the journalist? These were qualms that twisted an hour of introspection. They were to be turned into real torment at Brown’s hanging.
A new scaffold was built for the Negro’s execution. An unpainted white-pine platform, it rested on four rough-lumber posts. Eight feet above the prison yard, it looked more like a stage than a gallows. Prisoners, leering through the windows of the second tier of cells, bandied ribald jests about “the brand new bandstand.”
It was the boy reporter’s baptism of horror. There had been a moment of nausea when the iron gates of the jail clanged behind him. A violent constriction of nerves and muscles balked a dash for the outside. He was approaching for the first time the spectacle of ordained death. Under any circumstances, considerable obduracy would have been required from which to extort calmness for such a mission. But here it was impossible to assume the callousness of a detached observer. One glance from the doomed man would instantly dissolve such an assumption. This was not merely the snuffing out of a murderer’s life. It was the extinction of a soul threaded with strands in which the young journalist had become himself entangled. Could the reporter, watching the operation of justice, exclude from his consciousness the boy’s anguish of mind and spirit ?
He was on tenterhooks. The jocular obscenities of the men in the cells turned the scene into a phantasmagoria. Was this lumber frame the gallows? How was it to be used for a hanging? To the newspaper novice’s unpracticed eye there was no sign of the scaffold’s macabre facilities. He questioned a deputy sheriff.
“There’s a trap door, thirty inches square, in the center of the platform,” the officer explained. “It’s scarcely visible from here. It can be plainly seen from under the scaffold. It works on a hinge released by a wooden trigger. The prisoner will be taken up that plank staircase opposite us. Then he will be put in position on the trap door. While he is standing there his hands will be bound behind his back and his legs will be trussed together. This is done to prevent them from catching on the sides of the trap and to keep them from flopping around while he’s hanging.
“At the same time that Brown’s being trussed up, the rope will be slipped through the swivel in the middle of that cross beam that runs from the cell house to the jail wall. That swivel is directly above the trap door in the center of the stage. It will be less than two feet above the top of Brown’s head when he’s standing on the trap.
“He weighs two hundred pounds. We figure that a six-foot drop will break the backbone of a man his weight. Otherwise, he’ll have to die of strangulation. The Negro will shoot through the open space and if he’s lucky the jerk will snap his spine.”
The picture this evoked only addled the listener’s malaise. He must get away from this informant whose chill verity was as distressing as it was helpful. A quick inspection of the death structure from underneath the trap door would furnish a logical pretext. There the young journalist stood while Adam Brown mounted the scaffold.
The lethal functions on the platform overhead were swiftly performed. The trap door crashed open. The startled reporter caught a flash of a rigid form hurtling through. It came with the force of a battering-ram. The slippered feet, bound tightly together, formed the point of the ram. It was a veritable bolt of death. It struck the boy on the shoulder. Spun completely around, he was hurled against the brick wall of the cell house.
The county physician came forward to examine the swaying body of the hanged man. It was his duty to announce when life had finally departed. His task was momentarily delayed. He had stumbled over the prostrate figure under the gallows. A shout brought the sheriff and several deputies running. The stunned reporter was carried to the little room beyond the cell house that served as the prison dispensary.
Weeks elapsed before the newspaper neophyte attempted an appraisal of that day’s professional experience. His physical aches and pains obtruded less upon his reflections than recurrent nightmares. The headless body of Adam Brown was always seated on the judge’s bench in the district court. In one of the black hands rested the head that should have been on the shoulders. The other fist gripped a skillet in which a furious blaze of many colors sizzled around tantalizingly familiar but never wholly recognizable images. The spectral pattern was unvaried except for the evanescent outlines of the wraith-like figures in the flames.
The pendulum of the cub reporter’s zeal swung between the odium of crime and the amenities of cultural pursuits. The circuit of human concerns was the outer boundary of his beat. And at nearly every turn, across that entire range of news, he encountered the same queer quirk of humanity—a disgusting zest for notoriety. Hands upraised to the limelight cast their shadows across every field of reportorial endeavor.
Avidity for one’s “name in the newspaper” was diagnosed as a psychopathic phenomenon. A revealing incident instilled in the boy an abiding distaste for this type of exhibitionism. It forged the links of his armor for a lifelong crusade, first against the publicity pirate and then against the mercenary hordes that have emerged in successive waves from the parasitic chrysalis of the press agent.
Tlie basic example of exhibitionism grew out of an innocent lawn-party. It was a conventional gathering with Chinese lanterns and dancing on the green. The hostess was the wife of Andy Stevens, a rising young banker. She had no idea of rivalry with the musical soiree the same evening at the home of W. Ballantyne Patterson. Indeed, she would have canceled her party rather than offend that enterprising capitalist, who had done so much for the real-estate development of San Antonio. Her husband often sought Patterson’s favor. And she never learned that because of her success as a hostess that night, Patterson exploded a crisis in a newspaper office.
It was the cub’s assignment to cover both social functions. He did not expect to see the host at the Patterson mansion. There was acid in the hope that he would not. It was sharpened by the sour memory of their last meeting. The lad had lifted his hat to the magnate while he was escorting a woman to her carriage at the curbstone. His companion, apparently amused, nodded toward the young fellow. “Oh! That’s an errand boy in a law office,” boomed the chivalrous gentleman. “He shouldn’t presume to address me in the company of a lady.”
“The anatomy of courtesy” was in the newspaper novice’s mind as he approached the Patterson mansion. He shrank from another clinical demonstration by the same lecturer. But the misgiving with which he entered the house gave way to amazement. Overwhelming civilities were heaped upon him. No attention was suitable for the boy unless ministered by the patrician hands of the host himself. The climax was reached when Patterson volunteered to collect for the reporter the descriptions of the costumes worn by the women guests. There could be but one explanation. The capitalist rated an errand boy among the untouchables and a journalist among the Brahmans.
Two days later this conclusion came up for reconsideration. It was at a special conference of executives of the Times. The advertising manager had that morning reported an abrupt cancelation of the Patterson advertising schedule. The pretext given was obviously fatuous. And the underling who notified the Times representative was extremely careful to explain how regretful the firm would be if many of its associates and clients adopted a similar attitude toward the paper.
This was no minor threat to the Times’s advertising revenues. The situation was thoroughly canvassed. It was a worried group that summoned the city editor. How did it happen, he was asked, that the report of the lawn-party at Andy Stevens’ home got more space and prominence than the account of the soiree at the Patterson residence? The policy, he explained, was to use all the names of guests at such affairs, and the excess of the Stevens list over the Patterson roster accounted for tire longer story. Then the mechanical exigencies of make-up entailed a higher position on the page for the larger item.
The reporter who wrote both stories was also questioned. Could he tell anything to amplify the city editor’s explanation? Of course, he couldn’t.
Out of a prolonged shaking of heads, a strategic course was evolved. The managing editor would call on the disgruntled advertiser personally. There would be an adroit explanation of the blunder about which Mr. Patterson had remained so magnanimously silent. Next, the city editor would be presented, together with a request that data be made available for him for the writing of a special article. The Times was going to great lengths to publish proof of his social, business and civic preeminence. Patterson’s pique would be salved with a fanfare of flattering publicity.
The solemn conclave cast the fledgling journalist into an abyss of chaotic chagrin. What was this incomparable calling of journalism if its masters wriggled and cringed at the threat of a peevish advertiser? Of what demesne did the vaunted Fourth Estate really consist? Was it a sovereign realm or was it merely the back yard of haughty hucksters? Was the servile obedience of an editor wrapped in each parcel of advertising space?
These were parlous questions. Again the tyro was goaded into the travail of inner search. But the outer ramparts of a fervent idealism still stood. Patterson’s sack of the Times sanctum might prove only a detached episode. Florid phrases did not piece together the splinters, but they refreshed a flagging spirit.
The journalist would carry on. The power of the press was no flimsy chimera to be flouted by tortious tradesmen. It was an unconquerable force measurable only by the might of the society it served. And in that service lay the solution of what a moment before had seemed a baffling problem. Did not the newspaper dedicate an undivided allegiance to its reader? Did it not proclaim this devotion as the sole charter of its existence? Did not these pledges constitute the articles of a covenant between the publisher and the public?
Such a regime left no alternative for the editor. It marked for him a course none could mistake:
At all times and in all things the editor must serve the reader to the exclusion of everyone else.This should be the paramount rule of journalism. It precludes from consideration in the selection and display of news the selfish concerns of advertisers and publicity schemers. It reduces to the single yardstick of the reader’s interest the appraisal of publication values.
Here was a comforting picture. It discounted the Patterson muss as a paltering blunder. High hope again took command. But at its saddle-girth rode an imp of indignation—hostage of my first brush with buccaneers of the newspaper main—out-rider of an outraged journalism. Each ensuing year piled vindication on the tyro’s dudgeon. Patterson’s publicity coup had been piffling in scope, but everywhere its pattern ran through constantly multiplying and expanding operations.
The metamorphosis of the press agent was proceeding. The publicity expert appeared. Exhibitionism was capitalized at a continually rising scale. Wherever a craving for conspicuousness betrayed itself, a harpy of the press swooped down. The passion for prominence was harnessed to the vehicles of commerce. The public relations counselor entered. A new art developed. It gave employment to talents hitherto unknown. The furtive press agent had been only a prospector. His tentative essays dwindled into amateurish experiments beside the masterly techniques that followed. The publicity pirate grew into a Titan. His vast loot of space and time came by cozening or extortion from every vulnerable agency of publication. A Gargantuan shadow descended on a nation’s news. In its folds swarmed the pestilential larvae of the secret propagandist.
Behind the chameleon camouflage of public relations labels, mustered the mercenaries of subversion. Under cover of the battalions of ballyhoo, the squadrons of alien sedition deployed. Myriad forces applied their energies to the adulteration or perversion of public intelligence. They penetrated every center of social and economic congregation. They cruised every channel of multiple communication and attacked every medium of human exchange.
New fields had opened up for invasion. The cinema and the radio were aligned abreast the press. This was no trinity of strength to oppose the beleaguering hosts. It was, instead, a trebling of booty to whet their rapacity. Propagandism swept the nation. It brought to the public relations experts new sets of strategies. It supplied to the publicity plunderers new depots of audacity. On a thousand battlefronts the guardians of news integrity were pressed back to their last lines of defense. On every side, the attacking legions outnumbered and outflanked the sorely pressed garrisons.
In the newspaper sector dismay seeped into the trenches. There were hints of defection in the high command. Principles were contrasted with profits. Compromise was discussed. Breaches showed in walls hitherto impregnable. Salients and scouts were withdrawn. There remained only one protecting barrier, the phalanx of editors through which runs the life-line of journalism. On that gallant company fell the sole guardianship of a world’s bounty—the essence of progress—the untrammeled flow of untainted news.
Chapter 3 Part 2 next week link to previous installment link to next installment
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