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The Front Page

The Colonel: The Life and Legend of Robert R. McCormick: 1880-1955

by Richard Norton Smith
Houghton Mifflin, 597 pp., $35.00


The Front Page, by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, created the image of Chicago journalism in the brawling Twenties. But newspapering had actually grown tamer by that time. The first decade of this century saw a literal war between rival dailies, war waged with guns, blackjacks, hijacking, and intimidation. It started when William Randolph Hearst set up the Chicago American in 1900, a version of his New York American, promising to extinguish his rivals with gimmicks and gore. But he came up against a tough customer in the Tribune‘s pay, Max Annenberg, who had been a publicist for the World’s Columbian Exposition and knew tricks to gain attention that not even Pulitzer or Hearst had dreamed of.

Frustrated that he could not surpass Annenberg, Hearst bought him over to his side in 1907. The defection caused an escalation, from dirty tricks to violence. Annenberg created a roaming little army to steal Tribune trucks, intimidate vendors, and beat up any resisters.

In 1910, Joseph Medill McCormick of the Tribune hired Annenberg back. A true condottiere, Annenberg brought with him his own hired guns, including his brother Moe (whose son, Walter Annenberg, would become Richard Nixon’s ambassador to the Court of St. James). Hearst’s men sued Annenberg for breach of contract, but the Tribune successfully argued that a contract to perform illegal acts is invalid. The American hired its own goon squad, led by the three Gentleman brothers, one of whom was killed by an Annenberg gunman. The Hearst men tried to blackmail the Tribune‘s city editor (who had secretly been married to a black woman). Gunfire broke out in the Tribune building itself; one body was thrown down an elevator shaft. Richard Norton Smith, in his new book, describes the peak of hostilities in 1911:

With a revolver in one hand and his commission as a deputy sheriff in the other, Max Annenberg roamed the battle zone dressed in his trademark red sweater and soft cap. He beat the rap in the kidnapping of a Hearst newsdriver. He won again, this time with the help of McCormick’s law firm, after wounding a rival gunman who had tried to hijack his car.

Throughout these years of street fighting, neither side reported to its readers what was happening. They, too, had ideas about just what news was fit to print.

In all this, the Chicago Tribune was living up to the tradition of its founder, Joseph Medill, who took credit for Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency. Not only did Medill put his paper at the disposal of Lincoln. He organized “floating voters” to commit election fraud where needed. Lincoln saw the merits of recruiting men of “the ‘detective‘ class” who could “at the nick of time control” the opposite side’s false voters by guiding them into casting their ballots for Lincoln. “It would be a great thing, when this trick is attempted upon us, to have the saddle come up on the other horse.”1

Newspapers were not expected to be objective in the nineteenth century, and Medill conformed to the prevailing standard. Coaching Lincoln for his debates with Stephen Douglas, he said: “Go in boldly, strike straight from the shoulders, hit below the belt as well as above….” To promote Lincoln, his paper published not only a 4,000-word eulogistic biography of the candidate, but fourteen pamphlets in his favor, besides decidedly slanted coverage in the paper’s articles. When Lincoln wanted to assemble his own record of the debates with Douglas, he did not rely on the Tribune‘s reports of the Douglas speeches, which were taken down in distorted form, but drew that part of the series from Cyrus McCormick’s rival Chicago Times.2 At the Chicago convention that nominated Lincoln, Medill not only turned the Tribune into a Lincoln headquarters, complete with split log decorations, but helped stack the seating of the convention hall against Seward delegates (“the meanest trick I ever pulled”).

When it came to dirty tricks, however, Medill could not match his later rival, Wilbur Storey. Cyrus McCormick gave up the Chicago Times after the hated Lincoln was elected president; but Storey, who purchased it, proved an even fiercer enemy of Lincoln and all Republicans. Before he came to Chicago Storey edited the Detroit Free Press, where he had written that President Lincoln “evinces his appetite for blood,” and called the Republican Party a “bastard offspring of illicit intercourse, and the faulty amalgamation of incompatible genes.”3 After his arrival in Lincoln’s own state, Storey muted his criticism of the war president until the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Storey was a virulent racist who declared in the Times that “there is in the great mass of people a natural and proper loathing of the negro which forbids contact with him as with a leper.” From the moment when Lincoln threatened to free Southern slaves, Storey declared the whole war effort just one “John Brown raid on an extended scale.”

On June 3, 1863, at 2:00 AM, on the order of General Ambrose Burnside, troops occupied the offices of the Times, charging it with sedition. Mobs formed in the street made the rival Tribune fear it would be sacked, and a member of the Tribune‘s board helped alert Lincoln to the danger. The President rescinded the order, and Storey ever after presented himself as a martyr for freedom of the press.

But despite the dark interpretation of Lincoln in its pages, the Times proved the most energetic and ingenious gatherer of war news. Its reporter, Sylvannus Cadwallader, became a particular favorite of General Grant, whose campaigns were reported with inside information by the Times. After the war, the paper proved just as imaginative in digging up scandals, threatening officials, and pioneering sex angles to coverage of the news. Storey, despite his venom and his growing mental instability, was a brilliant innovator. He introduced the first extended Sunday paper with long feature articles and cultural reporting—one issue printed the entire text of a new translation of the New Testament.

Only three papers survived Chicago’s Great Fire of 1871. Medill’s Tribune and Storey’s Times were two of the three. Storey sensationally described the fire as the “fiendish work of the Communist incendiaries.” His headlines became more and more lurid. A repentant criminal’s hanging in 1875 was trumpeted with these words: “Jerked to Jesus.” These and other touches made the Times far the most popular of Chicago’s papers in the last half of the nineteenth century—in 1878 it sold as many copies as all its rivals combined. A headline announced the reconvening of the city council this way: “Chicago’s Prize Rummers Hold Their Weekly Carnival at the City Hall, And As Usual, Disgrace the City Over Which They Should Exercise All Care.”

Storey’s defamatory ways led to personal assaults on him. One ridiculed showgirl took a horsewhip to him in the street. His prize reporter claimed there were twenty-one civil and three criminal prosecutions against the paper in 1875 alone. While the ravages of syphilis led to his own increasing incoherence, Storey posed as the defender of public purity, to the applause of religious immigrants, largely Catholic or Pietist. Storey had shrewdly courted Chicago’s immigrants by opposing “Know-Nothing” and other forms of nativism. His lowest-common-denominator approach to journalism mobilized the fears and resentments of the newcomers pouring into Chicago.

The polyglot town naturally produced a crazy-quilt journalism, in which Storey’s stridency rose above a babble of contending voices. Rudyard Kipling, in an 1889 visit to Chicago, fastidiously sneered at the way the city’s newspapers “reproduced all the war-cries and back-talk of the Palmer House bar, the slang of the barbers’ shops, the mental elevation and integrity of the [black] Pullman-car porter, the dignity of the Dime Museum, and the accuracy of the excited fishwife.”4 Even a resident could move through the city’s varied “nations” with fear as well as wonder. Here is Theodore Dreiser, at work for the Chicago Daily News in 1882:

As I walked here and there through these terrible neighborhoods—Chicago’s vast collection of riffraff from all parts of the world—I peered through open doors and patched and broken windows at this wretchedness and squalor, much as a man may tread the poisonous paths of a jungle, curious and yet fearsome and evasive.5

The city was so strange to itself that the papers felt obliged to explain it to its citizens. A survey taken in 1888 found that Chicago papers had a higher rate of commentary to straight reporting than did papers in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, or Los Angeles. 6 The Tribune‘s real foreign bureau was the one that, in 1890 alone, filed reports from Chicago’s Scandinavian neighborhoods, a Chinese Sunday school, an Italian pawn shop, a French restaurant, and black ghettos.7

Those who oppose “multiculturalism” in our day would have found the gabble of competing voices in last century’s Chicago the fulfillment of their worst fears. When Daily News columnist George Ade tried to explain street argot by writing “Fables in Slang,” parents expressed outrage at his teaching their children “low” language—which brings to mind George Will’s horror, in a recent column, that Trent Lott could use the locution “get real.”8 A Chicago journalist, James Maitland, composed the nation’s first slang dictionary, and dedicated it to his fellow reporters.9 In one of Wilbur Storey’s many suits for defamation, he made what may be called the slang defense, arguing (successfully!) that “jail bird” had a “local Chicago meaning” that had nothing to do with prisons.10 Chicagoans needed interpreters to talk with each other. In this century, Colonel McCormick would be ridiculed for making the Tribune use phonetic (i.e., fonetic) spelling—things like frate for freight. But McCormick, born in 1880, grew up in a Chicago still fuddled by its polyglot inheritance, where there was some reason to make English easier for those who had a different first language.

The newspapers’ response to multiculturalism was not just to flatten differences. Sometimes it celebrated them. George Ade’s slang fables would be updated, early in this century, by Ring Lardner’s sportswriting and personal columns for the Tribune. Finley Peter Dunne’s wisdom from an Irish bar would be echoed, long after, from the Polish bars of Mike Royko.

Dunne is a good example of the opportunities available to ambitious young writers entering Chicago journalism in the 1880s. The son of Irish immigrants, Dunne was born in 1867. At age sixteen, he went to work for the Chicago Telegram. The variety of papers and the need for “native” reporters made it easy for a talented insider to rise fast. By the time he was twenty-two, Dunne was the city editor of the Chicago Times, and the 1890 murder of Dr. Cronin, a prominent physician with ties to the rebellion in Ireland, put him in the middle of police work and community outrage. Dunne helped crack the case—the murderer, he held, was the very Irish policeman (named Coughlin) who was put in charge of the investigation. Tensions ran so high, dividing the Irish community (and Catholics in general), that over 1100 people had to be questioned to form a jury, and the trial itself ran 108 days (a record at the time). Dunne had to be a diplomat as much as a journalist while he directed coverage of the explosive event in his own community:

  1. 1

    Abraham Lincoln, letter of October 20, 1858: Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1832-1858 (Library of America, 1989), p. 824. Compare p. 684.

  2. 2

    Harold Holzer, editor, The Lincoln- Douglas Debates (HarperCollins, 1993), pp. 29-32.

  3. 3

    My account of Storey is based on Justin E. Walsh, To Print the News and Raise Hell!: A Biography of Wilbur F. Storey (University of North Carolina Press, 1968).

  4. 4

    Kipling quotation from Charles Fanning, Finley Peter Dunne & Mr. Dooley: The Chicago Years (University Press of Kentucky, 1978), p. 18.

  5. 5

    Theodore Dreiser, Newspaper Days (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), p. 77.

  6. 6

    Fanning, Finley Peter Dunne, p. 6.

  7. 7

    James DeMuth, Small Town Chicago (Kennikat Press, 1980), p. 26.

  8. 8

    For criticism of Ade, see Charles H. Dennis, Victor Lawson (University of Chicago Press, 1935), p. 384. George Will, “Lott’s Wild Blue Yonder,” Washington Post, May 23, 1997, p. A29.

  9. 9

    Fanning, Finley Peter Dunne, p. 18.

  10. 10

    Walsh, To Print the News, p. 239.

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