American Newspapers, Canadian Company Towns: Conversations and Despatches from the Archives with Media Historian, Michael Stamm (Part II)
Another dispatch from the scenic reading room on the third floor of the Library and Archives Canada building in downtown Ottawa.
Dateline: July 7, 1011. Post filed at 4:42pm, live to blog at 7:18.
In our first conversation last week, I introduced a new friend of mine, Michael Stamm, a media historian at Michigan State University and author of an excellent new book, Sound Business: Newspaper, Radio, and the Politics of New Media,
I’m glad to say that we’ve shared a few more beers and some fantastic conversations since. Michael’s here for the summer, and after a hard day of slogging at Library and Archives Canada, well, he seems up to a good bs session, and some valuable insights into, well, a lotta stuff.
A couple of weeks ago I asked Michael to think about doing a post to my blog every once in a while, something along the lines “cool thing I found in the archives this week”, kinda thing. I think it’s great; it also adds a nice conversational element to my blog, too.
Without any further adieu, here’s this week’s despatche from itinerant scholar and MSU media historian, Michael Stamm.
MS: In last week’s post, I mentioned that the Chicago Tribune’s activities in Canada helped to build of a different kind of community than the kind we normally think about when we think about newspapers. We usually think about newspapers creating a kind of ‘reading public’, or cultural community, not the ‘real thing’, as the Robert McCormick did with Baie Comeau starting in the late-1930s.
The Tribune literally created a community when it built the city of Baie Comeau around its Quebec newsprint mill beginning in 1936-37. The city still exists to this day, and is probably on the mental landscape of most Canadians, if for no other reason, because it is the hometown of former PM, Brian Mulroney.
In researching the development of this newspaper-owned company town during the past week, I came across a letter written by Tribune publisher Robert McCormick. The letter outlines a number of happenings in the town that brought images to my mind of the fictional media mogul Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and George Pullman (who I mentioned last time). All of these men display different varieties of paternalism as they go about building company towns, and in two of these cases – McCormick and Welles’ fictional Citizen Kane — the newspaper industry is at the centre of these enterprises.
George Pullman is an infamous figure in American history. Pullman, a builder of railroad cars, decided in 1880 to build a town just south of Chicago to house his workers. Pullman wanted the town that bore his name to be pretty and orderly and in building it exhibited a domineering paternalism.
Workers rented their homes from the company, had little say in local government, and felt the company’s influence everywhere, to the point of being informed on a daily basis that their town curfew was in effect by the chime of a loud bell. Over time, a built environment meant to inspire sobriety and create stability among the workers succeeded only in creating alienation and resentment.
Worker frustration peaked with a riot beginning in May 1894, and the unrest lasted into early August, when federal troops were eventually dispatched to the town. Pullman’s urban planning effort proved to be a spectacular failure, and future builders of company towns like Robert McCormick learned to eschew Pullman’s aggressively paternalistic version.
In less directly coercive ways than Pullman, newspaper publishers exhibited a ‘softer’ degree of paternalism toward their communities. They believed that they had the serious duty to serve the daily news and information needs of their communities. And they prided themselves on fulfilling that duty.
As Pullman paternalistically built a town that he thought would benefit his workers, many publishers contributed to a public discourse with their own preferred visions of how things were and should be. Publishers cared, too, for these communities, but this concern with the public interest could form a relationship that was in practice less reciprocal than the public itself might like.
We must remember that, to be paternalist, is to not to necessarily always be overbearing, but only occasionally so, and to provide a genuine kind of care – one does not have the option of simply choosing to neglect. McCormick stepped into this mould easily.
We can also get a sense of Robert McCormick – the early 20th century Chicago newsbaron and family heir to the Tribune papers – if we take a look at things through the lens of the fictional Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ 1941 film
Citizen Kane. In the film, Kane is clearly meant to be a reference to media mogul William Randolph Hearst.
Perhaps I’m just too big of a fan of Welles’ film, but as I plucked my way through the material at Library and Archives Canada during this last week, I’ve been struck by the ways Welles’ Citizen Kane character looks a helluva lot like Robert McCormick, both as a publisher and as a town builder.
In the film, when Kane first starts publishing his newspaper, he pens an impromptu declaration of principles. Pointing to a gas lamp in his office, Kane tells his friend Jed Leland, “I’ve got to make the New York Enquirer as important to New York as the gas in that light.” And in his declaration, he promises to serve readers “the truth…quickly and simply and, entertainingly.”
He also promises to be visible as the owner and the point where the buck stops. Power with Responsibility is the slogan, not domination and neglect.
“People are going to know who’s responsible,” Kane states. In Charles Foster Kane’s mind, he cares about the people and knows what is best for them. As a publisher, he promises to work in their interests.
Later in the film, Kane and Leland have a heated exchange in which an intoxicated Leland accuses Kane of having proven himself to be far less noble than he claimed. Kane, Leland told him, was aloof and acted paternalistically toward the people of New York.
“You talk about the people as though you owned them, as though they belonged to you,” Leland rails.
“You’ve talked about giving the people their rights as if you could make a present of liberty, as a reward for services rendered. Remember the working man? You used to write an awful lot about the working man. He’s turning into something called organized labor. You’re not going to like that one little bit when you find out it means that your working man expects something is his right and not your gift.”
To really serve the public interest, Leland argues, involves actually listening to the public. It involves some dialogue with citizens. It requires being attentive to peoples’ views and desires rather than simply assuming one knows them or can create them. It demands understanding oneself as a part of a community, not as a paternal figure looming above it.
Kane, Leland concludes, cares little about doing any of this. “You just want to persuade people that you love them so much that they ought to love you back,” Leland concludes. “Only you want love on your own terms. Something to be played your way according to your rules.”
Robert McCormick’s career brings these two strands of paternalism – George Pullman and Charles Foster Kane – together. As the publisher of an American newspaper and the developer of a Canadian company town, McCormick trafficked in both varieties of paternalism.
As of February 1955, not even twenty years after McCormick broke soil, Baie Comeau was thriving. The population has swelled to almost 4,000. The area began to need new schools to serve the local children.
As company officials worked with local people and provincial politicians, and sought ways to finance the construction, they found that their plans did not always mesh with what the people who actually lived in Baie Comeau wanted. At one point, during a particularly contentious part of the process, Robert McCormick became frustrated about having to listen to concerns about what the company was planning to do. Why could the Tribune not just do what they wanted? Why did it have to negotiate with anyone?
In a memo to one of his executives in Canada, McCormick writes, “When we were not there it was just a little forest. We built them a big civilization.” The locals, including politicians, he exclaimed, were being “bitterly ungrateful” about all that had been done for them.
Just as Charles Foster Kane was disappointed when his idealized “working man” turned into “organized labor,” Robert McCormick was clearly and similarly frustrated when the good people of Baie Comeau failed to give him the thanks he felt he was due.
Compromising can be difficult. So is listening to other people. McCormick evidently had trouble doing both.
Ulitimately, in founding and essentially running, or at least have a strong influence on what went on in Baie Comeau, the Chicago publisher soon discovered, to paraphrase Jed Leland from Ciizen Kane, that doing things on one’s own terms is much less difficult than harnessing his sails to someone else’s expectations.