• Everyone agrees that newspapers aren’t what they used to be—but what did they use to be? Fewer and fewer of us can remember a time when independently owned big-city newspapers, with their dictatorial proprietors and clean-up-this-town crusades, were a major cultural force in American life. For the most part, our understanding of these papers and their priorities now derives not from first-hand experience but from “Citizen Kane,” The Fountainhead and the half-nostalgic, half-jaundiced writings of A.J. Liebling and H.L. Mencken. Thus it was with great interest that I read Harry Haskell’s Boss-Busters and Sin Hounds: Kansas City and Its Star (University of Missouri Press, 450 pp., $34.95), a refreshingly well-written history of the Kansas City Star, which in its day was one of the most influential papers in the Midwest. I knew the Star well in my youth, and even wrote for it in the late 70’s and early 80’s, but by then it bore little resemblance to the paper founded by William Rockhill Nelson in 1880, and Haskell (whose grandfather, Henry Haskell, spent a half-century working for the paper) has done a sterling job of recreating the Star as it used to be.
Today Nelson is remembered, if at all, as the founder of Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, one of the greatest museums in the Midwest. In his lifetime, though, he ran the Star with an iron hand sans velvet glove. “I am publishing the Daily W.R. Nelson,” he said. “If people don’t like my paper they can buy another.” Nelson’s paper was known for clear, direct writing (Ernest Hemingway, who put in a brief stint there, claimed ever after to have been deeply influenced by its no-nonsense style) and a brand of politics that grew increasingly progressive over the years (the Star backed Theodore Roosevelt to the hilt). The Star played a key role in the transformation of Kansas City into a modern middle-class metropolis, and it was Nelson’s thinking that determined the paper’s editorial priorities until the day of his death in 1915, on which sad occasion it ran a two-page obituary that he had personally read and approved.
Like all such papers, the Star underwent great changes after its founder’s death, and by the 30’s it was a staunchly (if not rigidly) Republican paper whose editors looked upon the New Deal with dour skepticism but still retained a measure of their youthful idealism:
Believing personal liberty and private enterprise to be society’s greatest good, they viewed the rise of big government, interest-group politics, and self-governing nation-states with grave misgivings. Seeing an enlightened governing class as the surest bulwark against the “moronic underworld,” they nevertheless accepted the necessity for capitalist societies to reorganize themselves on a more equitable and sustainable basis, to forestall another disastrous slide into totalitarianism or complacency.
Harry Haskell writes about the early days of the Star in much the same way that Robert Caro writes about Lyndon Johnson, making no secret of his own liberal views:
The pages that follow tell the story of one great newspaper and of the compelling “power of purpose” it exerted during what might be called the long Progressive Era . . . Few, I suspect, would rush to turn back to turn back the clock to a time when it was said that “the Star is Kansas City and Kansas City is the Star.” But we may yet think again. If there is a more powerful engine for community building and civic renewal than a strong local newspaper, it has yet to be invented.
But like Caro’s Johnson biography, Boss-Busters and Sin Hounds can also be read in a somewhat different way than its author presumably intended. That papers like the Star were a force for good in turn-of-the-century America is certainly arguable. On the other hand, it was rare for a community as large as Kansas City to be dominated so totally by a single agenda-setting newspaper—the day of the one-newspaper town had not yet come—and one may take leave to doubt that Haskell would now look with equal favor on a paper whose proprietor had been more like Ronald Reagan than William Rockhill Nelson.
In any case, the emergence of the “ethereal Internet ‘communities’” of which he writes so skeptically in his preface was to a considerable extent stimulated by the increasing tendency of postwar newspaper editors and reporters to assume that their ideological points of view were unassailably right. Empowered by the disappearance of competing editorial voices, they succumbed to hubris and thereby lost their influence with much of the American reading public, in the process opening the way for the rise of Web-based journalism and the simultaneous decline of the traditional newspaper. That, too, is part of the ambiguous legacy of W.R. Nelson.