Thursday, September 14, 2017
King News by Moses Koenigsberg: Chapter 9 Part 3
King News by Moses KoenigsbergPublished by F.A. Stokes Company, 1941
The Myth of the "Message to Garcia" (part 3)link to previous installment link to next installment
Adjournment of the Alabama legislature turned my mind to unfinished business with the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. It required considerable probing to learn how my plan for a message to Garcia had been blocked. The facts, pieced together nearly a year after their occurrence, changed my disappointment into a grievance. The assistant night editorship of the Globe-Democrat served as a poor emollient for my discomfiture.
A minor part in the organization and operation of an exclusive cable service invested the next fifteen months with lively interest. The Globe-Democrat, the Chicago Tribune and the New York Tribune pooled interests in a worldwide news enterprise. American correspondents were assigned to the leading capitals of the world. My anonymous share in their direction afforded an experience that was extensively capitalized in later years. The court-martial of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus at Rennes was covered as if it were an American cause celebre. The lavish use of cables in reporting the Anglo-Boer War set a new journalistic mark. It was the relief of Ladysmith—the turning-point in that struggle—that resulted in my resignation from the Globe-Democrat.
By dint of diligent effort, a two-column narrative of the siege of Ladysmith, kept in type for the purpose, had been freshened and revised from day to day over a period of weeks. Pains had been taken to make it read as if it were written within the hour of publication. Our first word of the deliverance of the beleaguered stronghold came from the Associated Press. It was a seven-word flash. It came after the last edition had gone to press. The bulletin was used as the first line of the “standing story.” Within a few moments, the Globe-Democrat was on the street with what read like a 2,000-word dispatch from Ladysmith. More than a quarter of an hour later, our more or less despised rival, the Republic, appeared with the news, occupying less than twenty lines.
Elation over this beat was swallowed up in a curious anticlimax. Capt. Henry King, who had succeeded McCullagh as editor, drowned my triumph in a grouch. Captain King strutted a ponderous dignity. The gravity that creased his brow raised the handicap odds against Atlas. The Captain professed an all-inclusive devotion to the highest plane of journalistic ethics. He was dissatisfied with my handling of the Ladysmith extra. There had been an inexcusable oversight. The story should have appeared under a line describing it as a “special dispatch to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.”
The phrasing of the dissent that then and there ended my professional ties with Capt. Henry King was no more sulphuric than the fumes of its provocation. Here was a preceptor of the proprieties censuring the omission of a fraud. An efficiently performed task had failed of approval because it lacked the touch of trickery. To have represented the story as a “special dispatch” would have been a deception of the reader. The ingenuities of later years would have devised a more impressive credit to the Globe-Democrat for its Ladysmith extra. But it was impossible then, as it has been ever since, to adjust my conscience or my judgment to the use of false labels—to hold forth to the public a spurious designation of a news source.
A mordant humor attended my departure from the Globe-Democrat. No publication in America, then or afterward, matched more fully my journalistic code. My quarrel was not with the newspaper. It was solely with the editor, who had blamed me for failing to violate a principle expounded by his predecessor. The clash with King emphasized the breach that often opens between institutional and individual leadership. It cast a flare into a partly hidden corner of newspaperdom—a comfort station for pharisaic pundits and holier-than-thou nincompoops.
There, visual constriction was deemed a major virtue. There was practiced the fine art of dressing nastiness in nicety—of masking the wickedness of sensationalism by squeezing its bawdy curves into the refining stays of small type. In that court of self-righteousness was found an editorial proneness to overcompensation for restraint. This was indulged at times in ways beyond the hardihood of even a yellow journalist. But these sins were limited to nonpareil. They would be unthinkable in large print. Captain King would never have dreamed of using a fake credit line in big, black letters.
Charles R. Webb, who, as the successor of Obadiah R. Lake, had been my immediate chief on the Globe-Democrat, advised me to go to Chicago. James Keeley’s brilliant career as managing editor of the Chicago Tribune was under way. Webb was self-confident that Keeley would make a berth for me. He wrote a letter glowing enough to have assured a job almost anywhere. Keeley turned me down. Several amusing occasions to remind him of the incident arose in the subsequent years of our friendship. Meanwhile, his rebuff shunted me to the journalistic hospice deluxe—the Chicago Chronicle—the daily into which millions were plowed with no harvest save an elaborate newspaper technique.
John R. Walsh, one of the leading bankers of the Middle West, owned the Chronicle. Vast promotions, tinctured with political corruption, ultimately led to his ruin. The Chronicle disappeared with the collapse of Walsh’s fortune. That was a couple of years after the completion of the last of my three separate terms of employment on the newspaper. Each of those tours of duty supplied an important item for my professional kit.
The Chicago Chronicle was by far the most thoroughly edited newspaper in my range of experience. It was a tower of technicalities. Its rules for copy-reading alone embraced a special vocation. They were the work of Horatio W. Seymour. A master craftsman, he was unfairly reputed less for his profundity than for his cleverness.
To write a head on the Chronicle required more time and labor than the editing of several stories. First was imposed meticulous compliance with a copiously intricate style sheet and a voluminous set of rhetorical formulae. Then came the prescription for the top line—a minimum of four words including an active verb in the present tense. After that, each of the subsidiary divisions— inverted pyramids—must start with a noun. All this—with accompanying minutiae—was the preliminary task. The major job remained. Type symmetry must be perfected. The counting of letters and spaces to achieve this uniformity often entailed revisions involving more effort than the original composition.
The Fourth Estate is beholden to the Chicago Chronicle for a priceless testimony. Its operation established a classic truth. It was a test case of journalism. It proved the utter impossibility of building a successful newspaper chained to private purposes. The Chronicle had everything needed for a daily of surpassing power —everything except a soul. An abundance of capital, an amplitude of brains and a superior plant, devoid of the spirit of public service, made up the furnishings of a whited sepulcher. Yet no skeleton rattled in my hearing. Never once, even by indirection, was any instruction issued in my presence to distort, color or misplay the news. The editorial page frankly revealed the owner’s policies. But that editorial page was a negligible item in Chicago’s affairs. The Chronicle cost John R. Walsh several million dollars. Perhaps he, himself, never knew what he got for his money.
An offer of a position on the Chicago American brought my first contact with the Hearst organization. It was in the summer of 1901. Frank E. Rowley, managing editor of the Chronicle, coupled acceptance of my resignation with an odd warning. “You won’t like it with those folks,” he said. “They play a queer game. But we don’t mind a few singed feathers around here and we’ll keep the latch open for you.” Rowley’s prediction was fulfilled. A few months later the Chronicle again found a place for me. This time it was on the reportorial staff.
My break with the American was actually a prearranged incident in an inner-circle conflict. It followed a brush with Andrew M. Lawrence, then W. R. Hearst’s chief lieutenant in the Middle West. Victor H. Polachek was managing editor of the morning edition. He believed Lawrence was “hamstringing” him. At least Polachek’s efforts to form a satisfactory staff were being blocked. Lawrence had authorized a rate of salaries higher for day than for night workers.
Polachek wanted to resolve his problem into a statement concrete enough to warrant “going over Lawrence’s head to Mr. Hearst.” Would my case—with notice of my resignation—have weight enough for the purpose? Polachek thought it would, if Lawrence didn’t back down. Thus came about my first meeting with the man who was to be the chief antagonist on my newspaper path. Lawrence was a busy bundle. A slight facial resemblance to Napoleon caused him as much care as pride. Posing like the Corsican didn’t mix easily with either his unconscious swagger or his over-conscious suavity.
Lawrence couldn’t approve Polachek’s recommendation for a salary increase. Instead, he invited me to join his “personal staff” —to occupy a desk to be installed for me in his private office—but with no immediate change in compensation. Bumptious intrigue presented itself. William Randolph Hearst was the paragon of journalism. Fame and fortune awaited members of his retinue. But the waiting was briefest for those who wore the ribbon of Andrew M. Lawrence’s favor. The odor of the picture dispelled its lure. My resignation went to Polachek to help him prove his point. That may have been the starting of a habit. Resigning from the Hearst organization was not an uncommon practice of my later years.
The term “executive editor” is a modern newspaper accommodation. It covers a variety of compromises. It may be a bandage for a nose out of joint. It may be the camouflage behind which a new chief of staff bides the delayed exit of his departing predecessor. It may signify the assumption of duties that have grown too burdensome for a managing editor scheduled in the future to do less managing and more editing or vice versa. Usually, it indicates the functionary expected to supply kinetic elements that have been lacking. In my case it was plain bait. It lured me from the Chicago Chronicle to the Minneapolis Times. The impressiveness of the title—it had never before reached my attention as a working designation—was not the only attraction to the new job. A monthly salary of $250 was to be supplemented with the “office string,” the privilege of selling special and local news to out-of-town newspapers. That might “add up to fancy figures.”
The reason the position was so temptingly garnished for me involved more personal than professional equations. John S. Spargo was managing editor. We had worked together in St. Louis and Chicago. He had several irons in the fire in Minneapolis that required tending away from his desk. It had been decided to delegate most of his duties to a substitute. Spargo insisted that he select this alternate. He wanted to be sure the new man would not snap the lock on his own job. He chose me. The executive editorship of the Minneapolis Times spelled my first complete responsibility for the news management of a metropolitan daily.
Spargo’s chief activities outside the office were directed toward the uncovering of a fabulous underworld sovereignty. Eventually, this crusade led to an historic exposure of official depravity. “The Shame of Minneapolis” was without duplicate. Vice and graft were operated on the basis and with the methods of approved business pursuits. Members of the police department shared in the conception, direction and commission of sordid crimes—burglary, robbery, swindling and even extortion. It was the ripping apart of this emporium of iniquity that enriched criminal terminology with the “big mitt ledger.” That was the name by which became known a systematic record of the “takings and split” of moneys gouged from partner and prey alike by the most brazen organization of municipal corruption ever bared in America.
Officers of the law stood guard against interruption of felons at work. Thus, not only were the cracksman’s talents allowed full play, but his loot was counted for higher-ups. Prostitution, crooked gambling and confidence games were given percentage franchises. The “squeal of the sucker” was hushed by patrolmen in uniform. Threat of arrest as a co-defendant was usually enough to squelch an accusation. Crooks were not unappreciative of the hospitalities awaiting them in Minneapolis. Col. Fred W. Ames, the chief of police, was genuinely solicitous about the opportunities and facilities available for the plying of their respective vocations. His attitude was easily understandable. It was prompted by a concern for the interests of his brother, Dr. A. A. Ames, the mayor.
Never did the underworld enjoy the favor of a more polished patron than this chief magistrate of Minneapolis. His collectors were instructed never to take more than half the cash on hand. “Always leave an egg in the nest,” might well have been the motto.
A puny joke opened the first chapter of the expose. Spargo was discussing with me the seeming obtuseness of the average Minneapolis policeman. He blamed this stupidity for most of the obstacles he had encountered. He cited a current yarn by way of illustration. A sergeant had defined a new patrolman’s beat as running from the spot on which they stood to “that red light yonder.” The next day the rookie telephoned for instructions from Shakopee, forty miles away. The red light had turned out to be a lantern slung across the rear axle of a moving-van.
T. J. Dillon, acting city editor, entered just as Spargo started his story. He waited for the end of the anecdote with his hand on the shoulder of Roxy Prenevost, the doughty little chief of our sports department. “That cop belonged to a breed different from the bunch Roxy just saw at Union Depot,” Dillon remarked. “Three policemen are trying to get an obstinate yokel aboard the next west-bound train. He was trimmed in a card game. When he squawked, he was turned over to the coppers. They advised him he’d be much happier and safer back home. Their clincher is the claim that if they pinch the crooks, they’ll have to arrest him also, because his complaint is in itself a confession that he was guilty of gambling.”
“Let’s hang a lantern on that fellow for Roxy to follow,” I urged. A moment later, Prenevost was sprinting toward Union Depot. Two weeks passed before we saw him again. He hadn’t reached “the end of his beat” until he got to a lumber camp in Idaho. Then his red light carrier yielded to Roxy’s arguments. There was little about this victim of crooked gambling to suggest the shorn lamb. Roland Mix asked no odds of his fellow-man. But he didn’t want to give any to crooked cops. He divided his time regularly between wrestling steers on the plains and timber in the forests for the wherewithal to buck the tiger in the cities. Assured of the Minneapolis Times’s backing against police trickery, Mix came back with Prenevost. His testimony before the Hennepin County grand jury was the first formal step in the exposure and destruction of the incredible Ames Institute of Municipal Debauchery.
Whatever may have been my part in the undoing of Minneapolis’ vice trust, the material reward was disproportionate. It was, in fact, demoralizing. It led to the paradox of relinquishing a post because of excessive compensation. For several weeks, the story, with its daily developments, commanded conspicuous newspaper displays throughout the country. The Times’s office string —my perquisite—attained an unprecedented volume. There were fourteen regular clients. Each night, an identical schedule or query was wired to the entire list. Formulating this message and filling the resultant orders from extra sets of proofs consumed a scant half-hour. Yet, at the end of the month, my log showed the sending of approximately 284,000 words—more than $1,420 at the usual space rates.
An incidental chore, consuming less than one-twentieth of my daily effort, had netted nearly six times the sum of my monthly salary. On the hourly basis, the difference in earnings was more than a hundredfold. This was lopsided economics. For nearly half a year, the office string had yielded an average of $75 monthly. True, the jump of nearly 2,000 percent was from the springboard of one story. But the range between maximum and minimum was too wide to exclude a feeling of neglected opportunities.
A convention of the National Federation of Teachers in Minneapolis helped to bolster my space bills for the next four weeks. They totaled $980. In August, the succeeding month, this revenue shrank to $86. The let-down was too hard. It disrupted my scale of values. Without any change in the nature or hours of work, my compensation, including salary, had dropped from $1,670 to $336 for equal periods of time. The mental readjustments thus imposed were intolerably onerous. The larger sum seemed exorbitant. “It was a shame to take the money.” On the other hand, the smaller figure appeared, by comparison, illogical and unfair. Concentration of more effort on the out-of-town newspapers might swell my income. But that would mean the subtraction of a corresponding stint from my services to the Times.
Caught between these horns of a dilemma, I took to the woods. My resignation was not accepted with good grace. As Spargo put it, “We don’t understand a man quitting a job because it paid too much.” But the fault lay in the method rather than the amount of recompense. It was a corrupting practice. My revulsion was by no means quixotic. Continuance of the arrangement with the Minneapolis Times was likely to cultivate an appetence for profits which at any time could be transferred. The office string was not my property. It belonged to the Times.
The system of split payments for editorial work had ramifications far beyond my individual instance. A compulsion to derive earnings from segregated units impaired integrity of service. It marred morale. It enforced conflicts of obligation—cleavages of a fidelity no more subject to honest division by geographic lines than by social, political or economic partitions. A cure for this evil was devised in an addendum to my professional code. Here is the prescription:
No performance of journalistic duty shall entail a choice between masters. Separate sources of remuneration engage separate loyalties. Responsibility for news may not be divided. Its unity is an imperative requisite for the good faith which must prevail through every editorial process.
The unfolding of the Minneapolis municipal scandal has been the theme of a number of newspaper legends. None of them obscures the stellar role played by “Dillon of the Times." With a disarming smile, the presence of a Roman senator and the mien of a cloistered monk, he gained the confidence and counseled the confessions of close-mouthed criminals impervious to pleas from their own accomplices. It was a staff of Trojan workers that boosted the Times’s circulation from 23,000 to 42,000 during my term as executive editor. Dillon ultimately outdistanced the rest. After a brisk interlude on the Pacific Coast, he returned to Minneapolis, assuming editorial chieftaincy of the Tribune, which had meanwhile absorbed the Times.
The standing promise of welcome on the Chronicle drew me back to Chicago. A slight shift of personnel was necessary to make an opening for me. It was a reportorial job. That was quite a come-down from my position in Minneapolis. From colonel to private, from star to chorus man or from superintendent to laborer would have meant, on its face, no greater demotion. But it brought me no sense of humiliation. That was chiefly because the change had been my own choice. Such a reduction, if peremptory, might have been unbearable. On the other hand, the field of employment is a determinant of journalistic values. A newspaper berth in Chicago rated at least two ranks higher to me at that time than a similar post in Minneapolis.
The foremost subject of civic interest in Chicago was the municipal railways problem. For a generation, it had kept the community agog. It was the football of a mad political game that eventually commanded the whole country’s attention. A great majority of Chicagoans accepted the theory that the franchises of the street railroad companies had expired. Continued use of rights of way, without compensation, was denounced as arrogant trespass. Once, when a transit ordinance came up for aldermanic action, a threatening mob of tens of thousands surrounded the city hall. Ropes were brandished to “string up ‘gray wolf’ councilmen if they voted away any more of the people’s rights.”
For years, the traction story was a major daily stunt on every Chicago newspaper. Burdened with intricacies of legislation, finance and transportation, it required intensive simplifying for the average reader’s understanding. A striking phrase—“the 99-year clause”—helped to serve that end. It referred to an expression in an underlying franchise on which the transit corporations based their rights. It was the epitome of a controversy of inordinate bitterness. On one side were “the rabble demanding the confiscation of property—the impoverishment of widows and orphans, for many of whom inherited stocks and bonds of the street-car companies were the sole means of subsistence.” On the other side were “the bloated plutocrats, conscienceless despoilers of the poor, who by fraud and artifice would strip the workers of their birthright, making them the slaves instead of the masters of their own streets.”
All this made up the “heaviest” regular assignment on the city editor’s schedule. It kept me busy during my third tour of employment on the Chronicle. My first task was to gain a practical comprehension of the municipal railways litigation. That was essential to a grasp of day-to-day developments. No published work was available for a satisfactory study of the facts. There were experts galore. Nearly all of them were biased by political or professional considerations. The outstanding authority was Levy Mayer. Classed as one of the two highest-paid members of the American bar, he was credibly reported to have received a single fee of one million dollars. It came from the Whiskey Trust. Levy Mayer patiently led me through an exhaustive review of the traction situation. His chief clerk was deeply impressed. “Mr. Mayer has given you at least $5,000 worth of his time,” he confided.
The true import of this comment would have astonished the speaker. Its personal implication was misleading. Its significance traveled the length and breadth of newspaperdom. Levy Mayer’s generous assistance evidenced a cultural phenomenon scarcely recognized but as pervasive as the printed word. It is the practice by which masters in every field of endeavor cheerfully enlist in the reserve corps of journalism. Some serve as a public duty. Others welcome propinquity to the press. Still others act in undefined hope of advantage. All tingle to the touch of news “in the raw.” Together, they contribute the greatest single endowment of the Fourth Estate—an unexampled treasury of technical knowledge—a University of All the Arts and the Sciences, free to chroniclers of current events.
Levy Mayer brought about my return to the Hearst organization. He had shown a flattering interest in my career. We were chatting in Peacock Alley in the Congress Hotel, then the Auditorium Annex. “Do you realize,” he asked, “that we are standing on one of the four corners of the world? Years ago, it was the boast of Londoners that if you waited long enough in Trafalgar Square, you’d meet everyone you knew. That might not have been a pleasing prospect for some folks, but the thought was an effective description of a universal center. Parisians made a similar claim for the Rue de Rivoli. Then New Yorkers put out an identical label for Broadway and Forty-second Street. Now Peacock Alley is entitled to tack up the same sign. And, by George! I’ll prove it to you. Here comes an old friend I’ve met at every one of the other crossroads.”
A dapper man in the middle forties was approaching. Of medium stature, his poise betokened bodily discipline. Every lineament spelled alertness. An ample mouth promised a lively humor. Singularly brilliant brown eyes diverted attention from the encroachments of a ruggedly inquisitive nose. This was Foster Coates, one of W. R. Hearst’s principal editors. It soon became apparent that the meeting was due more to Levy Mayer’s friendliness than to accident. My introduction to Coates was the pivot of my professional course. At the moment, he was editorial director of the Chicago American. The post was temporary. He held a roving commission as minister of first aid to ailing Hearst newspapers. It was his job to jack up declining circulations.
My first conversation with Coates was wilting. Clearly, much of my time had been wasted on the tow-paths of journalism. The speed circuits remained to be ridden. Work that had seemed to me expert now appeared stodgy or perfunctory. Most of the editors who had commanded my respect as masters were now shown as mere artisans. They left off where Coates began. They fingered the body of a story. He probed its anatomy. News that expired in their hands drew renewed vitality from his treatment. He opened for me the windows of an art within an art.
At our second meeting, Coates’s invitation to join his staff was eagerly accepted. My distrust of the Hearst organization was forgotten. The warmth of enthusiasm inspired by Coates dispelled the misgivings that had been engendered by Andrew M. Lawrence. And thereby hung many bitter moments. But they were redressed by many happy hours.
Chapter 10 Part 1 Next Week
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