With hoopla and heroism, Frederick Cook and Robert Peary battled high winds, plunging temperatures, encroaching ice, and each other in their quest to be the first to reach the North Pole. And with hype and headlines, the New York Herald and the New York Times engaged in a parallel battle, to increase their presence and their power in a fiercely competitive Manhattan newspaper environment. None of them emerged unscathed.
The combination of the two clashes — the explorers and the editors — produced one of the great spectacles of the early twentieth century. And while the New York newspaper wars have been the subject of scores of books and polar expeditions have inspired writers for generations, Darrell Hartman had the insight to connect them in Battle of Ink and Ice, a lively account of how the papers sometimes went nuts and the explorers sometimes went missing.
Of course, the exploration of the Far North has been a Western preoccupation for centuries, first in the hunt for the Northwest Passage and then in the race to the North Pole. There was good reason to look for the maritime passageway to China: riches awaited, trade beckoned. There was less at stake in the search for the North Pole, where there was no distinctive landscape to conquer and certainly no candy-cane-striped marker to provide what later generations would call a photo opportunity. With no resource to mine, no site to examine for colonization, no financial windfall to reap, there really was no reason to go there — except that it was there. The magnetic attraction — forgive me here — was both real and metaphorical.
At best, the polar regions were, as Hartman puts it, “an exotic proving ground for individual and national mettle.” And for the newspapermen of the day — whose primary search was for readers — the North Pole was simply irresistible. It was all part of what Roy Hattersley described in The Edwardians, from 2004, as the “idea of campaigns, as a way of increasing circulation as well as changing the world.” One small step for mankind, one giant leap for periodical promotion.
At the heart of this competition, as at the heart of Hartman’s book, is the turbocharged renewal of a newspaper proclivity: the pursuit of the meaningless as a media phenomenon. James Gordon Bennett Jr., the publisher of the Herald, loved this sort of thing, in large measure because the public loved this sort of thing. In 1871, he had dispatched Henry Morton Stanley to Africa to track down David Livingstone, who was himself looking for the source of the Nile. The creation of a journalistic sensation was at the start of journalistic tradition.
Bennett — characterized here as “a moneyed young rapscallion”— wasn’t the only figure in newspapering who thought that the quest for adventure was as important as or even more important than the quest for the truth in conventional civic affairs, such as what the governor in Albany or the president in Washington was doing. Bennett and his paper sponsored Cook’s endeavour, while Adolph Ochs, the publisher of the Times, championed Peary’s.
Today it hardly matters whether Cook or Peary was first to the North Pole, especially since there is no irrefutable evidence that either actually got there. In 1909 it didn’t really matter either, though popular sentiment and the two newspapers cared — and cared mightily. The publishers paid no mind to the acting chief of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, who said that “pole hunting is a sportsman’s job” and that “the scientific value of the discovery is very slight.” At stake was little besides circulation and prestige, at a time when circulation depended on prestige, and vice versa. Off to the Arctic they went.
Hartman walks us through the commotion that brewed when Cook arrived in Denmark, full of (probably authentic) bravado and (probably false) claims and — this genre of detail was a feast for the public then, as it is, admittedly, for readers today — with broken teeth, allegedly from masticating frozen walrus hide. Who could doubt such a man’s claims? Then again, who should believe them? The result was both sensation and skepticism, though not in equal measure. Could he possibly have travelled fifteen miles a day in Arctic conditions? Were the details of his expedition even remotely credible? Probably not, but no matter. A hero he was, until he wasn’t.
As complex and controversial as Cook was, Peary was his equal even as he was his opposite. He was, in Hartman’s characterization, “one of the thorniest characters in the history of exploration.” Wildly competitive, reckless, thirsty for glory, he made his claim of North Pole conquest just as his rival was being feted in Denmark. A coincidence? A contrivance? Who knew? Who cared? “Never had news of a great exploring triumph compounded so dramatically,” Hartman tells us.
Explorers and adventurers had plied these waters before, all in failure. It took climate change and sophisticated icebreakers — some of the latter from China, one of the intended destinations of Jacques Cartier, Henry Hudson, and others — for the Northwest Passage to actually be passable. The repeated failures to find the sea lane that began with John Cabot at the end of the fifteenth century only made the search for the North Pole at the beginning of the twentieth century more appealing, especially to the newly popular New York newspapers that were, in essence, the new media of the time, or at least an old form of media with new energy (and new money to sponsor modern adventurers).
Hartman argues that under Bennett, the Herald spoke the language of the Gilded Age. It spoke to — and about — the wealthy. Like the age, the Herald was fast. The Times, meanwhile, was fusty. In truth, the Times waded only tentatively and reluctantly into Arctic waters. Indeed, the paper even asked the question that others dared not utter: essentially, wondering why people were wasting their efforts with this entire venture. It went so far as to suggest that “the only men who should be sent to the pole are those who ought not to return.” That view would change, for as times changed, the Times changed. (Eventually, it always does. Until 1987, for example, the Gray Lady confined the use of the word “gay” to the meaning “lighthearted” and “carefree.” Then it got with it.)
Ultimately, the Times would sponsor Peary and his expedition of five white men, a “perennially underrated” young Black man, eighteen Inuit guides, nineteen sledges, and 133 dogs. (If that seems a bit much, consider that Mikaela Shiffrin took sixty pairs of skis to the 2022 Winter Olympics and that Taylor Swift’s ongoing concert tour requires fifty transport trucks packed with audio and lighting equipment.)
By the time the two adventurers returned with their tales and their claims, passions were so raw that Peary felt liberated — maybe obligated, maybe desperate enough — to break a long-standing taboo by questioning the achievements of another explorer. In an act that Hartman says “would haunt him for years to come,” he charged that Cook had never been to the North Pole. Then again, Hartman tells us, “Peary’s narrative failed to meet the elevated standard of evidence to which his supporters were now holding Cook.” There followed vicious rhetorical warfare and debate. It finally appeared that Cook had cheated — and hadn’t reached 90 degrees north after all. Neither, in the estimation of experts, had Peary.
As for the Herald and the Times, they eventually abandoned the adventure business and emerged as sober journalistic enterprises that, together, produced a golden age of newspapering. The Herald morphed into the Herald Tribune and, until its eventual demise in 1966, was one of the shimmery emblems of American culture, the winner of a dozen Pulitzer Prizes, and the home of such luminous writers as Tom Wolfe, John Steinbeck, Walter Lippmann, and Jimmy Breslin. The Times was and is — well, the Times, and though denigrated by Donald Trump as “failing,” it has won 137 Pulitzers and, through its brave publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, has fortified the power and prerogatives of the American press. It has had, to be sure, its share of peccadilloes and some crimes, including its boosterism of the 2003 Iraq war. Yet it is an indispensable part of American life. The Peary expedition is but an asterisk in its history. Not a soul who, notebook in hand, is doing brave work in Ukraine right now has likely ever heard of Peary’s connection to the Times or cares a whit about the North Pole, some 4,400 kilometres away.
As Ron Verzuh argues persuasively in Printer’s Devils, a newspaper doesn’t have to be big to have a big impact. His account of the Trail News is as colourful as the pioneer paper itself, which spiced up life in the interior of British Columbia between 1895 and 1925.
In these pages, crammed with vivid characters, is the story of how a succession of country editors battled financial distress, socialists, skeptical readers, and union organizers while hustling to cover, to cite one example among many, the death of nine people when a flat-bottomed steamer sank in Kootenay Lake. Verzuh recounts how the paper covered workplace deaths at the local smelter, ownership changes of railways and mines, labour strife, the advent of a telephone exchange, an earthquake, local cricket and rifle clubs, choral society concerts, the capture of a whale, the sixteenth annual B.C. Curling Association bonspiel, and the Rebekahs, who were the women’s division of the Odd Fellows service and fraternal group. And he shows how, sad to say, the paper used slurs against Asians, Blacks, and Doukhobors.
Often the town of Trail failed to appreciate the ink-stained wretches who were its faithful, and sometimes faithless, chroniclers. The frustrated editor A. R. Babington printed this on the front page in 1910: “Bringing out a newspaper is an easy task. Anybody can do it. An actor who never earned any other plaudit than a soft tomato or an over-ripe egg will give instructions in handling news.” Sarcastically, he observed that “any old lady with just sufficient knowledge to get on a street car backwards, has positive opinions on the way a newspaper should be conducted.”
Babington’s successor, Walter Beach Willcox, argued a similar position, while also taking aim at advertisers and subscribers who didn’t pay their bills on time:
There is no enterprise that does so much for the corporation or the individual citizen as the newspaper. It stands opposed to the town knocker, the town kicker, the town fanatic and the town drones. It stands for progress as against stagnation. It is ever ready to combat the schemes of visionaries and as ready to aid the construction plans of wise and levelheaded citizens.
In my time as a newspaper editor, a century later, I often felt what Willcox expressed when he said that “the gospel truth is that there was scarcely ever a broken down and unsuccessful lawyer, preacher, doctor, teacher or politician but that thinks he is divinely fitted to become a successful editor.” I had a mantra of my own: “There are three things that are easy to do. Run someone else’s marriage. Rear someone else’s children. And edit someone else’s newspaper.”
Verzuh has produced a pleasing, affectionate account of the role of a newspaper in the life of a community. It is almost a Canadian version of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-Town Life, stories written during the period covered by Printer’s Devils, except that Verzuh’s tale is true. He is careful to report the editors’ biases and prejudices, and he notes that the paper encouraged nativist sentiments and resentments against ethnic minorities. Moreover, he is deliberate in portraying the Trail News as a business, as much as it was a journalistic enterprise, oftentimes more. In a remarkably forthcoming “Note on Historical Context,” he writes that the editors were interested “in appealing to a merchant class that supported the paper and a readership that likely shared their views,” adding, “They were part of a society that viewed anyone other than themselves as lesser beings. I do not support these racist and sexist views and I hope Printer’s Devils helps readers reject it.” Such candidness in a volume of news and nostalgia is as unusual as it is welcome.
Both Verzuh and Hartman tell stories that are about a long-ago time, when communities small and big supported the newspapers that chronicled the comings (of telephone exchanges!) and goings (of Arctic explorers!) that, through either frippery or facts, enhanced the lives of their readers. Alas, that era — rich and enriching (sometimes), noble and ennobling (most of the time) — is fast disappearing, along with a way of looking at the world, a way of sharing broad community experiences, and a way of life — at least for those of us who experienced the hoopla and the heroism, the hype and the headlines first-hand.
As all that disappears, you’ll still be able to think you can run someone else’s marriage and rear someone else’s children. Those pleasures and pastimes endure. But you may wish you had a newspaper around that you think you could run. You’ll miss us, for that reason alone or perhaps for many more, when we’re gone.