Thursday, June 15, 2017
King News by Moses Koenigsberg: Chapter 5 Part 1
King News by Moses KoenigsbergPublished by F.A. Stokes Company, 1941
At The Editorial Valhalla (part 1)link to previous installment link to next installment
“Thermopylae had its messenger of defeat, but the Alamo had none.” This is one of the inscriptions marking the historic Franciscan mission in the heart of San Antonio. It is the unofficial city slogan. Cavilers have decried the sentence as too sanguinary to be coupled with a civic outlook. It does not appear on the municipal crest. But its epic theme echoes through the programs of community convocations. The heroic last stand of 180 Texas volunteers against 3,000 Mexicans under General Santa Ana is San Antonio’s most sacred legend. Memories of two of the martyrs, Davy Crockett and James Bowie, were intertwined in schoolroom lessons. But the spirit they should have infused was absent from my return to San Antonio.
Apprehension was routed by annoyance. There would be no trial for libel. The indictment had long since been dismissed. At my father’s instance, no notice of the dismissal was forwarded to me. He reckoned shrewdly. My belief that the case was still pending might be turned to useful account. His theory was verified when Frank Ellinger told of seeing me in a prize-ring. Shook & Vander Hoeven, who had been unwilling to interfere with my work in journalism, felt differently about a pugilistic career. They subjected Ellinger to stringent questioning. His report was convincing. The cunningly worded wire was sent to drag me from an ignoble pursuit.
Tom Vander Hoeven was genuinely distressed by my explanation. But he comforted himself with a dig at my gullibility. “You were smart enough to broaden your training for journalism,” he said, “but you’re not yet smart enough to analyze a telegram. Study that message. A clever newspaperman should have asked for more facts before acting.”
My reappearance in San Antonio was highly opportune. Jeff Nordhouse considered it talismanic. Jeff was the typographical “swift” of the Southwest. He was the winner of a number of speed contests in type-setting. With Joe Hamilton and Chris Callan, fellow-typesetters, he had procured financial backing for an afternoon paper. The office would be in the printing plant of W. L. Winter, on Soledad Street, opposite the courthouse, in the center of town. All mechanical arrangements were perfected, but it remained to provide the contents of the publication. The frame was ready, but the picture was missing. The first issue had been delayed by lack of a news staff. Now, Jeff believed, my arrival at this critical point was an augury of certain success.
A new partnership of four was formed—Nordhouse, Hamilton, Callan and myself. Joe Fonda, a combination bookkeeper and circulation manager, with J. B. Pond, advertising solicitor, completed the staff. Fonda drew $12 and Pond $18 a week. Pond was the patriarch of the organization. At thirty-five, he was a veteran of canvassing campaigns of every description throughout the South. His high salary was a concession to his larger domestic responsibilities.
The Evening Star was launched with a flourish. Scores of acquaintances handled the free distribution of the first issue of 5,000 copies. That was expansive promotion in those days. The newspaper itself was palpably amateurish. But the dearth of professional polish was abundantly offset with enthusiasm. There was no perspective of experience to cramp its style or daring. Many readers found its leaven of juvenility refreshing. They were indulgent even to its sallies of sophomoric wit, such as this editorial paragraph:
There was a classic forecast of the stellar course of San Antonio's new daily newspaper. A proper sympathy will find it in this stanza by Lord Byron:
. . . ’Tis sweet to hearNo matter what color my face may turn now at the record of such callowness, it was great fun at the time. And the circulation figures gave approval to our gladsomeness. At the end of three months, the Evening Star claimed the largest circulation of any afternoon paper in South Texas. There were two local competitors, the Light and the News. The Times had passed out. The Light kept its figures secret. We credited it with 2,000 subscribers. The News was negligible. It was not any scintillating quality that attracted readers to the Evening Star. Such popularity as it gained was the fruit of sheer toil. Never had so many items of local information appeared in a single issue of a San Antonio daily as were regularly offered in each edition of the Evening Star. We had no telegraphic service. So, the growth of our subscription list could be attributed almost wholly to one factor, the copious volume of neighborhood news.
At midnight on the blue and moonlit deep,
The song and oar of Adria’s gondolier,
By distance mellow’d, o’er the waters sweep;
’Tis sweet to see the evening star appear. . . .
Intensive coverage of a small town’s happenings is an onerous undertaking. It involves real risks and frequent hardships. The intimacies of a limited population exaggerate the importance of near-by events. They magnify to the subject of untoward tidings the adverse effects of publication. Suppression is often demanded as a right of neighborly obligation. Newspaper penetration of privacy is at times held intolerable.
San Antonio’s population in 1892 exceeded 35,000. It was the chief entrepot for the trade between the United States and Mexico. It spoke with metropolitan majesty; but it whispered with small-town cant. The newspapers treated stories involving domestic infelicity with excessive delicacy.
The “shush-shush” of clubwomen critics resounded between the lines. So, a city-wide sensation followed when the Evening Star presented a full column of details of the petition for divorce filed by Mrs. Clarence Lyons. The Express used the item the next morning in much smaller space.
The defendant was a superintendent of mechanical operation. The plaintiff, the former Mary Klockenkemper, was the daughter of a prominent jeweler. Publication of the divorce action drove Lyons into a frantic rage. Death alone, he swore, could expunge this outrage. Despite an almost incoherent fury, he investigated personal responsibility for the published news. Major culpability was fixed on me. If my story had not been printed in the Evening Star, he concluded, the suit would not have been mentioned in the Express. Still, that didn’t excuse Bill Blunt, night editor of the morning paper. It would require the life-blood of both Blunt and Koenigsberg to wipe out this disgrace.
“Personal Safety in the Southwest” was the caption of an article that had appeared in the Evening Star a few weeks before. The material around which it was written came to me from Jacobo Coy, described in the feature as “the eminent authority on the strategies and dynamics of private warfare.” It was a rather strained effort at humor. But it ended on a note of seriousness. Coy outlined “three rules of conduct for the peace-lover.” They read: “1. Avoid the habit of wearing a gun. The reputation of going armed justifies the other fellow in shooting on sight. 2. A weapon should be used only for self-defense. If actual danger necessitates the carrying of a firearm, cut that danger to the shortest possible duration. 3. Don’t let a grudge smolder. It may flare up when you’re least in readiness.”
No better counsel seemed available. The first injunction was superfluous. But the second and third applied to my complication. At three o’clock that afternoon, the crack of a pistol shot halted me. It was in Losoya Street, in front of the Express office. The explosion seemed underfoot. Another crash snapped my eyes to the spot, scarcely six steps away, where Bill Blunt lay motionless on the pavement, a smoking revolver alongside his outstretched hand. Over Blunt, his body sagging and his arms pinioned from behind, tottered Clarence Lyons. A reddened dagger slid through his fingers to the asphalt. The strong arms clasping Lyons dragged him up and away from Blunt. Their owner’s face had been hidden by Clarence’s shoulders. Now, as he turned, I recognized Frank G. Huntress, Jr., a bright young attache of the Express.
Huntress had been in the office of the Express when, through a window, he saw Lyons attack Blunt. He leaped over a counter to stop the fight. Blunt went down at the first knife thrust. Lyons sat astride him. The blade rose and fell again before Bill could draw his revolver. Then, with his elbow on the pavement, Blunt fired. Huntress reached them as the first shot sounded. Both Lyons and Blunt survived their wounds.
Providence chose Blunt instead of me to answer for publishing a divorce story. Else this chronicle might not have been written. Huntress’s intervention probably averted a fatal outcome. His deportment that day was of a piece with his career. He rose to the proprietorship of the newspaper on which he started as a route boy. In 1918 he launched the San Antonio Evening News. Adding it to the Express, he became the most successful publisher in the extensive field that his two dailies have continued to serve with dignified vigor.
While individual vengeance sufficed for divorce stories, lynching was not uncommon in the South for other kinds of publicity. Timorous forerunners of modern gossip columnists were favorite prey. They clung to the shelter of anonymity. Even their output was largely anonymous. Theirs was pale piffle compared with the racy reports of Broadway commentators a generation later. Yet these fugacious pedlers of tattle were hunted out with stern relentlessness. The hunters often followed a wrong scent. There were more innocent victims of mob violence than actual offenders. Most of the real culprits kept under effective cover. And there was scant palliation for the mistakes. “Skunk-chasing isn’t a nice sport or an exact science,” ran the apology of one administrator of lynch law in North Texas. “If you’re a good citizen you’ll take the bad medicine without a whimper and help us find the right subject for a good dose.”
Sharp warnings were delivered in doubtful cases. In some instances the admonition was limited to a lecture in the center of a group under a cottonwood tree. There was a noose around the chief listener’s neck. The rope end hung across an overhead branch. An occasional tug emphasized the speaker’s remarks. At times a kangaroo court convened in solemn session. If the defendant failed to refute the accusation, ostracism was decreed. A liberal coating of tar and feathers prepared him for a bouncing ride out of town on a fence-rail.
The publication of personal innuendo was commonly regarded as an abhorrent form of literate degeneracy. If the insinuation pointed to impropriety or unseemliness, street-corner crowds discussed the need for a vigilance committee. If it took a pornographic twist, a neighborhood convulsion ensued. Conservators of public morals saw the pillars of decency smeared with filth.
Printing of such material was held lower than common pandering. Reputable daily newspapers steered clear of gossip bearing the faintest tinge of indecorum. But the Southwest was blanketed with a highly successful scandal sheet. It gained the largest circulation until then attained in the region. More than 100,000 copies of the Kansas City Sunday Sun were sold weekly. Its eight pages were devoted exclusively to the mention of persons—whose full names were usually withheld. Separate editions were printed for different sections to afford adequate coverage. The “local gleanings” of a single locality occupied from one to two columns.
No copy of any issue was purchasable on the day after arrival. It was the Kansas City Sunday Sun that precipitated the transient vogue for lynching bees. Rewards were privately offered for identification of its correspondents. In constant jeopardy of life or limb, these hounded scriveners plied their surreptitious operations for a pitiable pittance. Few, if any of them, received as much as $20 a week for their hazardous work.
Time has made an ironic jest of their tribulations. Communities that once tarred and feathered them in later years would have indulged their most atrocious offenses as vapid prattle. Beside the untrammeled licentiousness of some gossip columns of the 1930s, their effusions would read like idle chitchat. The Kansas City Sunday Sun observed at least a modicum of decency. It did not drag the marriage couch under the spotlight. It left to the private scrutiny of bridal couples the calendars of their maternity plans. It supplied no publicity percussion to widen a marital breach. It hastened no domestic crash with affirmative predictions. It did not speculate about a prospective bride’s choice of a second husband before the consummation of her first nuptials. It did not champion vulgarity against modesty. It offered no approval of debauchery. It did not cultivate a special wit for the exploitation of sex perversion. It did not lift the veil that still screened some of the valid privacies of life. Good taste was yet a social entity.
The Kansas City Sunday Sun concentrated on masculine peccadillos. It found intimation more attractive than exposure. The curiosity of readers was whetted with incomplete descriptions of individuals. The method promoted a game of identification. As much interest was generated by guiding recognition of the principal as by telling the details of an escapade.
A typical item brought me into an exciting collision with its central figure. The paragraph read: “There’s a fire department officer the sound of whose last name has a meaning directly contrary to his day-off didos. Look out, C. Better take your badge back from that San Saba Street red-head. Her Government Hill meal ticket may get sore and turn it in.” The meaning was perfectly clear to Charlton Wright. Busybody friends made sure that his wife didn’t miss it. A family crisis resulted. Embarrassment for other members of the department, with the same surname, was averted by the single letter “C.”
None of this reached me until the following Sunday. Then, at noon, a distraught husband thrust me into the wretched drama. A handsome fellow, in the dress uniform of a fire captain, hailed me outside the Evening Star office. He had been waiting on the opposite sidewalk. No one else was in sight. Instead of a helmet, he had an ornate shako. He was holding it in both hands. The angle at which he carried it forced a queer clumsiness as he crossed the street. Nothing was said until he was less than an arm’s length away. Then he asked: “Is your name Koenigsberg?”
His arms flung apart at my answer. A long-barreled pistol emerged from the tasseled headpiece. Its muzzle was pressed against my stomach. The shako, swung out of the way in his left hand, slipped from his fingers and rolled along the pavement.
The man’s face was startlingly white. His eyes protruded. His lips moved, but there was no sound. There was a drumming in my ears. It bore an eerie echo of the voice of Jacobo Coy. It formed into phrases of a warning Coy had once spoken. “The man who intends to shoot doesn’t waste time talking to you about it,” he had said. “He shoots. You’d be fairly safe if he gave you a chance to argue.” Wouldn’t this fellow talk? My own tongue was paralyzed. The seconds stretched into what seemed like immeasurable time. Then, at last, a queer noise came from the twitching mouth. It was both a croak and a scream. “You’ve got just one minute to pray, you----- .”
The words were chilling, but the voice quavered. It broke into a sob. The man was trembling as if with ague. My numbed senses sparked into action. Hope flashed through the darkness that had closed around me. There was more of hysteria than murder in this fellow. He had talked. We might reason together. If only his trigger finger would hold steady long enough. Speech came to me in a torrent.
“What’s eating you? Are you insane? Who are you? You must be crazy to think of killing a man without letting him know why. What good would it do you? What have you got against me?”
A vortex of emotion charged the outburst with a harshness of tone that no studied effort could have produced. It shocked my own hearing. It stirred the man with the gun. His left hand arose as if to brush something away from his forehead. A paroxysm twisted his features. He seemed to be gulping for utterance. At last he spoke in labored wheezes. “A ----- that breaks up homes and ruins other people’s lives has no right to live.” There was no direct menace in this. It was a general statement. The man was arguing. Feeling, rather than reason, brought these facts to my consciousness. A growing relief restored control of my voice. “What makes you think I have done such things?”
The question acted on my assailant like the flick of a whip. He was plainly nonplussed. A sudden doubt had evidently beset him. Slowly, wonderingly, he put it into a query: “Aren’t you the Kansas City Sun correspondent?”
The vehemence of my denial was palpably convincing. The figure in front of me seemed to shrink. The gun sank until the muzzle pointed downward. Tears were streaming down the man’s cheeks as he muttered: “My friends told me they had checked up on it. They told me you were the regular correspondent. I don’t know what kept me from shooting.”
The distracted man was Charlton Wright. The paragraph in the Kansas City Sunday Sun had disrupted his family. He was crazed with grief. There was a momentary resentment of the excruciating strain to which he had subjected me. But anger could not endure against this tortured host of unhappiness. Wright fumbled around for a moment in a daze. Then he reversed his revolver and silently presented the handle to me. The proffered gun was not accepted. Instead, Wright’s shako was lifted from the pavement and handed to him.
In the ineffaceable memory of that Sunday noon encounter is stamped one of the criterions of my newspaper code. It was wrought out of conclusions drawn from Charlton Wright’s trying experience. He may have been a philanderer. He may have deserved punishment of some sort. Neither his innocence nor his obliquity was at issue. The force of the printed word had ripped a domestic establishment into shreds. There was no relief for the victims. Legal measures could not restore the shattered home. The odium of that outrage contaminated the source from which the daily newspaper derived its physical existence. Through printer’s ink flowed the same power that on one hand exerted inestimable good and on the other imposed incalculable harm.
The malevolent elements of that power must be filtered for the protection of legitimate journalism. This could be accomplished by the adoption of a principle that was formulated for incorporation in my table of professional commandments thus:
Legitimate news, comprising those elements of public intelligence the publication of which embraces the fundamental purposes of journalism, may not be suppressed; but any other communication or comment touching matters apart from the public welfare is unfit for publication, even though true, if it may inflict an injury or a wrong not susceptible to redress at law.
Such a law of procedure would inherit for journalism a nobler quality of ethical leadership. It would cramp the style of a number of columnists, but it would enhance the prestige and expand the influence of many newspapers. It would reduce the space surrendered to eroticism. It would close countless avenues to the seepage of scandal. It would remove a formidable impediment to the inculcation of good taste.
Disgust over the Kansas City Sunday Sun only heightened my pride in the Evening Star. But a disillusionment was at hand. Salaciousness was not the only ogre that leered at the sacredness of the sanctum. Corruption stalked a newspaper in various disguises. One of these masks was unexpectedly lifted by a bit of diligent reporting. Upheaval of my own office resulted.
Chapter 5 Part 2 Next Week
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