Kansas City’s newspaper wars
Newspaper wars were fought out every day on the streets of Kansas City. The front line troops were newsboys, many of them homeless. A newsboys and bootblacks’ lodging house on Broadway offered free shelter to some, but many lived in the streets. The generals -- editors and publishers of the city’s four largest newspapers – were powerful, influential men who lived in the best parts of town and probably gave little thought to the newsboys’ living conditions. They were more concerned with increasing their papers’ circulation and ad revenue, and promoting partisan causes.
The two goals might seem antithetical but the political parties were far from unified on contentious matters of the day. A western Democrat might find himself in more agreement with the Republican Journal’s position on the currency question than with the pro-Cleveland position of the Democratic papers, the Star and Times.
The other major city daily, the Mail, tried to take a position between its larger competitors. It described itself as “the workingman’s penny paper,” hired union printers, supported editorially the Populist Party in Kansas and attacked the other city newspapers as the “plute press” and “monopolists” trying to drive it out of business.
The Mail’s attacks, mainly on the Star and Times, seldom attracted notice from its larger rivals. On one occasion the Mail criticized the Star for complaining about the filth on city streets, commenting that the city is not “half so dirty as is represented by the Star. The impression prevails that the Star is getting even with some of its enemies by setting the city scavenger after them.”
Such suggestions that rivals lacked honesty and journalistic integrity were a common weapon in the newspaper wars, even among allies. The Times criticized fellow pro-Cleveland Star for printing a fawning obituary after the reported death of Mexican General Manuel Gonzales, referring to the General as “the bravest soldier in Mexico… and a man beloved by the people,” then reversing itself a few days later after it was discovered he was still alive. At that point it offered a “statement of the truth. General Manuel Gonzales in his prime was a Mexican thief of the worst description.” Said the Times ironically, “The respect for the dead that kept the Star from making ‘a statement of the truth’ at first is simply admirable.”
These were minor knocks compared to battles between the Republican Daily Journal and its Democratic rivals. The Journal criticized them for missing two sensational local stories on a kidnapping and a lawsuit; the Times referred to the Journal as “at no time … a real newspaper,” said the kidnapping had not occurred and the lawsuit had been withdrawn. In addition, claimed the Times, the Journal had failed to report several important local stories and the one story it had reported was plagiarized from the Times. “When it comes to local news,” the editors concluded, “the Journal is to be commiserated in its weakness.” The Journal in turn accused the Star of inflating its circulation numbers by forcing copies on “unwilling people” and sending papers “broadcast over the country regardless of whether they were ever paid for or not.”
When it came to local politics, all four papers criticized the “gang” or “push” in charge of City Hall while representing themselves as the people’s tribune and accusing rival papers of hypocrisy. The Star complained that despite hard times, as “thousands are seeking vainly for employment… there is no talk of retrenchment in the city hall.” No money was being spent on public improvements, but the “maw of the ‘machine’ in the city hall is as wide open as ever and the handlers and manipulators thereof are feeding it with good, hard money that comes as the direct tribute of the property owners to the dynasty in control.”
Heads of city departments were visiting the World’s fair or enjoying vacations at summer resorts; meanwhile, “No reductions have been made in any of the departments. The ‘push’ has not been affected by the financial crisis…. It takes all the money it can rake and scrape to fill the pockets of the politicians of the ‘push’ who swarm from cellar to sub-basement in the city hall and let no chance escape to lower the city’s cash balance.”
To the Journal editors, the Star’s protestations were crocodile tears. In an editorial entitled “Pecksniff,” referring to Dickens’ hypocritical, greedy character, the Journal editors accused the Star of consorting with “the plunderers of the taxpayers” in “everything that promised boodle or dividends.” The Star and Times, say the editors, helped elect the “rings” that run city government, which the Journal fought against: “Never a day since the Star had life has it done anything in city affairs except for itself, its own pocket, or, as now, for revenge.”
The Star’s William Rockhill Nelson was pretending to run an independent paper, but “always endorsed the man who could put up the most money. The men have stopped wasting money on the Star,” and the Star’s denunciations of the “gang” were motivated not by principle but by a falling out between the paper and its former allies in the “push.” Meanwhile, says the Journal of itself, it is “doing the work of the people and the taxpayers….”
In a later editorial, the Journal again mocked the Star for its “lachrymose attitude over the ‘corrupt’ city government – fee grabbers and such – which it helped to elect….” The Journal editors claim to have done everything they could to defeat the “combine that now reigns supreme over city, county and Star….,” citing an 1892 Star editorial which praised the city leaders for “improved city government and progressive methods…..” But now “the Star wants the combine changed – so it can put more bonuses, royalties and boodle in its pocket…. The combine never pretended to be anything but what it is – a conspiracy to support a political ring from the taxation of Kansas City property and fees.”
Still later in the year, the Journal accused the Star -- and by implication the “Baron of Westport,” Nelson -- of seeking to become “the political dictator of Kansas City,” giving notice to Jackson County officials “through its owner, that they can never hold office again, because, forsooth, the Star will not let them…. The insufferable pomposity of the Star has so disgusted all decent citizens that it is only necessary for an office seeker to secure its condemnation to insure his election.” The Journal, say its editors, “is under no bondage either to the ‘gang’ or to its own desires for personal aggrandizement. It has no boulevards to advance nor has it any desire to dictate the nominations of the mayor or the governor…”
The allusion to boulevards refers to accusations by journalistic rivals that Nelson used his influence with the city council of Westport to get a road built to his mansion there. The Mail and Journal both published editorials and cartoons decrying his “coercing the authorities into building a boulevard to the gates of his residence at a cost to the taxpayers of about $100,000 and with little benefit to them,” as the Mail put it. Another Mail editorial accused Nelson of attempting to influence the state senate to make changes in the city charter related to the construction of parks and boulevards “gratifying to the baron’s desires….”
A front page cartoon in the Journal entitled “Westport Improvements” depicted the “Baron” driving down Warwick Boulevard with a statement attached to the carriage reading “Westport Expenses.”. The Journal also reprinted a story from the Westport Examiner suggesting that Nelson had secured special favors from Westport for maintenance of “unusual street illumination in the vicinity of his palatial residence.”
The point was illustrated with another front page cartoon titled “Why the other Westport streets are dark.” The cartoon shows a workman installing a light standard on Warwick Boulevard as a citizen asks “Why do you put so many lamps here?” Replies the workman, “Bedad an’ de boss of Westport wants thim.” The “boss” is depicted driving down a well-lighted street with another statement of Westport expenses attached to his carriage.
The four newspapers also differed on the matter of “policy” gambling, which operated from storefronts all over the city despite anti-gambling state laws. Early in the year, the Star launched an attack on Jim Findlay, “gambler monopolist and political boss,” who had risen to power through alliances with politicians to whom he “furnished money and men when they were needed.” In return, he was, according to the Star, given immunity from the law, the “right to name candidates and pack primaries,” and “an absolute gambling franchise in Kansas City.”
The Star enumerated a bill of particulars against Findlay: he “personally conducted mobs that interfered with primary elections; he threatened men who opposed him; he called attention to the fact that certain candidates were, first of all, his servants; … he allowed his greed and impudence to control him so that he made direct attempts to swindle school children out of their pocket money….” The Star’s campaign against Findlay and the policy shops was mocked by the Mail as motivated only by “bitter personal feeling” between Nelson and Findlay.
Regardless of motives, soon after the Star’s editorial appeared the city council passed an anti-lottery, anti-policy ordinance, to be enforced with a minimal fine. A few months later a police judge declared it unconstitutional on the grounds that it was not in harmony with state anti-gambling laws: “not at all surprising,” sniffed the Star; the judge was “the pet candidate of the ‘gang’ which is organized in Kansas City for plunder.” The judge’s constitutional objections were, said the Star, trumped up: ‘He is true to his political antecedents and affiliations, which means that he is false to the people and to the obligations of his office.”
The Mail immediately took exception, headlining its story “Police Judge Johnson not deserving of abuse: It is the province of a judge to decide according to the law and the facts regardless of editorial dictation.” When the police judge’s decision was upheld by another judge, the Journal defended the second judge against the “persistent and malicious attack” of the Star: “the judiciary should be defended from the attacks of a paper whose sole object appears to be the running of municipal affairs according to its code, regardless of whether the law sustains that code or not.” The judge is “not necessarily an aider and abettor of criminals, as the evening paper in question would have the people to understand… Because this decision runs contrary to the wishes of the paper which so suddenly turned against the policy shops last year, that paper would besmirch an honorable gentleman….”
As usual, Nelson’s motives were called into question. It was suggested by the Mail that Nelson was in cahoots with “monopolists” and “eastern interests “to “rob the people of a free bridge,” referring to a planned railroad bridge across the Missouri River linking Jackson and Clay Counties. An eastern company that had taken over the project proposed to abandon a provision that the bridge would have a deck for free passage. According to the Mail, the Times and Star were “subsidized by the railroad company and … joined a conspiracy to rob Jackson and Clay counties of a free bridge” by supporting the abandonment of the provision. The papers’ campaign against “fee grabbers” in city hall was, said the Mail, merely a means to “divert public attention from the real thieves,” eastern interests.
Kansas City’s newspaper wars weren’t separate from national political debates, especially those arising from the increasingly severe economic depression. Westerners tended to blame eastern bankers for the depression and opposed Cleveland’s plan to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which benefited western mining states by requiring the federal government to purchase large quantities of silver. Eastern Democrats supporting Cleveland believed the Act was causing a drain in U.S. gold reserves, western Democrats opposed repeal of the Act.
The Journal enjoyed the dissension in Democratic ranks, pointing out that the St. Louis Republic, a Democratic paper, remained “in harmony with Western ideas and interests” by supporting silver while the Times of Kansas City “flopped.” The St. Louis paper “charges the Times with being owned in New England.” During the previous Republican Harrison administration, the Times “was howling for free silver, for bi-metallism and against the plutocrats. Now it says the charge that it is a plutocrat is a slander….”
In a later editorial, the Journal put forward its own position on the currency question in opposition to what it called the “platitudes of that new organ of the brokers of the East and of Europe,” the Times. Bimetallism -- using both gold and silver as the basis for currency -- makes it harder to “corner” the market and force up the value of currency to the benefit of bankers, argued the editors: “if silver is added as money, it is harder to monopolize both metals and the business world is less at the mercy of these money and mine owners…. Money freedom is the needed freedom of future economy.”
The Times responded with a cartoon depicting the new President, Cleveland, standing indignantly before an empty U.S. treasury “looted” by his Republican predecessor, Benjamin Harrison.” The editors accused the Journal of a “campaign of misinformation in its discussion of financial issues.” It has “labored with all its little might to thicken the gloom of misinformation upon questions in which the people are most interested and upon the decision of which the prosperity of its constituency and of the whole country most depends.”
The Mail took its usual maverick position, accusing the other city papers of painting a rosy picture even as bank panics were spreading across the country, reaching Kansas City in mid-June. When two banks failed, the news was “vigorously suppressed by last evening’s papers:”
For several days past the local papers contained double leaded editorials telling their readers that the worst of the financial panic throughout the country had passed and for them to keep cool and not to get excited over any idle rumor floating around concerning their home moneyed institutions, as the Kansas City banks were in better shape to withstand financial embarrassment and depression than any other banks in the country.
As more bank failures occurred, the Mail printed a letter from a reader mocking “your evening contemporary, the Golden Calf Cleveland worshiper,” the Times, for seeing signs of reviving confidence in the economy even as “four business houses in the city were forced to assign… and other failures too small to mention occured [sic].” One story described a hundred men turning out to apply for five menial jobs delivering samples of stove blacking, since they couldn’t find work elsewhere in “these good ‘Cleveland times’ and in this era of prosperity the plute press talks about.”
The Mail denied the Times view that that the economic crisis had anything to do with the Silver Purchase act – in fact, it said, there was a boom following the Act’s adoption – but was a result of a financial crisis in England and Australia which led to a scramble to redeem gold-based securities: “What this country wants to do is to protect its people against the foreign investor…” concluded the editors, without explaining what this might involve.
Some of the most virulent partisan debates between the papers occurred over the Cherokee Strip land rush of 1893, the last and largest of the openings of Oklahoma territory to settlers. Accusations of corruption and favoritism were made against Democratic federal officials overseeing the opening, with the Times accused by the Journal of wanting to cover up the abuses.
Wrote the Times editors in response, the paper “has been foremost in its demand for the fullest investigation and the prompt punishment of all frauds and outrages connected with the opening…. without regard to who may be implicated.”
The debate heated up later in the year when Horace Speed, United States District Attorney in Oklahoma and a hold-over appointee of former president Harrison, began an investigation into land office fraud which implicated Democratic officials. It was, said the Times, “a shameless and unprincipled political conspiracy” aimed at bringing “discredit upon a Democratic administration and to work up political sentiment in the [Oklahoma] Territory unfavorable to the Democratic party.”
The Journal, naturally, saw the matter differently and defended Speer’s investigation, provoking another wrathful editorial from the Times accusing it of “being implicated with United States District Attorney Speed in a shameless political fraud based upon false charges and false reports, which it willfully and knowingly published in its columns.” The Journal, claimed the Times, knowingly published false reports, yet after “after assisting [Speed] in his vicious efforts to smirch the characters of land office officials and bring the administration into disrepute, solely to create political capital,” in the end, “these Republican conspirators and their accomplices could not, with all their efforts, secure enough evidence to warrant a charge against any land office official or employe [sic], save a single substitute clerk; and as this man happened to be a Republican, of course he was not indicted.”
The Times launched a final attack at the end of the year on the credibility of the Journal for an article in that paper under the title “Upholds Attorney Speed.” The Journal story reported that an investigation by a special agent appointed by the President to investigate charges against land office officials found evidence of official corruption and recommended that Attorney Speed remain at his post.
Countered the Times, the agent’s report had been issued before the opening of the Cherokee Strip and was upon “entirely different charges against Mr. Speed….The statement that President Cleveland had sent a ‘special agent’ to the Territory is not only false, but is the sheerest nonsense…,” comprising “deliberate attempts to mislead its readers.” The Journal’s reports are products of its “fertile and unscrupulous methods….”
From a historical standpoint, probably the most significant contest between the newspapers occurred not over domestic issues but over an international question: the possible annexation of Hawaii after American residents in Hawaii overthrew the monarchy.
In general, Democrats, led by Cleveland, opposed annexation, Republicans favored it.
It was not surprising, therefore, that the Journal defended the former U.S. Government minister to Hawaii, John Stevens, who had played a key role in the overthrow, a role which an investigation initiated by Cleveland called illegal. Stevens’ response to the critical report was, said the Journal, “a complete answer to the unfair, willfully misleading and ex parte report of Commissioner Blount on the Hawaiian question.”
On the contrary, said the Times, Stevens’ response is “buncombe talk and jingo bluster,” unsupported by evidence or reference to facts which would contradict the Commissioner’s conclusions.
The annexation of Hawaii had to wait until Cleveland was out of office and a Republican, McKinley, was in: in 1898, over the objections of native Hawaiians, Hawaii was incorporated into the U.S. Four months later, Puerto Rico was annexed, and soon after that, McKinley issued a proclamation of “Benevolent assimilation” of the Philippines.
“Jingo bluster” had become respectable.
August 23, 2012
The Star, Times, Journal, and Mail were dailies with broad local, national, and international news coverage. They engaged in frequent partisan skirmishes with one another. Hoye’s City Directory for 1893 lists 52 other “newspapers and publications” printed in Kansas City, but most were trade publications, such as the Bakers’ Review, Illustrated World Implement, or Real Estate Journal, or publications of social, ethnic, or religious groups, such as the Western Crusader, a Catholic organ, Herald of Masonry, or Svenska Sydvestern.
Also listed in Hoye’s but not participants in the newspaper wars: Hayman’s Gazette, Kansas City Post, Kansas City Presse; Kansas City Red Book; Kansas City Reform; Kansas City Sunday Sun; La Plaza; National Union Journal; Thought; Unity; Work and Play. The Post was probably a descendant of the German Republican, described in a lecture by Colonel T. Case. [10-22-1893-DailyJournal-p19-WhenCityWasYoung]
Surrounding communities usually had their own newspapers, such as the Kaw’s Mouth and Argentine Eagle in Kansas City Kansas; Tribune in Liberty, Missouri; Olathe Mirror, which described itself as the “official paper of Johnson County;” Westport Daily Sentinel; American Citizen, a paper published for African-Americans in Kansas City, Kansas. Community newspapers were often at least as partisan as their mainstream counterparts: the American Citizen enthusiastically backed Cleveland’s Democrats; the Olathe Mirror was just as strongly Republican.