Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Deadlines & Monkeyshines: The Fabled World of Chicago Journalism

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, July 21, 2014

“Telegraph fully all news and when there is no news send rumor.”

The past is a dark place to look into; despite all of the paeans to a golden age of journalism, John J. McPhaul describes a world very much like our own, but without the Internet to shine a light on journalism’s monkeyshines.

RecommendationWorth reading
AuthorJohn J. McPhaul
Year1962
Length312 pages
Book Rating6
Chicago press, 1924

“Press group waits in Criminal Courts Building Memorial Day night, 1924, for expected confession of Nathan F. Leopold and Richard Loeb.” Author John J. McPhaul is person number 3.

Deadlines & Monkeyshines is a glimpse into an ancient world of titans: a world where, rather than one newspaper, or two cooperating newspapers, a city might have four or even five newspapers all competing for as much readership as they could steal from their rivals—or make without their rivals picking up on it until after press time.

John J. McPhaul came up in the tail end of that era, and his anecdotes are about Chicago, but I expect that the same kinds of stories could be found in any frontier-born city. At the time McPhaul wrote Deadlines & Monkeyshines, there were only two newspaper publishers, and only four papers, with each publisher putting out a morning and afternoon edition. But the world he tells about is a world where newspapers could start overnight on the shoestring of a whim and end just as quickly.

Many of the problems we complain about today existed then—they were just only told about in the backrooms and over card tables on the dog watch. McPhaul describes such a late-night card game on page one, consisting of two to three reporters, a sergeant or lieutenant, and possibly a bookmaker or bondsman.

They, as today, thrived on violence. During the 1894 Pullman Company strike, newsmen wrote the following irreverent ditty:

    • War correspondents bold are we
    • And our trade is grim and grey.
    • Peace and quiet suit us not—
    • We want war and we want it hot!

McPhaul also reproduces the Wilbur Storey quote above, but in the context of being a Democrat who

…was no admirer of President Lincoln or the Republican party. He seemed principally interested in the war as a means of selling papers. His standing order to his reporters with the troops was “Telegraph fully all news and when there is no news send rumors.” News and rumors alike were published under exclamatory headlines.

Even modern gremlins such as the sock puppet were exercised by early reporters, in the form of journalists writing letters to the editor under pseudonyms.

Even back then government officials knew how to trade access for good publicity.

No recital of friendly folks on the public payroll would be complete without a bow to the prohibition agents. For some reason they were unable to find the plants of the big mobs, and they were eager for publicity when they knocked over the minor leaguers. They would telephone the papers from the scene of such raids. The assignments were attractive. In return for a picture and kind words the agents invited newsmen to help themselves.

McPhaul had his own experiences with the prohibition era. “Oddly enough, I knew of such a place,” he wrote, when asked about where to find a place to drink by a colleague in town as part of presidential candidate Al Smith’s press train, and then, with a friend, acquiring medicinal bourbon.

We were then paying, when the prohibition agents failed us, $6.50 a pint for so-called medicinal bourbon. Deciding to vary our diet we called again on our rye-peddling friend. I had $10 ready. He sold us a pint for $1.50. We left it unopened in a cab. We were afraid to drink it. It was too cheap. If it had cost $10 we would have enjoyed every drop.

It was safer to drink with judges, because they had the Board of Health analyze confiscated booze before sharing it with friendly journalists.

Of course, it wasn’t just the government trading favors for advertising. The madams of Chicago were also friendly. “Of all the madams the sisters, Minna and Ada Everleigh were the most hospitable to newspapermen. They liked to see their names in the papers. They believed in advertising.”

On one occasion when a big fire broke out in the early morning hours a Tribune assistant city editor phoned Calumet 412 and found the reporters he needed to cover the story at the Everleigh.

A similar experience occurred first-hand to McPhaul,

…as the dog watch copy boy on the Herald-Examiner. Around 4 o’clock of a Sunday morning a train and a trolley car collided, killing a dozen people. Hurrying to two speak-easies within sight of the Hearst Building I found reporters, rewrite men, printers, press men—a full crew to turn out an extra.

McPhaul ends the book with a lament for those days of late-night cries of stop the presses sent out to bordellos and speakeasies.

It is just as well that radio and TV have made the extra superfluous. Newspapermen now go home nights. More than that, they majority are commuters. It’s a long trek from the suburbs to the plants. In a 4 A.M. emergency you could never round up a squad in time.

The book is filled with these fascinating and disheartening anecdotes. Frank Carson, McPhaul’s boss early in his career, convinced the wife of a convicted/accused murderer to go on a hunger strike to make news. Newspapers, in the rush to make news, fingered the wrong culprit for the Great Chicago Fire. Reporters yell questions of visiting politicians in a manner that cannot be heard, then rewrite the nods and faint smiles into statements. There appears nothing new under the sun. Nor the times nor the tribune, for that matter.

Deadlines & Monkeyshines: The Fabled World of Chicago Journalism

John J. McPhaul

Recommendation: Worth reading

If you enjoyed Deadlines & Monkeyshines: The Fabled World of Chicago Journalism…

If you enjoy Chicago, you might also be interested in Call Northside 777, The Best of Mike Royko: One More Time, For the Love of Mike: More of the Best of Mike Royko, Boss, and Billy Goat Tavern.

If you enjoy The Dream of Poor Bazin, you might also be interested in Intellectuals and Society, Scoop, The First Casualty, Advise & Consent, For the Love of Mike: More of the Best of Mike Royko, Call Northside 777, The Best of Mike Royko: One More Time, The Tyranny of Clichés, All the President’s Men, World Chancelleries, Liberal Fascism, The Elements of Journalism, Letters to a Young Journalist, Inside the Beltway: A Guide to Washington Reporting, The Vintage Mencken, A Matter of Opinion, Kolchak: The Night Stalker (TV Series), Front Row at the White House, The Prince of Darkness, The Vision of the Anointed, The Powers That Be, and The Dream of Poor Bazin (Official Site).

If you enjoy journalism, you might also be interested in Kolchak: The Night Stalker (TV Series), All the President’s Men, Call Northside 777, The President’s freelancers, Confirmation journalism and the death penalty, Fighting for the American Dream, Mike Royko: A Life in Print, The World of Mike Royko, Fit to Print: A.M. Rosenthal and His Times, A Reporter’s Life, Inside the Beltway: A Guide to Washington Reporting, Letters to a Young Journalist, The Elements of Journalism, All the President’s Men, The First Casualty, Scoop, and Are these stories true?.

If you enjoy newspapers, you might also be interested in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.