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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
Robert R. McCormick
Robert R. McCormick; drawing by David Levine


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…

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