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From AJR,   October/November 2011  issue

A Journalism Dynasty   

The Magnificent Medills The McCormick-Patterson Dynasty: America’s Royal Family of Journalism During a Century of Turbulent Splendor

By Megan McKinney

HarperCollins

464 pages; $27.99

Wed. August 31, 2011


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

Journalists like to joke that they aren't "normal" people. Reading this book makes you think that they are right and the difference matters.

"The Magnificent Medills" traces 100 years and four generations of the family whose legacy includes the Chicago Tribune , New York's Daily News , the now-defunct Washington Times-Herald and Newsday .

Told one way, it is the story of a dissolute, ego-driven clan notorious for Hall of Fame levels of drinking, carousing, jealousies and soap operatic dysfunction.

From another angle, though, we see a family of swashbuckling, creative prodigies who leveraged their rich experiences into a canny understanding of what audiences want and sustained their success far longer than most media dynasties.

People who lead sensational lives, it all suggests, often beget sensational journalism as well.

Chicago writer Megan McKinney tells both versions in a book that is constantly insightful if too cheerfully salacious. Its cast may not quite reach Pulitzer-Hearst eminence but the lineage is formidable:

• Joseph Medill, the patriarch, an abolitionist and onetime Chicago mayor whose 1855 purchase of the Chicago Daily Tribune launched an empire

• His daughters, Kate McCormick and Nellie Patterson, called by their own father "the worst two she-devils in all Chicago," whose children extended the dynasty

• Robert R. "Bert" McCormick, Kate's son, whose mother dressed him in girls' clothing and called him Roberta; later known as the Colonel for decorated war heroism, he triumphed as the larger-than-life baron of the Chicago Tribune

• Cissy Patterson, Nellie's daughter, disturbingly described here as "an international socialite" whose "supple body" was a "magnet for men" who "frequently..were married to others," but in fact a gifted writer, editor and publisher who "perfected the modern woman's page" and transformed the Washington Times-Herald with aggressive coverage

• Joe Medill Patterson, her brother, who after dallying with socialism and the literary life forged his own groundbreaking creation: New York's tabloid Daily News , devoted, on his orders, to "Love/Sex, Money and Murder – in that order"

• Alicia Patterson, Joe's daughter and Cissy's niece, a hands-on writer and editor whose "towering achievement" was overseeing the birth and success of Newsday

In all journalism history, it's hard to find a roster to match this one. At one point, three different Joseph Medill grandchildren controlled the largest-circulation newspapers in New York, Chicago and Washington. "Creating new formats and stretching concepts of journalism," McKinney writes, "they pressed for quality and repeatedly advanced their profession..The Medill achievement was..monumental."

Though generalizing is risky, some Medill characteristics seem to stand out, starting with vision. Founder Joseph, for example, recognized the rising importance of both hard news and firm opinions. He befriended emerging stars, including a young man named Abe Lincoln. He and his heirs pushed the Tribune toward "a dignity and substance" beyond its competitors.

They innovated. Joe Patterson popularized the comic strip. The company imported Chicago's first rotogravure press. Col. McCormick built a "comprehensive media business," anticipating change long before many rivals.

And they hired brilliantly. They also (and how sadly quaint this now seems) provided "exceptional benefits," including above-average pay, medical and home-financing assistance, lavish wedding gifts and even a "drunk bank" for "workers who found themselves without money the day after a bender."

McKinney presents these stories thoroughly and interestingly, but her stress on the prurient can be off-putting. Tales of alcoholism, affairs (often with subordinates), scandals and suicides abound.

Cissy Patterson, in particular, receives harsh treatment. McKinney repeatedly describes her, and other women, by their physical traits. Still, McKinney does also document the professional successes, and the overall feel of the book is respectful. Biography, like news, tends to float between the sordid and the sublime.

This book may not provide a practical model for aspiring journalists, but it does bring inspiration and important lessons. In an age where much journalism is homogenized and freeze-dried, it's good to be reminded that passion and personality count.