Saturday 12 December 2009

Memoirs of a Maverick Publisher by J. David Stern

This autobiography of the scrappy liberal publisher of Democratic metropolitan dailies poses some tough questions for the historian of journalism. For this "inside narrative" raises certain issues about the dynamics of big-city newspapering that are blandly missing from the standard surveys. Let me cite two such disturbing anecdotes. In 1936 Stern criticized Franco in an editorial and expressed his opinion that "it would be a great tragedy for the world and for Spain if the republic succumbs to their attack." This Friday editorial prompted a collective Sunday sermon from Roman Catholic pulpits in Philadelphia; some newsboys were driven from their vantage points for selling to Sunday churchgoers. That very day Matt McCloskey, Jr. offered to take a conciliatory letter to Cardinal Dougherty for the astonished Stern. It took a year for the Record to regain the lost circulation.

The other is his chapter on Moses Annenberg's dogged resolve to "destroy Dave Stern." Annenberg worked for Hearst in Chicago in the latter's vicious circulation war with the Tribune. Later Annenberg began buying up distribution agencies throughout the country. He eventually also secured a monopoly on race track information services, to maintain which "it was reputed the Al Capone mob received an annual retainer of $1,000,000." When Annenberg "bought the Inquirer to cover himself with the cloak of respectability," Stern says he at first tried to introduce the rough-and-tumble principles of Chicago journalism into his competition with Stern and others in Philadelphia.

Both the Dougherty and Annenberg stories have a considerable ring of truth, and, if true, they certainly provide insights into the way newspapers work of a kind disturbingly absent from our proper but apparently too prim surveys. On the other hand, Stern's volatility as well as his own self-confessed, 76-year-old diffidence about a memory "as full of holes as a Swiss cheese" make one unwilling to take his uncontested word for these interpretations.

What we clearly need is a variant of Columbia's Oral History project in which professionally trained historians interrogate the subject as well as other parties to controversies. As it stands, however, this lively, opinionated book is stimulating in its vividness but intellectually unconvincing. Even his running-scare metaphor of the gradual replacement in American journalism of fighting competitive cocks by fat monopoly capons is not persuasive. Its force has been lost by reading about Stern's constant anxiety over meeting payrolls in the overpopulated newspaper economies of the twenties, thirties, and forties.

Nonetheless, if this is not very solid history, it is full of potential hypotheses for the historian seeking to understand the influence of a big-city Democratic publisher on city-, state-, and national-level politics, or the relevance of Jewish mercantile interests to the high incidence of successful Jewish publishers since the rise of the department store, or the possibility of self-destructive "liberalism" in the American Newspaper Guild strike against the Record. Finally, the utter ineffectual confusion of Stern's summing up in "Scar Tissue" makes one reader seriously question the depth of the publisher's very self-assertive liberalism.

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