What newspaper can lay claim to having had the finest local newspaper staff ever assembled?
While journalism lacks “all-century team” distinctions such as those in the sports world, there would certainly be no shortage of contenders. The Philadelphia Inquirer during its years under Eugene Roberts comes to mind, as does the Watergate-era Washington Post – or today’s Post, for that matter. At The New York Times, one could pick between any number of eras.
A fitting yardstick would be Pulitzer Prizes, especially those won for a range of stories that displayed a staff’s versatility. And best of all might be Pulitzer gold medals, recognizing the paper that makes the year’s top public-service contribution – a class glowingly represented in 2003 by the Boston Globe, for its work on the sexual abuse scandal involving Catholic priests. Of the Inquirer’s total of 17 Pulitzers from 1975 to 1990 – all Roberts years – two were for public service. The Post, which won the 1973 gold medal for its Watergate coverage, managed in 1999 and 2000 to become the only paper ever to win it two years running.
Using such criteria, though, there may be a runaway choice for all-time honors: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of the mid-1930s to the early 1950s, which dominated the public service Pulitzer-winning with a run of remarkable campaigns. In a 15-year stretch – under a single publisher, a handful of top editors, and with essentially the same reporting staff – the paper earned five gold medals, more than any other publication has won over the entire 86-year history of the Pulitzer Prizes. (By contrast, the public-service prizes of The New York Times, which along with the Los Angeles Times owns four, span 84 years, with its last being its 2002 prize for coverage after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in “A Nation Challenged.”)
The prolific Post-Dispatch crusaders covered a wide range of topics, with the powerful impact that Pulitzer Prize boards always have demanded from their winners. In earning the 1937 public-service prize, a revelation of massive St. Louis election fraud showed cities how “boss rule” could be kept in check. In 1941, the award was for a stunningly successful anti-smoke-pollution campaign, an early environmental drive that provided a model for other blighted cities, including Pittsburgh. Returning veteran staffers after World War II helped produce an extensive team expose of how governmental wrongdoing caused a deadly Illinois coal mine explosion in 1947. The paper disclosed newspaper editors on the Illinois state payroll in 1949, kicking off a national press-ethics scandal. And two years later, it revealed systematic federal-tax payoffs, sparking reforms in the “Internal Revenue Bureau.” (Indeed, the name change that came after that 1952 Pulitzer-winner means that, quite literally, taxpayers have the Post-Dispatch to thank for the Internal Revenue Service.)
How did one Midwestern paper launch so many successful crusades in so few years? In addition to an inspired staff of reporters that was managed in an almost military environment by editors O.K. Bovard, Ben Reese and Raymond Crowley, the newsroom thrived under one of journalism’s truly underrated figures, Editor and Publisher Joseph Pulitzer II.
“J.P. II,” the son of the journalism pioneer who founded the Post-Dispatch and who established the Pulitzer Prizes to be administered by Columbia University, ran the paper from his father’s death in 1911 until his own in 1955. In managing it through all five of its public service Pulitzer Prizes – and countless other crusades as well – a strong force was with him: the stirring 82-word statement of principle known as the “Post-Dispatch platform.” Still printed daily on the editorial page, the platform was written in 1907 by the first Joseph Pulitzer. It committed the paper to “never tolerate injustice or corruption,” to “fight for progress and reform” and “never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.”
It is perhaps a romantic-sounding notion now. (“Journalism’s first law,” jokes former Wall Street Journal writing guru Bill Blundell, is that “the more inspiring the inscriptions in the lobby, the worse the paper.”) But the declaration was law back then in the Post-Dispatch newsroom. And it led the paper to focus its news and editorial-page resources on what the staff dubbed “platform stories” – campaigns for civic betterment, or on behalf of the poor or disenfranchised. That meant involving its extraordinary cartoonist, Daniel R. Fitzpatrick, who brought his macabre wit to projects.
Yet strangely, for reasons of his own, J.P. II did little to publicize the paper’s public service achievements beyond entering the stories for the prize. And when it did sketchily tell its own story – in company literature, for example – it rarely mentioned the names of individual editors and reporters involved.
THE ‘GHOST VOTERS’
As its prize-winning era began, the news pages were in the hands of hard-driving managing editor Oliver K. Bovard. Known for his ability to turn nitty-gritty reporting into blockbuster stories – and a staff that revered him the way troops revere a great general – Bovard was something of a national press legend in the 1930s. A reporter “had only to show that he had worked under Bovard on the Post-Dispatch, and he could get a job almost anywhere,” wrote biographer James Markham.
The tip that started the vote-fraud investigation came from a citizen who had collected evidence of fraud in an earlier bond issue and who suggested that city bosses were creating phony registrations in abandoned buildings to control the 1936 primary. To counter any institutionalized concealment of fraud, Bovard had City Editor Reese and Assistant City Editor Crowley form a large team to check voter lists against registered addresses.
Selwyn Pepper, now 87, who was a 21-year-old cub reporter on the team, remembers clearly a man at one flophouse having no problem confirming each name on the list. “He kept saying yes to everything,” Pepper recalled. “So I asked if Ben Reese lived there. And he said yes. Did Raymond Crowley live there? Yes.” The reporter fed his notes to a rewrite man, then left with another list to check. “It was thrilling,” said Pepper, “and also exhausting.”
Starting on July 22, under the headline “Wholesale Frauds Found in Primary Registration in City,” the paper presented six days of evidence indicating that thousands of fraudulent names were on the rolls. Fitzpatrick pictured literal “ghost” voters lining up at the polls. A reluctant election board eventually buckled to public pressure and ordered a registration review. And on July 31, the Post-Dispatch carried the results: 46,011 phony names, nearly 15 percent of the legitimate city registration – suggesting that party hacks were ready to throw the election.
“By a coordinated news, editorial and cartoon campaign, this newspaper succeeded in invalidating upwards of 40,000 fraudulent ballots in November and brought about the appointment of a new election board,” the Pulitzer Prize judges said in awarding the paper’s first gold medal. They were validating a crusading operation that was just starting to roll.
ST. LOUIS QUITS SMOKING
Bovard left the Post-Dispatch in 1938, and he was replaced as managing editor by Reese. But it was the publisher himself, J.P. II, who inspired the campaign that won its next prize. Awarded eight months before Pearl Harbor, it was for a civic war against a daunting enemy: the smoke that had made St. Louis America’s filthiest city.
J.P., who traveled regularly to a second home in pristine Bar Harbor, Maine, was particularly shocked by St. Louis’ smoke pollution. For decades, clean-up plans had been ineffective. But in 1939, the sooty skies were blamed for the city recording its first population drop since 1764. The boss ordered Reese’s team to propose a solution that would work.
In its nomination letter to the Pulitzer Prize committee, the paper said it used “the traditional Post-Dispatch method of thorough preparation, clear exposition [and] aggressive and intelligent advocacy.” The veteran reporter most responsible was Sam J. Shelton, who spent months interviewing experts and studying technological and cost angles. His plan of attack was translated into a Sunday, Nov. 26, editorial modestly headlined “An Approach to the Smoke Problem.” It began: “St. Louis has been talking about smoke for 50 years. Now let’s do something about it.”
At the plan’s heart was a call for the city to ask producers of smokeless fuels to bid for the city’s business. It would then acquire clean fuel and resell it to dealers and individuals. And there was nothing modest about the combination of visceral and visionary coverage that followed. Fitzpatrick’s charcoal depicted a city in the grip of smokestack emissions “going down in smoke.” In the news pages, Shelton had to explain just what smokeless fuels were; St. Louis was a slave to cheap high-sulfur soft coal from across the river in southern Illinois, and it considered gas, oil and coke alternatives an impossible luxury. Reese had staffers focus on budding technologies, especially ones applicable to Illinois coal.
From the start, the St. Louis weather added a frightful sense of urgency. As the stories began running, readers looked out their windows to terrifying sooty darkness – the result of freak atmospheric conditions. “St. Louis Chokes in Smoke,” proclaimed one headline. One photo showed in near-total daytime blackness Carl Milles’ new “Meeting of the Waters” fountain, criticized by some for a lack of drapery over its nude figures. The caption: “No veil needed.”
Smoke-regulation commissioner Raymond R. Tucker – an engineering professor later to serve three terms as mayor on the strength of the successful cleanup – welcomed the Post-Dispatch plan, and an ordinance was quickly enacted. The paper gave industry a chance to play good guy with an “Anti-Smoke Roll of Honor” that eventually contained 841 names. Put to a one-year test, demonstrated in before-and-after photos in the winter of 1940, the plan passed dramatically. A December cartoon showed smoky ghosts rising from other cities, peering across the Mississippi and asking St. Louis “How Did You Manage to Quit Smoking?”
DISASTER IN CENTRALIA
Like many American businesses, the Post-Dispatch lost nearly half its employees to the war effort – including about 20 local reporters. Reassembled in 1946 under Reese and J.P., these members of “the greatest generation” found their tolerance low for corruption of the kind mentioned in the paper’s platform. Many – like Selwyn Pepper, who had served on General Douglas MacArthur’s staff in the Pacific – felt confident they could right about any wrong.
Illinois government, under Republican Governor Dwight H. Green, was rife with graft and cronyism. So J.P. and Reese focused on Illinois affairs. And soon, a story broke that highlighted the best in the Post-Dispatch staff – and the worst of the Green machine.
On the evening of March 25, 1947, Pepper got a call at home from Assistant City Editor Crowley, ordering him to the scene of a coal mine explosion in Centralia, Ill. “I was coming down with a cold or something. But a word from the city editor was a word from God, and you didn’t dare say, ‘I don’t feel well; I don’t think I ought to go.’ You went,” said Pepper. Once there, he found a “whole tableau sitting right in front of me: All the wives of miners under the lights, trying to find out what was happening. And it quickly became apparent that the miners were trapped down below, and might not get out alive.”
Incredibly, reporter Harry Wilensky had written a front-page story six days earlier about a “shakedown” of Illinois coal mine operators for political contributions. Wilensky headed the six-person Post-Dispatch team, giving coverage of the wrenching disaster a second element: government wrongdoing and coal-company collusion. His second-day story started shockingly:
CENTRALIA, Ill., March 27–Workers in the Centralia Coal Co. mine from which bodies are now being removed begged Gov. Dwight H. Green of Illinois more than a year ago to “please save our lives” by making the State Department of Mines and Minerals enforce safety regulations in the mine.
Three of the four miners who had pleaded with the governor in a letter, it turned out, were among the 111 dead in the explosion. Pepper remembers that Wilensky had found what the reporters dubbed “the save-our-lives memo” on a bulletin board as he had rooted around the shambles of the mine entrance in the dark.
The newspaper’s double-edged coverage – written with compassion, but targeting corruption – got a major boost from an emotional J.P. A remarkable internal memo to Reese said that because the paper had “so often had to damn the miners and their leader” over union issues, it “is our peculiar duty to turn ourselves inside out to get to the bottom” of Centralia safety abuses.
While other papers abandoned the story after the bodies were recovered, the Post-Dispatch picked up its pace. In an interview, one mine inspector told Wilensky that warnings about a potential mine disaster had led a higher-up to remark: “We’ll have to take that chance.” A Fitzpatrick cartoon portrayed a helmeted skeleton confronting company and state officials with the chilling words, “You Gambled But I Paid.”
The 1948 Pulitzer Prize cited both the paper’s disaster coverage and its follow-up, resulting in “impressive reforms in mine safety laws and regulations.”
As the 1948 election approached – Green eventually was trounced by Democrat Adlai Stevenson, even though President Truman’s Illinois victory margin was razor thin – the Post-Dispatch correspondent in the Illinois capital of Springfield was Roy J. Harris, this writer’s late father. Another Army veteran, having returned home from the Pacific as a lieutenant colonel, Harris had served in all three previous Pulitzer public-service campaigns.
In 1949, he met George Thiem of the Chicago Daily News, and the two formed a two-man team to examine leftover stories of Green administration corruption. Thiem had been “impressed by the need for newspapermen to work together more closely to accomplish something for good government and the welfare of the taxpayers generally, rather than to struggle for individual journalistic scoops,” he later wrote.
The first hint that newspaper editors might be on the state payroll had come a month before the November election, when Harris noted suspicious names while researching a routine article on state expenses. A statehouse employee suggested to the two reporters “that further investigation might be productive,” according to Harris, and he and Thiem began checking together, going over numerous volumes, organized by county, that together listed all 35,000 state employees. It took more than two weeks, with interruptions – including a fatal hospital fire in a nearby town they had to cover – but a routine was established: one read off names of newspaper employees from a card file, while the other checked them against the payrolls.
Finally, the night of April 13, the two men set up their typewriters in Harris’ hotel room and filed their stories. They listed staff members of 32 Illinois publications, most holding “gravy train jobs” on the payroll, such as field investigator or messenger clerk. More names were later confirmed, and by May 6 the total of newspaper staffers was 51, with their payroll amounts exceeding $480,000 from 1941 to 1949.
When many other papers around the nation failed to pick up the Harris-Thiem stories, yet another press-ethics scandal ensued – over the responsibility of the media to air its own dirty linen. The Washington Post editorialized that “[A]t best, this looks like crass indifference to a particularly juicy bit of news. At worst it looks like a cover-up of scandal within the family.”
After the story finally did spread, Newsweek described the Post-Dispatch and Daily News expose as “a grueling stint of the kind of tedious digging reporting that Hollywood forgot to glamorize. There were no murderers to be tracked down by Roy Harris … or George Thiem. … No witnesses to lock in the closet.” Instead, they pored “doggedly over long lists of names.” The Pulitzer judges awarded 1950 public-service gold medals jointly to the Post-Dispatch and Chicago Daily News, and in a highly unusual step for the time, noted that the award was for Harris’ and Thiem’s work.
THE TAX MAN TAKETH
Theodore C. Link, returning to the Post-Dispatch in 1945 with a wound received as a Marine sergeant at Bougainville, threw himself back into the job with a leatherneck’s fervor – taking on Green machine abuses and Illinois gang stories, and sometimes toting a gun for protection. In 1951, he was tipped about illicit payments going to U.S. Internal Revenue agents. Under-the-table deals were being struck with the subjects of tax investigations, who were then let off the hook.
Pitching his stories to Crowley, who had taken over as managing editor after Reese’s retirement, Link plowed ahead with a handful of other reporters. Pepper worked “rewrite” for Link, who rarely wrote his own stories. The resulting articles were powerful – disclosing, for example, how influential lawyers “fixed” tax cases almost routinely with friendly public officials in Washington, St. Louis and elsewhere. In one year, 63 percent of the tax cases approved for prosecution had been killed by Internal Revenue regional counsels or by President Truman’s Justice Department.
A federal grand jury in St. Louis at one point received a U.S. report saying there was no evidence of tax fixing, although the judge told the jury that the report was fishy. Link was able to learn that it had been written at the suggestion of Truman’s attorney general, J. Howard McGrath. A national scandal erupted over how Washington had withheld evidence.
Meanwhile, the coverage began providing juicy details of financial arrangements behind some of the payoffs, the most damning of which involved American Lithofold Corp., a St. Louis printer with government contracts. The paper reported that the company’s federal tax collector was on the American Lithofold payroll, and that William M. Boyle, no less a personage than the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was on the company’s board. (Boyle, it turned out, had been instrumental in helping American Lithofold win government loans. He later resigned, while the “payrolling” tax collector went to prison.)
The editorial page strongly supported the campaign, and one Fitzpatrick cartoon pictured bureaucrats falling like grains of salt from a dollhouselike Internal Revenue building. The caption: “Shake ’Em All Out.” And the Post-Dispatch just about did.
The campaign’s extensive results were listed in the paper’s coverage of the 1952 public-service Pulitzer it had won – starting with the total reorganization of the tax bureau (with 81 top jobs shifted to civil service), and the new IRS name. Eight revenue collectors were fired or forced to resign, and two ended up behind bars. In all, there were 380 discharges or resignations, and more than a dozen employees were indicted. And Truman also fired attorney general McGrath.
The Post-Dispatch, which had continued for the entire run of public-service awards to play down its achievements after the fact, rarely mentioned any individual staffer involved – and didn’t name Link, even in its own news-analysis article describing how it had won the prize.
As for the fifth gold medal, it eventually joined the four others on the wall of the publisher’s private office – without any public recognition that the Post-Dispatch staff had just achieved something unique in American journalism.
Roy Harris is a senior editor at CFO Magazine.