Thursday, June 08, 2017
King News by Moses Koenigsberg: Chaper 4 Part 2
King News by Moses KoenigsbergPublished by F.A. Stokes Company, 1941
A President and a Prize-Fighter (part 2)link to previous installment link to next installment
Through [fellow New Orleans reporter Jimmy] Augustin came my first experience with combination reporting. He frankly admitted a selfish motive for the proposal. His arguments for the undertaking were specious and colorful. "You jumped into this assignment with an unholy enthusiasm," he said. "For half of it, I don't blame you. Nature is responsible. The other half is wholly your fault. You let McGinty set you afire with flagrant flattery. He knew that the man doesn't live who could cover this beat single-handed.
"If you want to be a bull in a china shop, you can go it alone, work yourself to a frazzle, get some stories that I miss and miss some stories that I get. Both of us would be in a constant stew as long as it lasted. Now, if we work together, both the Item and the States will get all the news and nobody will be a loser. Of course, it means that I won't have to work so hard as I would if we bucked each other."
"But the Item doesn't pay me to get news for the States," was the first demurrer.
"Nor does the States pay me to get news for the Item. Dont let your quixotic scruples blind you to the practicalities. If you double the man power on a job without increasing the employer's expense, who is the chief beneficiary? If you operated a cotton plantation, which would you rather do, assuming the cost would be the same to have all the bolls gathered, or leave a number of patches unpicked?"
There were fundamental principles with which to demolish this structure of casuistry. But they lacked articulation. Standards for the guidance of news-gatherers were still inchoate. There was no general prohibition of combination reporting. Many city editors were known to connive at its practice. Nevertheless, it clashed with my theories of professional devotion. Yet it would be stultifying to reject Jimmy's proposition without cogent premises for the rejection. My reluctance was not swept aside. It was subordinated to a fear of seeming puerile. And this submission led to one of the sorriest though one of the most instructive of my early misfortunes.
Augustin was not a shirker, but he contrived to pick his own tour of duty. It included the sheriff's office. Nothing disturbed the combination for a couple of months. Then, one Sunday, the Times-Democrat published a sensational scoop. A girl had been raped in a street-car at four oclock the previous morning. She was a member of a highly respected family. The culprit was the son of a leading parish official. He had been promptly arrested and held in custody all Saturday in the office of the sheriff. The story had political as well as social ramifications. It was the biggest item of news that had broken on our beat since the combination was formed. And all day, Augustin had held it in the palm of his hand.
It was unthinkable for me to offer any excuse. How could one say to his city editor, "We fell down on this story because I relied on a reporter for a rival newspaper to get it for me?" Valid objections to combination reporting now marshaled themselves. Didn't the combination usurp the employer's right to appoint his representatives? Was it not the sole privilege of that employer to determine whether he preferred volume of copy and thoroughness of coverage to special service? The tardiness of this reasoning only magnified my adversity. But it was Jimmy Augustin's explanation that overflowed the cup of gall. He came to my lodgings to apologize. The personification of abjection, he left me dumbfounded.
A candid admission of oversight, neglect or even victimization would not have been astonishing. But Augustin confessed that he had deliberately withheld the story! He was an intimate friend of the rapist's parents and of the girl's family. Desperate efforts were made to squelch the case. Jimmy was assured the affair would be hushed up without formal action of any kind. In that event, the facts would not be publishable. Too late, Augustin realized the futility of his attempt at a cardinal crime of journalism, the suppression of news. He had permitted the tug of personal friendship to enmesh him in professional perfidy. And his had been a double betrayal. He not only violated the trust of his employer, but he also broke faith with his partner. Yet he suffered no ethical compunctions. His grief was only for his friends. He bemoaned the publication of the story on their account and he actually writhed in anguish over its probable effect on my fortunes. It would have been useless to reproach him.
The squeamishness that deterred me from facing McGinty did not affect Augustin's course. He continued on the staff of the States. But not until fully assured of my status in a new position did he account for the retention of his job. "It was very simple," he explained with evident relish of his mockery. "I used a dash of complaisance to season a dish of discretion. When the city editor took me to task, I quickly acknowledged that I might be at fault and that I was impressed by his vigilance. He dropped the matter when I pointed out that the States was not beaten on the story in its own field since the news had not appeared in any afternoon paper. Thus, with high spirit unimpaired by any of the twinges that contort your supersensitive conscience, I can cheerfully conclude: Farther, deponent saith not."
That was not my last contact with combination reporting. The usage still persists in many quarters. But never again did such rara avis as Jimmy Augustin cross my newspaper path. No counterpart ever came from the same mold with gifts rich enough to long offset the invalidities of his philosophy.
Augustin's defection entailed less of a hardship than was expected. The Truth needed another reporter. Peter Kiernan, the publisher, immediately accepted my application for the job. The salary was $14 weekly. The loss of $1 a week was soon discounted. It was exceeded in actual cash by outside earnings. They came from the News. That publication had all the infirmities though none of the traditions of the Houston Age. But unlike that decrepit daily, it had two sources of sustenance. It not only received occasional drippings from the pot of municipal graft by way of official advertising, but it was also the recipient of a secret dole from the Daily States proprietor. He kept it alive as the possible repository of an exclusive press-association franchise. The News agreed to pay me for editorials at the prodigal rate of one dollar each. More time was consumed in collecting the payments than in writing the articles. Still the average of three silver dollars weekly contributed to a hitherto unattained affluence.
Immeasurably more important than the compensation was the training on the Truth. There had been a year of newspaper experience with practically no guidance save the outlines of immediate objectives. Now, for the first time, my work was under the direction of a man gifted with leadership. City Editor Thomas Nolan transformed his desk into a pulpit. He accepted his calling as an apostolic mission. Yet the fires of his zealotry left untouched the calmness of a philosophic mind. Under Nolan's tutelage came an orderly organization of precepts that thus far had reached me only through processes of trial and error.
|Boxer Peter Maher|
Maher outweighed Fitzsimmons by fifteen pounds. His splendid body was an exemplar of athletic form. Fitzsimmons was the freak of the prize-ring. He had the spindling legs of a lightweight. It seemed at any instant they must buckle under his giant torso. His shambling carriage accentuated the appearance of knock-knees. Maher moved with the sinuous grace of a jungle tiger. Perhaps it was because Fitzsimmons was advertised as an Australian that his bearing brought to mind a kangaroo. Billy Madden, Maher's manager and second, was supremely confident.
He didn't even take the pains to detach the long linen cuffs that projected from his coat sleeves. He joked about the bald pate that surmounted Fitzsimmons tufts of carroty red hair. In "Ruby Bob"'s corner were James F. Carroll, his manager, and Joe Choyinski. Carroll was a contender for the lightweight championship. Choyinski was one of the most popular heavyweights of the time. Like most of the bouts of the period, the fight was "to a finish."
Fitzsimmons moved to the center of the ring with a plodding gait. It looked as if he were trying to save his legs. Maher danced forward eagerly. Two minutes passed in feinting, fiddling, jabbing, blocking and parrying. Not a solid punch had been landed. Then Fitzsimmons stepped back. Maher moved in. A terrific left hook sent him sprawling on his haunches. His nose and both lips were split. Blood was gushing from them in streams. Peter sat for a moment in utter bewilderment, his arms entwining his knees. Fitzsimmons stood over him only a step away. John Duffy, the third man in the ring, was a novice at refereeing. He failed to motion Bob back. In another instant the picture was completely changed. Quicker than the eye could follow, the beautifully proportioned figure of the Irish fighter straightened as if jerked by a spring. His right hand described an arc from the floor to Fitzsimmons' forehead. The thud sounded like a drum beat. The smash drove Bob staggering backward from the center of the ring to the ropes. There he hung draped over the upper strand. His glazed eyes turned unseeing across the arena. His arms dangled behind him outside the ring. His toes upturned, he teetered on his heels. He was entirely defenseless.
Again John Duffy missed his cue. The Marquis of Queensberry rules provide that a fighter hanging helpless on the ropes shall be considered down. The referee must begin counting the decisive ten seconds. Instead, Duffy stood motionless, in a daze. Pandemonium broke loose. The crowd was in a roaring frenzy. Maher tore across the ring toward Fitzsimmons. Madden raced after him around the ropes, shouting, "Keep away, Peter! Keep away! Dont foul him!" Maher's right hand, poised for a mighty punch, fell to his side. Madden, now alongside Fitzsimmons' sagging body, bellowed to Duffy, "Count him out! Count him out!"
Maher's seconds took up the call. The tumult became deafening. Peter walked toward the referee. And then the gong sounded.
Above the uproar rose a shrill voice. "Thats a fake!" it piped. "The round isn't over." A scrimmage eddied around Reub Frank, the official timekeeper. In the center, a crowd of men in tuxedos were yelling about a bloody outrage. They were members of Squire Abingdon Baird's party. Their seats were close to the timekeepers bell. Several of them charged that a blooming bounder had struck the gong with a walking-stick. Reub Frank, in agitation, admitted that something went wrong with the clapper. Angry men, with stop-watches in their hands, swore that thirty seconds had been cut off the prescribed three minutes. The altercation was at its height when the gong rang for the second round. It sputtered up again to subside at last under the impact of gallery booing. The back-seat spectators demanded that the show go on.
Fitzsimmons had been carried to his corner by his seconds. He responded quickly to their strenuous ministrations. Bob came up for the second round cautious but strong. Maher's handlers had been unable to staunch the flow of blood from his mouth. Maher rushed, but his attack was evaded. Then, round after round, Fitzsimmons battered Peter's lacerated face. Maher became the bloodiest mess this reporter had yet seen. The spectacle turned into an ordeal. After the fourth round, the sound was as trying as the sight. Peter's nose took on the size and color of an over-ripe tomato. His mouth looked like a rough gash in a side of beef. Every time Bob's blood-soaked glove smashed against Maher's distorted features, there was a sickening noise. It was like the thud of a mallet against a tautened hide, followed by the sudden squashing of a soggy sponge.
Maher quit at the end of the twelfth round. He had flopped onto his stool in total exhaustion. His lips were too swollen for speech. He motioned to Madden that he couldn't continue. His seconds threw a towel into the ring in token of surrender. The Fitzsimmons faction was hilarious in a triumph veritably snatched from defeat. The newspapermen crowded the winner's dressing-room. There was little mention of the larcenous first round. The Marquis of Queensberry rules were still a novelty in the United States. Each violation was a moot question. Moreover, the outcome of the fight was such an amazing upset that Ruby Bob's marvelous comeback overshadowed all other topics.
Joe Choyinski did not share in the Fitzsimmons party festivities. He had worked assiduously on Fitz in his corner, but after the battle, when the gaiety began, he held aloof. He sulked outside the dressing-room. "This puts the bee on me," he grumbled.
"That guy is so yellow that jaundice wouldn't change his looks. Yet he's got the gall to lap up this bushwa as if it was coming to him." Mr. Choyinski at times indulged a predilection for idiomatic expression. It was plain, however, that his allusion to an insect was purely metaphoric. It signified a stinging impatience. It also appeared that Mr. Choyinski was peeved over a bogus hero who, though deeply impregnated with an ocherous pigment, possessed the effrontery to accept adulation as his well-merited meed.
"What do you mean?" I asked, tactlessly passing over the lucidity of his statement.
"You heard me. What do you want? A blackboard and some white chalk to make pictures?"
"You win," was my hurried answer. "What you said was perfectly clear; but what happened to make you say it?"
"All this bull about Fitzsimmons. He tried to quit. We had a hell of a time getting him up for the second round. He was out when we carried him to his corner. It took several whiffs of the ammonia to get the birdies out of his noggin. Then he blubbered to Carroll, 'It's no use, Jimmy; hes too hard for me.' Carroll told him Maher was all in and ordered him to go out and finish the Irishman. Fitz kept whining, 'He's too blooming hard for me.' That wallop that Peter lifted from his feet sure buffaloed Bob. When the gong rang for the second round, Fitz wouldnt budge. Carroll was crazy. I had a needle ready and I jabbed it into Bob's rump. Thats why you saw him come bouncing out."
Choyinski left the building with me. No other newspapermen approached him that night. He had given me an exclusive story. It spurred a gleeful diligence. Reporters on night assignments for afternoon dailies were free to write their reports before the next day's work began. Any possible objection to such gratuitous overtime was carefully concealed. My copy awaited the city editor when he reached the office in the morning. Fifteen minutes later, a whoop summoned me to his desk. Nolan squared himself for one of his characteristic lectures.
"I have read your story," he began, with a show of sternness. "You evidently offered it as a piece of news. You know that we can't countenance rumor, gossip or hearsay. You know that no communication has attained the dignity of news until it bears within itself the impress or evidence of authenticity. Observe that when you report a fire, an accident, a tragedy, a crime or a business transaction, you are required to mention the authority for every pivotal statement. If it is the origin of the fire, you quote the police or the fire department. If it's the amount of the insurance, you state figures given by the owner or the insurance company. If it's a bankruptcy, you cite the data in the schedules filed. The more important the statement, the more imperative the requirement to affirm its authenticity by disclosing its source. No item with a possible flare-back is safe for publication without a durable hook of authority on which to hang the facts.
But that is the negative phase of the picture. There is an affirmative side even more commanding. It involves our obligations to the reader. He is entitled to the fullest opportunity to appraise the credibility of the matter we present. We must help him to weigh and analyze the verity and the value of the information we offer. How could he do this if we didn't tell him exactly what was said and by whom it was said? It is the duty of the honest reporter to take the reader by the hand, show him the scene of the story, share with him his understanding of what happened and let him hear whatever the participants and witnesses may be induced to tell.
"Yet knowing all these things, see what you have done with this story! I'm not considering your description of what happened between Fitzsimmons and Maher. None of the morning newspaper accounts agree fully about the details. That is natural. Some observers have photographic vision. Others see beyond the focus of the camera lens. Still others look with eyes directed by prejudice. I'm willing to accept your version. But what I can't understand is the wall of secrecy you have suddenly erected between us. Why don't you take us into your confidence about the outstanding feature of your copy? Where did you get it?"
The protracted homily was epitomized in Nolan's last question. It was an exhortation for the use of quotation marks. My entire story had been written in the third person, the newspaper style then commonly employed. The reader was given no hint of any authority for the facts beyond the reporter's own observation. Nolan was elated to learn that Choyinski had volunteered the episode in Fitzsimmons corner. "Rewrite the yarn," he directed, "letting Choyinski relate in his own words what he is in better position than anyone else to tell."
Gratification over the beat was heightened by appreciation of Nolan's guidance in its writing. From that experience matured a maxim of supreme moment. Incorporated in a predominant canon of journalism, it would exert a cultural advance of worldwide effect. It appears in my code in this form:
News traversing any matter of public concern or impinging on any individual right is not eligible for publication unless it include an identification of its source.
Adherence to this principle would serve as a barrier against vicious propaganda. If universally applied, it would constitute the most effective factor yet devised for the prevention of international warfare. It would have averted the most colossal canard in the history of journalism: the fake armistice of November 7, 1918.
Technically, the Choyinski yarn did not rate as a scoop. It was a beat. The term scoop expressed a complete unit. A beat meant an exclusive feature of a major story. The Choyinski beat brought me close to a beating. Journalism in those days was fraught with hazards of violence. Physical reprisal for adverse articles was common. The notion prevailed in many quarters that it was an act of piety to trounce or remove an offending editor. A section of the press was itself largely responsible for this attitude. Numbers of editors strove to outrival their fellows in volume as well as vigor of vituperation. Careful to avoid libel, most of them preserved immunity against legal redress. And it was not the fashion to waste time with the law's delays for adjustment of personal grievances publicly flaunted. Sultry phrases engendered sultry passions. The deeper the editorial pen was dipped in vitriol, the readier grew the public temper to justify individual retaliation. So, there had grown up a disposition, fortunately sporadic in development, to apply unofficial censorship with corporal penalties.
My first contact with this sentiment came the night after the Fitzsimmons-Maher fight. It was in the lobby of the St. Charles Hotel, historic rendezvous of notables. In the center, the famous bar was crowded with sportsmen. On every tongue was some detail of the previous evening's contest. Dominick O'Malley stood chatting with several friends. He stopped me. "Colonel Fairfax was talking about you," he said. "There was no need for you running out on us. It suited me to a T that the Item didnt print that story --"
O'Malley was interrupted by a burly fellow who grabbed my shoulder and swung me around to face him. "Here's the blasted cockalorum we're looking for!" he exclaimed to several companions. "This is the jackanapes that started the lie about Fitz. What will we do with him?"
A hand with two fingers missing seized the lapel of my assailant's coat. "My dear sir," came a low-pitched soprano voice, "you are making a mistake. Of course, you don't know me, or you wouldn't be roughing this young man around. Nobody in this part of the country does that to a friend of Dominick O'Malley."
The grip on my shoulder was released. My champion evidently required no heralding. He drew me back, alongside of him, whispering: "Stand fast, bub, but keep your lip buttoned." The rotunda was filled with Fitzsimmons rooters. Word sped among them that an afternoon newspaper had denounced Fitz as a quitter; that the kid reporter who was responsible had been cornered; and that it was proposed then and there to muss him up. Angry voices rose. The rough who had tackled me and who had so quickly edged away from O'Malley, was the most vociferous. O'Malley was chewing gum. His face was a picture of perfect nonchalance. A glance at it was very helpful. It arrested a tendency toward wobbling of the knees. But a hidden gesture suggesting flight evoked a sharp warning. "That would only start the ball rolling," he whispered.
A moment later came the diversion that released me from torment. Lou Houseman, sporting editor of the Chicago Inter-Ocean, was making his way toward O'Malley. Short and stocky, he was a human dynamo. In a voice audible to those around me, he had just told a group to lay off this nonsense of ganging up on a boy for doing his job. A dozen feet away, he was halted by Johnny Murphy, one of the contenders for the featherweight championship. Houseman and Murphy were generally known to be engaged in a bitter feud. As they faced each other a hush fell on the lobby. "I don't suppose you know what 'a friend' means," Murphy said, "but I'm a friend of Bob Fitzsimmons and what you just said puts it up to me to ask whether you're back of the ---- lie this ---- wrote about Bob."
The rough-and-tumble engagement that followed was a classic. Murphy received a sound drubbing. Houseman's triumph was my deliverance. By the time the roly-poly sporting editor got through pummeling his prize-fighter antagonist, the spectators had forgotten all about any plan to chastise the traducer of Bob Fitzsimmons' gameness.
My university of empiric knowledge established an extension course in pugilism. Boxing was the chief sport of the hour. To master its intricacies and to acquire familiarity with its rules would strengthen and expand one's journalistic equipment. The Fitzsimmons-Maher match was a case in point. Controversies about that contest continued. Referee Duffy's conduct in the ring that night was still under stricture. Yet some writers defended his actions. Harry McEnerny wrote about prize-fights for the Picayune. Later he assumed the nom de plume of Bantam. He was regarded as the foremost newspaper expert on prize-fighting in the South. But even his judgments were questioned.
A block from my lodgings was the St. Joseph Athletic Club. Like scores of other neighborhood centers in New Orleans, it staged boxing matches once or twice a week. The manager welcomed me. He was in need of new talent. There was a circuit of district clubs on which he could arrange to use me several nights weekly. In the beginning, the pay would be fifty cents a round. It was up to me to make my appearances more lucrative. Anyhow, didn't he understand that it was the experience that attracted me? He didn't know about the job on the Truth.
The Alamo Kid did not fare well in the squared circle. The ring name bestowed by my entrepreneur was a psychic handicap. It might prompt inquiries from San Antonians concerning my identity. But exposure came through a quicker channel. The Alamo Kid was boxing three rounds with Eddie McCue, champion lightweight of Arkansas. Eddie was neither a champion nor an Arkansan. His fighting record was limited to the wharves of New Orleans. But, compared to his opponent, he was a wizard in pugilistic lore. He was especially considerate in the first two rounds. It was not his chore to knock out a member of the manager's stable. In the third round, however, Eddie's restraints succumbed to temptation. He couldn't spurn an opening wider than a barnyard gate. The Alamo Kid was gaping at a spectator in the third row. It was Frank Ellinger, from San Antonio, a checkers-playing intimate of my father. He wore the startled expression of one who has just seen a ghost. There was a double shock. The sight of Ellinger's face was almost as stunning as Eddie's smash in the midriff. Eddie McCue was thoughtful enough to clinch and hold me up. Somehow, he kept me on my feet until the bell sounded for the end of the bout. But his effort to save my pugilistic standing was wasted. The Alamo Kid had already abandoned his ring career. He was not only sick at the stomach, but he was also sore at heart. Ellinger's presence boded trouble. When it would come or what it would be, time alone would reveal.
The Truth was in difficulty. Rumors of its financial shakiness grew more definite each week. One tale connected Publisher Kiernan with the lottery magnates. The Great Louisiana Lottery, numbering among its directors many of the proudest names in the South, had stood for some time with its back to the wall. Opposition to its operation had become a nationwide campaign. It was accused of financing or subsidizing newspapers to prolong its existence. It was alleged to have opened its money chests to support the Truth. Now, the lottery moguls were reported to have withdrawn from all such activities. Recognizing that abolishment of the company was only a matter of time, the management canceled all expenditures for publicity. This report included such details as the date of the Truth's prospective demise.
It was a wrench to think of parting with Tommy Nolan. Would there be a place with him for me in any new work he undertook? Interrogation could be pressed only with infinite delicacy. Nolan's responses were cryptic. His loyalty to Kiernan imposed the utmost caution. Finally, in the most circuitous of phrases, he intimated that it might be prudent to cast an anchor to windward. The advice was speedily adopted.
Colonel Page M. Baker, editor of the Times-Democrat, was a brilliant ornament of the old school of Southern journalism. He combined the carriage of a courtier with the terse directness of a military leader. In his view, a newspaper should serve not only as the conservator of public rights and morals, but also as a patron of the arts, a cultivator of the sciences, a leader of enterprise, a community counselor and, at all times, a cradle of good taste. Colonel Baker received me with characteristic urbanity. He approved the foresight of seeking a new position before the quest was imposed by necessity. Also, he was interested in the idea that morning newspaper work would round out my experience. A position on his newspaper was open for me.
Membership in the Times-Democrat staff was suddenly terminated by a summons to San Antonio. It came in a telegram from Shook & Vander Hoeven. It read: "Arrange to be here within five days. Preparation for trial." The message seemed incredible. There had been no news to forecast the calling up of my case. There had been no intimation of a revision of Colonel Shook's assurances of freedom from concern. But the telegram left no option. It was my duty to leave immediately to stand trial under an indictment for criminal libel.
Chapter 5 Part 1 Next Week
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