The Astonishing Mr. Scripps

The Book of the Week is “The Astonishing Mr. Scripps” by Vance H. Trimble, published in 1992. This large volume documents the life, among other family members, of Edward Willis Scripps, born in June 1854, the 13th child of James and Julia Scripps. He became the head of the nation’s first newspaper chain by the end of the 19th century.

Prior to journalism, starting at twelve years of age, Scripps was required to assist his father at bookbinding, on the farm and at a sugar mill. He quit school at fifteen. In 1872, after dabbling in a few other ventures, at eighteen, he escaped a life of manual labor to help his 38-year old older brother in the print shop at the Detroit Tribune. The culture was such that journalists had to frequent a bar in order to get good assignments. There was peer pressure to drink.

About five years later, Scripps moved to Cleveland to start another newspaper there. He wanted to sell the paper on the streets, rather than through the customary routes with paperboys. “A newsboy could buy copies wholesale at the pressroom door for half a cent, thus earning fifty cents for each hundred sold.”

The composing room was where the ad and editorial departments had a conflict because advertising copy and news stories competed for space so the one that was typeset second got short shrift at deadline time. Scripps’ paper favored blue collar readers. Its rivals were read by wealthy, industrialist readers. Scripps supported trade unionism and opposed the capitalists. He tried to maximize revenue from subscribers rather than advertisers so he could write what he wanted; he thus didn’t have to print what advertisers told him to.

In 1880, Scripps started yet another newspaper in St. Louis– the Evening Chronicle. A competing paper, the Post Dispatch, was bribing the Chronicle carriers to transfer their route customers to the Post Dispatch. That same year, during the presidential election, the Chronicle’s circulation jumped to 13,000 and afterwards, fell back to 10,000.

In early 1881, when James Garfield was inaugurated U.S. President, Scripps wrote, “Hence we are writing the thing up from home [St. Louis], dating it from Washington and putting big headlines over it. Of course it is fraud, but there is no greater fraud than the doubt whether the country ever had a president with a title honestly acquired.”

The four newspapers were losing money, so in 1888, Scripps formed a “syndicate”– consolidated them– to achieve economies of scale and make them profitable. Nevertheless, he still imposed draconian, petty cost-cutting measures on his employees the following year, such as making reporters pay for work-related costs like transportation, pencils, business cards and promotional copies of the paper.

On the home front, Scripps’ wife had gotten pregnant seven times in twelve years. Four children lived to adulthood.

In 1904, Scripps knew it was a conflict to “… pollute its columns with noxious hucksterism. America’s press would never be truly free and honest until newspapers flatly refused to print any advertising matter at all.” Wealthy merchants could threaten to bankrupt a paper by not advertising. Scripps looked for a city where a paper could stay in business through circulation revenue alone. He thought the paper should be an instrument for fighting oppression and improving quality of life: “… better sanitation, better education, better and healthier and more moral amusements, better homes, better wages, better sermons in our churches, better accommodations on street cars.”

The two conditions required for success with an advertising-free paper are: it must be interesting and have prompt and dependable delivery. But for Scripps, the costs exceeded the profits because he had to pay printers, pressmen, reporters, circulators, rent, utilities, etc. This blogger believes that in the 21st century, many online publications have the aforementioned conditions; however, a third condition includes the fact that readers must be willing to pay for the product.

In 1915, Scripps invested in Max Eastman’s radical weekly “The Masses” – ironically named, because the weekly’s focus was not on the downtrodden, but America’s elite. Eastman’s 22 liberal contributors submitted articles for free. The paper still operated at a loss; circulation was stagnant. There is nothing new under the sun.

Scripps wanted his teenage son Bob to work, saying “I do not want to you to be a simple onlooker and student and critic of life…” Around 1913, Bob had an affair with the wife of his father’s business partner, just like in the movie “The Graduate” (1967). Only, Bob was under 18 years old. There is nothing new under the sun.

Unsurprisingly, Scripps was a cynic. He was “… convinced, rightly or wrongly, that altruism, which is almost universal, is still almost universally a minor motive in a man.”

Read the book to learn the history of the wire services, how the people at the Scripps newspapers coped with local political corruption, how they shaped policy in Washington, survived natural disasters and wars, company power struggles, and the consequences of the Scripps family’s alcoholism.

The Impossible Rescue – Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed “The Impossible Rescue” by Martin W. Sandler, published in 2012.

This ebook describes the 1897 disaster in which eight whaling ships were hemmed in by mid-autumn ice for months when unexpectedly severe weather struck Point Barrow, Alaska. The total 265-member crews faced starvation, as they had insufficient food supplies for surviving more than a few months. They were subjected to darkness day and night, and temperatures tens of degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

The whalers’ volunteer-rescuers consisted of a few small parties of local natives and men from the United States who, at different intervals, coming from different directions, braved blizzards in trekking more than 1,500 miles overland with varying numbers of dogs, sleds, reindeer and hundreds of pounds in supplies. [It might be recalled that America purchased the territory of Alaska in 1867, and Alaska became a state in 1959.]

What the men did entailed life-threatening risks and extreme sacrifices. One of the groups was traveling with both dogs and reindeer simultaneously.  When sleds are pulled by both kinds of animals, “…the dogs follow their natural instincts to attack the deer.” Even keeping the dogs as far back from the deer as possible proved quite difficult.

Read the book to learn what happened to the rescuers and the rescued.

On the Wings of Eagles

The Book of the Week is “On the Wings of Eagles” by Ken Follett, published in 1983. This ebook recounts how a group of employees from the American company EDS, stationed in Tehran, underwent an incredible, life-changing experience in early 1979, at the start of the Iranian revolution. H. Ross Perot, CEO of EDS, got “down in the trenches” with his men, and toward the end of the story, was portrayed as a Daddy Warbucks character; his endless money and friends in high places helped him magically remove bureaucratic obstacles to get things done in a hurry.

The Iranian government was EDS’s sole client in Iran. In mid-1978, it started to default on EDS’s multi-million dollar bill for engineering social-security and health insurance software. The extremely suspenseful series of events was focused on two EDS men in particular whom one Iranian in particular from the old (Shah’s) regime had arrested and jailed. He set their bail at an outrageous $13 million in a petty power game. There were three ways the company could get those two employees released from jail: “…legal pressure, political pressure, or pay the bail.” Or a few other ways, which were illegal.

Assistance and sympathy of the officials at Tehran’s American Embassy for EDS were less than forthcoming. There were many more serious problems to deal with.

Initially, the aforesaid Perot exhibited an American mentality, thinking that he and the bad guy could settle the matter with legalistic negotiations. However, Iran was not playing by the same rules. He then came up with a hare-brained scheme, which would involve breaking various federal laws if certain of its components were to occur in the United States.

As an aside– this blogger found it hard to get used to the vocabulary that Americans used at the time of the book’s publication– “…what the McDonald’s girl said to me…”  “…blond Swedish girl in her twenties,” “stewardesses” and “knapsack,” among other old-fashioned terms. There was also a funny scene late in the group’s emotionally traumatic saga. After surviving many serious threats to their lives over the course of weeks, the EDS group was on a plane that was having mechanical trouble in the air. “I can’t believe this,’ said Paul. He lit a cigarette.”

Read the book to learn the fate of the individuals involved in this riveting thriller.

American Radical

The Book of the Week is “American Radical, The Life and Times of I.F. Stone” by D.D. Guttenplan, published in 2009. This is the biography of a muckraking journalist, who wrote of “good, honest graft” and the “…human wreckage piling up around me.”

He was born Isadore Feinstein on Christmas Eve, 1907 in Philadelphia. He spoke Yiddish as a second language. In 1924, because his grades were below Harvard standards and there was open enrollment for local residents, “Izzy” as he was affectionately known, began attending the University of Pennsylvania. He changed his name to I.F. Stone at the tail end of his twenties.

The year 1955 saw Congressional surveillance of Stone’s weekly publication “Weekly.” Stone launched lawsuits against his oppressors, arguing that public moneys should not be used to violate his 1st Amendment rights to privacy and freedom of the press. He would have lost his lawsuits but for a curious situation.

James Eastland, chief counsel and chairman of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, included the New York Times as one of many newspapers and magazines he was surveilling. Stone had embarrassed the Times for pointing out inconsistent behavior: the newspaper’s firing of its employees who were accused of Communist leanings. Yet the Times had published articles arguing for civil rights, anti-segregation, condemning McCarthyism and immigration restrictions. The Times was indignant because it thought it was being singled out for investigation by Eastland. Eastland dropped his investigation.

Other organizations accused of harboring Communists included the Boy Scouts, Voice of America, the USO and YMCA. The Justice Department‘s whole roster of professional informers was finally discredited…” when an ex-Communist admitted to fabricating the allegations against the organizations. In fall 1955, finally, there was vindication of Stone and other activists who were under threat of arrest or deportation or subpoena.

This blogger believes the author’s historical accounts are misleading in spots; he implies that in 1948, when the Israelis had achieved military victory over the Arabs in their war for an independent homeland, the Arabs fled. Historical accounts other than this book say that the Israelis subjected the Arabs to a forced evacuation from their homes where they had been residing for generations.

The result of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, according to the author, was cause for celebration for Stone, because a new government was installed that would impose socialism, and Stone was all for socialism. The author neglects to mention that the Soviets crushed the revolt in an orgy of bloodshed. Then the author goes on to say that Stone misread the Suez Canal Crisis.

Nevertheless, read the book to learn modern history through the eyes of a smartass reporter who called a spade a spade most of the time.

Roses Under the Miombo Trees

The Book of the Week is “Roses Under the Miombo Trees” by Amanda Parkyn, published in 2012.  This is a four-year chronicle of a family in Rhodesia in the early 1960’s. The country at the time was comprised of three territories, one of which later became the country of Malawi.

When she was in her early twenties, the author, an Englishwoman, married a Rhodesian. They, as light-skinned people, had all the creature-comforts a former British colony had to offer: tennis, golf, bridge, swimming, and yachting. However, technology in entertainment and telecommunications was behind that of the United States. Few people had television in rural areas, and telephone calls still had to be made with the help of a live operator. One of their neighbors had a tennis court made of dead anthills, that had been shaped with water and sun-dried.

The author describes their social life and how it changed as her husband was transferred to different territories in connection with his employment; the birth of their two children, her love of gardening and the job performance of the household’s dark-skinned domestic servant.

Read the book to learn the details of the ups and downs of the family’s life, in their specific time and place.

In the Garden of the Beasts

The Book of the Week is “In the Garden of the Beasts” by Erik Larson, published in 2011. This ebook describes the ill-fated German ambassadorship of William E. Dodd, who was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

A history professor at the University of Chicago for more than two decades, Dodd possessed no public-service experience. As a D-list candidate for other reasons too, he reluctantly accepted the post anyway. Nevertheless, he believed in speaking out against injustice, and in the past when he became embroiled in a controversial situation, he said, “…to remain silent is out of the question for a strong and honest man.” He moved his wife, teenage son and grown daughter to Berlin in the summer of 1933.

Part of Dodd’s job as ambassador at the time was to get the German government to pay its reparations to the United States from WWI. Germany owed more than $100 million in bonds through National City Bank of New York (now Citibank) and Chase National Bank. Dodd failed to do so.

Dodd was also ill-suited for other aspects of the position. Foreign Service officers were an independently wealthy lot– golf-club members with fancy cars and mansions– who threw lavish parties at their own expense, unconcerned with the cost. The German ambassador lived frugally.

As well, Dodd’s daughter caused diplomatic embarrassment, as she became romantically involved with a series of men of political intrigue through the years. These included the chief of the Gestapo, a Soviet political operative, and Fritz Haber, who first formulated the poison chlorine gas that was used at Ypres in WWI. He proved that cumulative exposure to small quantities of gas in the long run was just as lethal as large amounts of a short duration.

Sadly, Dodd and a colleague, George S. Messersmith, America’s consul general, were two of only a very few prescient government officials who understood that Germany posed a serious and growing threat to world peace. The U.S. government was more concerned with Germany’s war reparations.

In the mid-1930’s, lurid stories of extremely uncivil behavior of Germany’s law enforcement apparatus were leaked to the international press. People rationalized that the violent acts (mostly against Jews) were just isolated incidents because they did not want to believe that an evolved society such as Germany’s could be so evil.

Read the book to learn the details of how Dodd became the prophetic, tragic figure in an existentialist drama that set the stage for WWII.