Colos­sus of News­pa­pers’ Golden Age

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News­maker: Roy W. Howard, the Mas­ter­mind Be­hind the Scripps-howard News Em­pire From the Gilded Age to the Atomic Age— by Patricia Beard (Lyons Press, $26.95). Though largely for­got­ten to­day, Roy Howard, along with Wil­liam Ran­dolph Hearst (the in­spi­ra­tion for Or­son Welles’ Cit­i­zen Kane), dom­i­nated the Amer­i­can news­pa­per world in the first half of the 20th cen­tury, when news­pa­pers were the pre­em­i­nent source of in­for­ma­tion. Howard’s clout was enor­mous. He had re­mark­able ac­cess to U.S. Pres­i­dents, cor­po­rate chief­tains, celebri­ties and world lead­ers. In­deed, many sought him out, try­ing to woo his sup­port.

Like many other great en­trepreneurs, Howard started life in very mod­est cir­cum­stances. But he was gifted with am­ple am­bi­tion, en­ergy and abil­ity. He was a me­dia rar­ity, a man who was a first-rate re­porter and busi­ness ex­ec­u­tive. Un­like Hearst, Howard was dis­ci­plined when it came to spend­ing and never suf­fered the kind of fi­nan­cial re­verses that caused Hearst to lose con­trol of his em­pire. Only once did Howard pour money into a los­ing en­ter­prise, the New York World-tele­gram, fig­ur­ing a pres­ence in the Big Ap­ple was es­sen­tial to a news­pa­per com­pany as­pir­ing to na­tional and global promi­nence.

Howard had a won­der­ful knack for in­spir­ing con­fi­dences. As this im­pres­sive bi­og­ra­phy notes, “There was some­thing sym­pa­thetic about him that led peo­ple who were wary of the press to spend hours un­bur­den­ing them­selves, or try­ing to im­press him.” Those who fell un­der his spell in­cluded Franklin Roo­sevelt (for a while, any­way), Douglas Macarthur (who could have been court-mar­tialed for hint­ing at the ex­is­tence of the then su­per­secret atomic bomb) and the Duke of Wind­sor.

Howard rose rapidly at the Scripps news­pa­per chain. He took on the As­so­ci­ated Press, the lead­ing wire ser­vice of the time, and gave it with­er­ing com­pe­ti­tion with the hereto­fore weak and fal­ter­ing United Press. He also demon­strated a tal­ent for ac­quir­ing and start­ing news­pa­pers. Scripps soon enough be­came Scripps-howard, and Howard suc­cess­fully pi­loted “The Con­cern” for more than three decades.

The cor­po­rate throne never dulled Howard’s ap­petite for scoops. He in­ter­viewed Soviet dic­ta­tor Josef Stalin in 1936, win­ning world head­lines when Stalin made it clear to him that Moscow would go to war with Ja­pan if Tokyo men­aced the in­de­pen­dence of Outer Mon­go­lia. (In­deed, three years later the two coun­tries had se­vere clashes in that part of the world. The Sovi­ets stunned the Ja­panese with a mil­i­tary de­feat, a crit­i­cal rea­son that Ja­pan didn’t join Ger­many in at­tack­ing the Soviet Union in 1941.)

The rich­est part of this book con­cerns the 1920s-40s. Howard was a tire­less trav­eler, and his ob­ser­va­tions about un­fold­ing events make for ab­sorb­ing read­ing, par­tic­u­larly in the Pa­cific, where Ja­pan’s grow­ing mil­i­tarism led him to ad­vo­cate building up the U.S. Navy at a time when the U.S. was fer­vently iso­la­tion­ist.

Also fas­ci­nat­ing are Howard’s in­ter­ac­tions with var­i­ous Amer­i­can lead­ers. His tur­bu­lent re­la­tions with Franklin Roo­sevelt are, in a mi­cro way, re­veal­ing of how FDR al­ways tried to ma­nip­u­late peo­ple to his ends.

News­maker came into be­ing be­cause of Howard’s grand­daugh­ter, Pamela Howard, who years af­ter his death came across his diaries. She read them and had them tran­scribed. They are the foun­da­tion of this fine bi­og­ra­phy. Howard, she re­lates, could be “scary” with his gruff­ness. He wasn’t im­pressed with Pam when she was very young, not­ing in his diary that his son’s two chil­dren “have been very badly spoiled— es­pe­cially Pam, who is a whiny, posey, self-cen­tered lit­tle thing with very bad man­ners.” “Ouch!” she re­sponds in the book’s pro­logue. “I was ex­on­er­ated 15 years later when, af­ter a for­mal event, he wrote that I had be­come a ‘fine young lady.’ Phew.”

Her grand­fa­ther would have been far more ef­fu­sive had he been able to see the first-rate bi­og­ra­phy that Pam’s work with his diaries has in­spired.

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