Megan McKinney has written a good book about Joseph Medill and his descendants, but whoever chose to put “Magnificent” in her title was wildly mistaken. Any number of adjectives can be applied to Medill and the McCormicks and Pattersons who followed him, but “magnificent” is not one of them. They were predatory newspaper barons whose influence on American journalism was considerably more malign than salubrious. They are now almost entirely forgotten outside newspaper circles — the simultaneous appearance of two ambitious new books about them is nothing if not a mystery — but the practices for which they were noted unfortunately linger on: abuse of press freedoms for political, ideological and personal gain, cynical pursuit of the lowest common denominator, sensational and frequently distorted coverage of the news.
Amanda Smith has written a rather less good book about Medill’s granddaughter, Eleanor Medill “Cissy” Patterson — it is intelligent and diligently researched, but stupendously long and too often stupendously dull — that also labors under an entirely inaccurate title. Cissy Patterson was many things, but a “Newspaper Titan” she most certainly was not. Until she was 48 years old, she had almost nothing to do with the two newspapers controlled by her family and had shown no interest in the trade. Then in August 1930, William Randolph Hearst made her editor in chief of his Herald in Washington, D.C., a struggling morning newspaper. His precise reasons for doing so remain obscure but may have had something to do with thumbing his nose at his rivals, the Medills. She ran it with flair and almost flagrant disregard for journalistic ethics, eventually buying it and the Washington Times, which she merged into the Washington Times-Herald in 1939. It enjoyed some success for a time, but by the time of her death in July 1948 its value had begun to decline, and in 1954 it was sold to Eugene Meyer of The Washington Post, giving him a monopoly in the city’s morning press.
Medill, the founding father, was born in Canada in 1823, moved to Ohio when he was 9, and was torn between the law and journalism before buying part ownership of the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1855. He made a going concern of it but developed into a “stern, rheumatic editor . . . increasingly rigid, forthright, sometimes undiplomatic and often imperious.” As was also true of his descendants, he tended to believe that journalism and politics went hand in glove, to the point of serving briefly as mayor of Chicago. His newspaper in time came to dominate Chicago journalism and to make scads of money for him and his family. His two daughters, Kate and Nellie, developed into “intensely unhappy young women – petty, dissatisfied and envious,” but their marriages to, respectively, Robert Sanderson McCormick and Robert Wilson Patterson Jr., produced the next generation of Medill barons: Robert McCormick, Joseph Medill Patterson and Cissy Patterson.
The Medill descendants exhibited, Amanda Smith writes, “a fortuitous constellation of abilities, inclinations, and idiosyncrasies . . . which, even when ungratified, drew them irresistibly to journalism,” but also other “traits and foibles that would lead them into uncannily similar circumstances many decades apart.” Smith continues:
“More than a few suffered from melancholia, rage, and alcoholism. They were almost without exception gifted horsemen. The girls of the family were prone to running away from home, the women to battling over expensive necklaces. Grandparents would form tight bonds with their grandchildren, having been remote or largely absent when raising their grandchildren’s parents. As parents, Joseph Medill and his progeny were as controlling as they had been rebellious in youth.”
The first of the grandchildren to occupy high journalistic office was Medill McCormick, but he ended up working on the Tribune’s business side. Instead, it was his brother Robert — known first as Bertie, then as “the Colonel” — who by the late 1920s had been transformed into “the awesome Colonel Robert R. McCormick, who would personify the Chicago Tribune until mid-century.” He was able and had an especially strong gift for “building a comprehensive media business and in anticipating allied developments, often years before the competition,” but the older he got, the more imperious, provincial and reactionary he became. He turned the Tribune, self-styled for decades as the “World’s Greatest Newspaper,” into a bulwark of Midwestern isolationism, especially in the late 1930s as the United States, under the hated Franklin Roosevelt, moved ever closer to world war.
In this he was joined by Cissy, now running the Times-Herald, and his cousin Joe Patterson, at the New York Daily News; Time magazine called them the “Three Furies of the Isolationist Press.” In the case of Joe, this was at least a little surprising, for when he moved from the Tribune to found the tabloid Daily News in June 1919, he displayed an extraordinary talent for not merely reading the public mind but anticipating its future desires. His basic formula was “Love/Sex, Money and Murder — in that order,” combined with brilliant use of photographs. That he aligned himself before the war with Midwestern isolationism surely had much more to do with family blood than with the common touch he displayed in New York.
It was Joe’s daughter Alicia who carried the journalistic torch into the next generation, buying with her husband, Harry Guggenheim, the Nassau Daily Journal in 1940 and transforming it into Newsday, the (for a time) phenomenally successful Long Island newspaper. It was the closest the Medill clan ever got to respectable mainstream journalism, but in the early 1940s it was the least consequential part of the Medill empire. The three grandchildren remained the kingpins:
“Between them they controlled the largest-circulation newspapers in three of the nation’s most influential markets: Joe held New York; Bert, Chicago; and Cissy, Washington. By 1941 they were reaching more than three million American readers six days a week and, on the seventh, almost five million, with a combined impact rivaled only by William Randolph Hearst. And long after much of the industry had moved toward an attitude of objectivity, all three were publishing in their grandfather’s style of personal journalism — though persuading their readers in individual directions.”
Bertie was the most controversial, Cissy the most flamboyant. Though no beauty, she had strong sexual allure — “Watch the way that girl moves,” Theodore Roosevelt once said of her — and after a disastrous early marriage to a fortune-hunting Polish count, she bestowed her favors widely, generously and strategically. Her early friendship with the equally tempestuous Alice Roosevelt Longworth turned nasty as the two competed to be the reigning belle of what passes for society in Washington, though eventually they more or less made up. She used the Times-Herald to wage her vendettas, which tended to be more personal than political, and to make a great show without doing much in the way of real journalism. Her newspaper was a nova that flashed briefly and then crashed, leaving nothing behind except her embittered heirs, squabbling over a will that left everyone confused and no one happy.
Readers who simply cannot get enough gossip about haute Washington may find “Newspaper Titan” worth the slog, but they should be warned that Cissy doesn’t take control of the Herald until page 311 and is dead on page 506 — with 74 pages still to go. Other readers will do better to try “The Magnificent Medills,” which despite its misleading title and endless subtitle is a solid account of this family, which was remarkable mostly in negative ways but remarkable all the same.
THE MAGNIFICENT MEDILLS
America’s Royal Family of Journalism During a Century of Turbulent Splendor
By Megan McKinney
Harper. 448 pp. $27.99 (forthcoming on Oct. 11)
The Infamous Life and Monumental Times of Cissy Patterson
By Amanda Smith
Knopf. 696 pp. $37.50