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What Made The ‘World’ Great?
It exposed corruption. It hired drunks. Good writing was rewarded. No wonder every newspaperman wanted to work there.
October/november 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 6
It was Swope’s story all the way through the first trial of Becker, which resulted in a mistrial, and the second, which brought the death sentence. The policeman protested his innocence to the end, and there are those who maintain that he was railroaded to the chair on the testimony of sleazy characters with their own axes to grind.
In any event, again with Swope’s prodding, Whitman also sent four police inspectors to prison for protecting vice and gambling. Next year Whitman was elected governor, and Swope was known as the reporter who had got him the job.
In 1915 Ralph Pulitzer appointed Swope city editor. In his new post, Swope attacked the news with such proprietary zest—he would talk of “my snowstorm,” “my subway accident,” “my murder trial”—that in his first year his list of triumphs was topped by one of the truly sensational stories of World War I. He exposed the entire system of espionage and sabotage emanating from the German embassy in Washington. Later he fought fake and wasteful war charities and put hundreds of such agencies out of business. He came to the aid of a Long Islander who had lost his house because of an overlooked tax bill of $8.50, and exposed a tax-shark ring that had cost thousands their homes.
It was the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 that provided Swope with his greatest opportunity for grandeur and gall. The powers in charge were permitting only a few favored journalists to attend the opening session. But Swope, costumed in a silk hat, cutaway, and striped trousers, marched in unchallenged. Day after day he obtained restricted documents and cabled exclusive stories to the World .
In 1921 came one of the paper’s greatest investigative triumphs, an exposé of the Ku Klux Klan, which had reached a national membership of half a million. The World uncovered a complete file on the Klan: its rituals, a roster of its top Kleagles, King Kleagles, and Goblins, and dossiers on scores of outrages. Readers came to the Pulitzer Building nightly to grab copies of the paper as they came off the press. Out of town, issues sold for as much as a dollar.
When Frank Cobb died in 1923, Ralph Pulitzer chose as his successor Walter Lippmann, a rising young intellectual, essayist, commentator, and student of public affairs. With him came a reduction of the stridency on the editorial page. Lippmann would say of himself, “Damn it, I can’t be sounding bugle calls.” Swope was named managing editor and promptly raised his rank a notch by inventing for himself the title of “executive editor. ” He garnished his office with the first rugs ever seen on the twelfth floor. To balance the sobriety of Lippmann’s editorials, Swope invented the “op-ed,” or page opposite the editorial page, and peopled it with stars raided from other newspapers: Heywood Broun and his column “It Seems to Me” and Franklin Pierce Adams with his “Conning Tower.” He also hired Alexander Woollcott as drama critic, Harry Hansen as book reviewer, and Deems Taylor, the noted composer, as music critic.
Early one morning, reporters posted outside the judge’s chambers phoned in the message, “Foley approves sale.” For the ‘World,’ it was a death sentence.
Two young editors and occasional columnists, Laurence Stallings and Maxwell Anderson, thought up an idea for a play one day while eating in the grubby staff restaurant and ended up writing one of the great hits of the twenties, What Price Glory . John Balderston, the World ’s London correspondent, matched them by writing Berkeley Square . James M. Cain, a dour young editorial writer, assigned against his will to do such conventional pieces as “The First Day of Spring,” won fame later as author of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity .
Harry Hansen explained why reviewing books for the World was different from reviewing anywhere else: “I had no idea that books meant life and death to so many people until I began reviewing them in a slim column seven days a week. Everywhere … men took their pens in hand to make their own comment or to administer a needed corrective. Sometimes a tired mind, or carelessness, permitted slips … none ever went unnoticed … and one week after New York had had its say I would hear from San Diego, or Tucson, or even months later from the Riviera, where forlorn New Yorkers paid a premium for The World . I knew that I was not writing into a void.”