Nine Irish Lives: The Thinkers, Fighters, and Artists Who Helped Build America Mark Bailey, ed.
Algonquin 272 pp.
By James O’Shea
I don’t know why Mark Bailey picked nine men and women to profile in his book about Irish thinkers, fighters, and artists who helped build America. Maybe there’s something magic about the number nine, you know, like the proverbial lives of cats. But in the vernacular of the Sixties, I wish this cat had focused one or two of these fascinating folks instead of enough to play the Chicago Cubs.
Don’t get me wrong. As a whole, I found the Irish men and women he selected for profiles interesting, although, I must confess, I was not as entranced with some of the essays contributed by celebrities like Pierce Brosnan and Rosie O’Donnell who devoted nearly as much space comparing themselves to their subjects (silent film director Rex Ingram and founder of New Orleans orphanages, Margaret Haughery) as making a case for why they were included in this collection at all.
Bailey did, though, select some real journalists and writers, such as Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan. Writing together, they kept themselves out of the story and wrote an impressive profile of Niall O’Dowd, the journalist who played a key role in the peace process in the north of Ireland.
But the true shortcoming of Nine Irish Lives is that Bailey cast his flood lights on too many subjects. He certainly had the material and opportunity to provide deeper research and more insight into many of these subjects, but instead provided the social media equivalent of biography.
Nowhere is this drawback more glaring that in Michael Moore’s profile of Samuel S. McClure, for my money one of the most significant and overlooked editors in America literature and journalism. Filmmaker Moore (“Roger and Me,” “Bowling for Columbine”) has a great eye for a story, but tin ear for balance which is made abundantly clear in his essay on S.S. McClure, whom he correctly portrays as the godfather of what we now call “investigative reporting.”
McClure’s story is too compelling, fascinating, and significant to be given Moore’s superficial treatment. Moore may be right to say that McClure was an editor who would have filled the void missing from contemporary journalism: he wouldn’t have been played by the likes of Donald Trump or the commercial allure and deceit of Facebook. McClure traveled the world discovering journalists and writers such as Rudyard Kipling, Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, people who didn’t need MSNBC or Fox News to lure dedicated fans and readers. McClure demanded and got from them fact-based quality journalism edited for a working-class audience. It was credible because it was authoritative, smart and embraced the holy grail of journalism – meticulous reporting. It was not warmed over “media” gossip cooked up on Washington and New York “news” shows.
On one level, Moore did a good job giving us what my friend David Carr, the late media writer for The New York Times, used to call the journalistic “drive-by.” McClure came to America in 1866 with his mother and three brothers from an impoverished home in County Antrim Ireland. He was a smart, brash and scrappy hustler who overcome incredible odds to earn a degree at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois and a future in American letters. He started off on, of all things, a cycling trade magazine called The Wheelman and parlayed his experience into a successful career as an editor, capitalizing on the idea of syndication to introduce American readers to writers like Robert Louis Stevenson, Kipling, Arthur Conon Doyle, Tarbell, Jack London, Steffens, Booth Tarkington, Willa Cather, Stephen Crane and a litany of others.
What really distinguished him as an editor, though, was his founding in 1893 of McClure’s, a magazine that became the Bible of the American progressive movement and the inspiration for muckraking, investigative reporting that exposed political corruption and the wide disparity of wealth during the Gilded Age, a period of history often compared to Donald Trump’s America.
But Moore’s profile simply doesn’t dig deep enough. In his story and in his film work, he portrays the world too simplistically, full of people with black hats and white. He clearly places a white Stetson 6X on McClure’s head: “The coming out party for the journalists later known as the muckrakers happened," he says, with the publication of the legendary January 1903 issue of McClure’s. "It featured a number of classic exposes that are still part of the journalism cannon today.” McClure also had slashed the price of the magazine to fifteen cents, far below other publications of his era and saw his circulation grow steadily to more than 400,000.
A shining example of muckraking that Moore praises is “The Shame of Minneapolis,” which he describes as "a study of municipal corruption [by] Steffens, [who) uncovered graft schemes that that implicated a connected cast of shady characters, including the city’s mayor, some local politicians and the police chief, all of whom conspired to take bribes from illegal brothels, saloons and gamblers.” Another was “the third installment of Tarbell’s ground-breaking series dissecting in detail the extent of Standard Oil’s vicious industrial monopoly.”
There’s no doubt McClure was a great editor and, as Moore says, the kind of principled man with a magazine that would have launched “detailed investigations into” you know who -- the “narcissistic billionaire stiffing blue-collar contractors, denigrating female employees, lying about his charitable contributions and not paying his taxes.”
But a deeper and more thorough look into McClure's story would show that his hat wasn’t as white as Moore suggests and that the relationships between McClure and many of the writers he made famous involve the sort of gripping narratives of deceit, betrayal, and mistrust that would make a muckraker’s mouth water.
Let’s get this “muckraker” thing straight first. In our current media marriage of celebrity and cable TV, the term is one of honor. Actually, President Teddy Roosevelt popularized it as a denigrating label in a 1906 speech celebrating the laying of a cornerstone to a House of Representatives office building. He distorted a popular parable of the time with a blistering attack on “the Man with the Muck Rake,” or journalists of his era who focused relentlessly on dishing the dirt, including several who wrote for McClure’s. No one was a better example of Roosevelt’s ire than Steffens, who rose to fame and fortune largely because of stories like the “The Shame of Minneapolis” and others that he wrote for Samuel McClure.
Roosevelt’s speech actually shocked Steffens. He had close ties to the President dating back to Roosevelt’s days as police superintendent in New York – a relationship that raises all manner of journalistic ethical questions. But McClure probably wasn’t so surprised. He didn’t trust Steffens a bit. A dated but good biography of McClure by his grandson, the late Peter Lyon, published in 1963, quotes numerous letters that document McClure’s skepticism about his famed writer’s inability to stick to the facts. In one letter McClure wrote to John Phillips, his trusted partner dating from their days at Knox College, McClure aired his concerns about a piece that Steffens had written about corruption in Pittsburgh:
I have been thinking seriously about the attitude that Steffens always takes with regards to the people, and I not only feel he is wrong in his attitude but that such an attitude is wrong and . . . calculated to lessen the value of the article . . . I want to go over the Pittsburgh article very carefully before it is published, and I want to go over these matters again with Steffens. I think that the article to begin with should be free from bias. . . . Steffens has the notion that the businessman is a coward and that the businessman is to blame for political corruption and he makes every fact bend to this notion. He must disabuse himself of any predilections in the matter and write things up as he finds them.
Phillips edited Steffens' article very heavily, complying with McClure’s instructions.
What I find most interesting in Lyon’s account is McClure’s demand that Steffens not simplistically focus on the crook but also on those citizens who by voting wrong or by not voting at all permitted the crooks to seize and wield power.
An even more fascinating relationship is the one between McClure and Ida Tarbell. She rose to fame at the magazine as one of the nation’s original female “investigative reporters” at a time when women were relegated to journalism’s sidelines if they got to play at all. McClure plucked her from a relatively obscure career as a freelance writer in Paris, brought her back to America and got her to write for McClure’s a richly illustrated seven-part history of Napoleon that sent his newly minted-magazine’s circulation to more than 100,000, an extraordinary feat. Before the last part on the French general ran, McClure, eager for another hit, sent her packing to Kentucky to write a series on Abraham Lincoln’s early years with the admonition: “Out with you! Look, see, report.” For good measure, he told her to take some bed socks because “it gets terribly cold in Kentucky.”
But her masterpiece came after McClure promoted her to managing editor of McClure’s. One day while discussing subjects worthy of the magazine’s attention, McClure suggested that the magazine needed some reporting on how business and industry conspired to form trusts designed to control the country’s rich natural resources. After a few false starts on other trusts, Tarbell, with McClure’s enthusiastic backing, took on the powerful Standard Oil Company. What started as a series of three articles grew to nineteen devastating pieces in McClure’s brimming with facts and evidence of dishonesty that led to a break-up of the company and a celebrated a book that spread her fame.
“The way you are generally esteemed and reverenced pleases me,” McClure wrote to Tarbell. “You are today the most generally famous woman in America. You have achieved a great distinction. People universally speak of you with such a reverence that I am getting sort of afraid of you.”
As it turned out, his fear was well founded.
Tarbell, who was as fond of McClure's wife, Hattie as she was of the editor, became disenchanted with McClure’s marital infidelity with his paramours, his frequent travel to Europe, and a pattern of erratic behavior that vacillated between genius and madness. She was not alone. Eventually she conspired with his long-time business partner John Phillips and others in a bruising attempt to wrest control of McClure’s from him by using stock that he had given her. The uprising caused no end of acrimony and eventually led to the mass resignations of Phillips, Tarbell, Steffens, and Ray Stannard Baker, another celebrated muckraker, among others. McClure’s and McClure never quite survived the revolution, regardless of who was right.
After the internal warfare, the magazine entered that familiar downward cycle of financial problems, cost-cutting, loss of quality and musical-chair ownership that we see so often today as once robust media empires struggle to survive. William Randolph Hearst bought McClure’s in 1925 and turned it into a tawdry romance magazine. It was later resold to a no-name entrepreneur who renamed it, “The New McClure’s, a Man’s Magazine.” It died in barber shops, unmourned, in 1930.
In his biography, Lyon wondered why a celebrated and famed editor such as his grandfather had been so overlooked by history. Perhaps it is because he was a journalist, Lyon speculated. Nothing dies faster than yesterday’s newspaper or last month’s magazine. Another reason: history rewards the writers with fame; not the editors who guide and make their work praiseworthy.
One thing that did endure was the journalism McClure demanded of his writers. Regardless of whose hand guided the stories of corruption in Minneapolis or the rapacious, monopolistic greed of Standard Oil, Steffens and Tarbell’s stories survived the test of time, primarily because their editor demanded and got meticulous reporting of the facts. He didn’t take it easy on the reader and pretend that journalism had to be “fun,” entertaining, or spoon-fed in tweets -- or their 20th century equivalents -- or sound bites. McClure knew he was dealing with serious stuff, and that journalism, unlike cats, doesn’t have nine lives.
James O’Shea is an author and journalist in Chicago. Prior to returning to Chicago in 2014, he was the Howard R. Marsh Visiting Professor of Journalism at the University of Michigan. A former executive editor of the Los Angeles Times and managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, he is the author of three books, including The Deal From Hell, a non-fiction narrative about the tragedy that sent the Tribune Company, owner of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, into the hands of real estate mogul Sam Zell and bankruptcy court. O’Shea is also a co-founder and former editor of the Chicago News Cooperative, a journalistic start-up that produced Chicago news for its own website and the Midwest edition of The New York Times. Prior to his news management career, O’Shea was a reporter, editor and Washington correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and the Des Moines Register.