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New International, March 1948


Lucy Clayton

Books in Review

An American Dynasty


From New International, Vol. XIV No. 3, March 1948, pp. 95–96.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


An American Dynasty
by John Tebbel
Doubleday, 1947.

In an interesting account of the Medill, McCormick and Patterson families, John Tebbel, a former newspaper man, traces the growth and influence of an American dynasty – the interlocking ownership of the Chicago Tribune, the New York Daily News, and the Washington Herald. The total worth of this empire is roughly estimated at between 75 and 100 million dollars; behind it is the Medill Trust with 1050 shares of between 25 and 40 thousand dollars each.

It was the colorful Joseph Medill, abolitionist, Republican and supporter of Lincoln, who took over the Tribune in 1855. In forty-four years of work with it, he built up the family fortune and established the pattern of personal journalism and autocratic rule of the newspaper which was handed down through marriage to Colonel McCormick and his Patterson cousins. The methods of news reporting – distortion of facts and ruthless attack on opponents to advance the personal and political interests of the publisher – involved Medill and his successors in more than one libel suit. The “hate objects” of the paper had a wide range, from labor and Communists to Henry Ford and inventor Cyrus McCormick, who had launched a drive against abolitionism.

Medill’s abolitionist sympathy should, however, not be confused with that of the militant idealists whose names we tend to associate with the anti-slavery movement. The Negro slave’s plight meant nothing to him and ideals of freedom less. His approach may be gathered from a letter to his brother explaining one reason for freeing the slaves: “In future wars black and yellow men will be freely used to fight. We will not be so careful about spilling the blood of n——rs.” The John Browns fought for human liberty; the Medills supported them down to the last drop of ink in the name of acquiring new subjects for capitalist exploitation.

The politics of the Tribune and the News is still rooted in the tradition of the family and particularly in the philosophy of its founder. Medill’s anti-Britishism, isolationism and fanatic hatred of organized labor are still there; time has changed only the language. Old man Medill did not feel the necessity for semantic concessions to the progressive spirit: “We shall permit no nation to abuse Mexico but ourselves,” he once stated. In 1884 a Tribune editorial advocated that arsenic be put in the food of the unemployed – where today its columns would carry a pious denunciation of “doles” which harm the upstanding spirit of American workers. Tebbel notes that since 1920, despite continued business success, the dynasty’s press has markedly declined in political and editorial influence; but its total circulation is still nearly five million.

Tebbel himself is primarily concerned with the problem of the freedom of the press and what it should mean, with the increasing monopolization of newspaper publishing and its danger to democracy. To the publishers a “free press” merely means no government restriction. (Answering the suit against the Associated Press monopoly McCormick ranted against any imposition of government controls and “censorship.”) To the people, however, the primary responsibility of the press is objective reporting and factual presentation. Tebbel finds almost all publishers guilty but the McCormick-Patterson press the worst offenders. With typical naivete, he offers his solution: the reform must come from the newspaper business itself; the publishers should get together to establish and enforce ethical standards. There is, unfortunately, nothing much more here than the time-honored liberal plea that the tiger change his spots, in spite of his verbal recognition of the role of wealth and class interest in creating journalistic bias and falsification.

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