The Magnificent Medills
- Megan McKinney
- 464 pp.
- November 7, 2011
An intensely personal look at America’s royal family of journalism through a century of turbulent splendor.
Review by Jared T. Miller
In a family that practically dictated the rules to which most modern newspapers would conform — collectively, the Medills owned or operated the Chicago Tribune, the New York Daily News, Newsday and several others at their peak — it is actually the deviations from established standards that are most enthralling.
Megan McKinney provides an intensely personal look at the Medill family in The Magnificent Medills. And there may be no better time to examine the legendary journalistic family, as countless print institutions struggle to navigate the new-media landscape. Editors and publishers often advocate for the fundamentals they imagine their predecessors to have mastered and profited from: objective reporting, free from the influence of readers’ changing tastes or the political agenda it seeks to cover each day. In reading the story of the family’s history, however, it becomes clear that political leanings and writing to an audience are not antithetical to good journalism. In fact, it was the careful attention the Medills gave to both of those journalistic aspects that accounts for the golden age of newspapers in America.
To illustrate the dichotomies of the Medill family, in their various vocations as cub reporters and socialites, politicians and publishers and otherwise, McKinney wisely chose to begin not with Joseph Medill’s purchase of the bankrupt Chicago Tribune in 1855. Instead, his introduction comes years later, at a frenetic scene during the Republican National Convention of 1860, the same convention that would elect Abraham Lincoln to run for president as head of the party. Medill does not appear there in a journalistic capacity; he appears there to oversee the various moving parts of his plan — beginning with rearranged convention seating and ending with backroom deals for political appointments — to ensure that his favorite politician would be the chosen delegate. “There was more management in the nomination of Lincoln,” Medill is quoted as saying at the close of the scene, “than history has set down.”
From there, the book continues along the wildly successful — and highly unpredictable — paths of each Medill progeny, whose unique talents and shortcomings result from the neuroses of parents bound to the time-consuming and nerve-wracking lifestyle of working journalists. As McKinney chronicles the brisk transition of the patriarch Medill from unfulfilled lawyer to newspaperman to mayor of Chicago and back to publisher, the development of his headstrong offspring are rendered fully. Through the histories of daughters who competed using the accomplishments of their own offspring, and male heirs who would find misery in northeastern boarding schools and failed political careers, characters begin to take shape, all of which find themselves incontrovertibly linked, either financially or through a sense of familial duty, to the Medill heritage.
The actions of especially precocious younger Medills, like Cissy Medill Patterson, whose romance with the notorious womanizer Count Josef Gizycki of Poland brought national press coverage and tarnished her image on the international scene, only to be rehabilitated later by her successful tenure as editor of the Washington Times and the Washington Herald, broaden the appeal of the book beyond history readers and newspaper fanatics. McKinney expertly replicates the tension present in each Medill life — journalistic success, foiled by familial complications or extracurricular pursuits, and righted once again by the return to a Tribune-owned career — and whets the reader’s appetite for the dramatic narrative. The result is a meticulously researched and detailed look at a family with a strong public presence. But beyond contextualizing their impressive achievements, McKinney uncovers that the legendary family, like all of us, has skeletons in its closet and questionable decisions in its past. She finds, like all of us, that it is precisely those experiences that inform us on how to continue moving forward.
As a graduate of the book’s namesake journalism school, established at Northwestern University in 1921, I found that the story of my alma mater’s founding family offers important context to the education I received there, and establishes an important rubric with which to grade the school’s success in producing men and women who embody Medill’s enterprising spirit.
When looking to one of modern journalism’s founding families for insights into which path the craft should take moving forward, scrutinizing individual actions of the Medills is beside the point. The legacy the family left, both for their namesake school and for journalism as a whole, is their intent; of lawyers who turned to journalism for a greater voice, only to wield that influence in the legal process; of editors who scoured the freshly-built New York subways to find that straphangers cared about sensational news and fantastic images and catered to that exact desire; and of publishers who took unpopular stances, and paid the consequences. It wasn’t the personal gain they relished; it was service to society, and the efficacy of the responses by newspapers to changing tastes, that was important to the Medills.
The resulting voice of those newspapers, a reflection of the rich character of the Medills who published them, persisted long after the ink had faded from their hands. It is that lesson, of the importance of news with an engaging voice rather than an objective, impersonal approach to which few can relate, that transcends the dramatic arc of The Magnificient Medills and makes the family history an important read.
Jared T. Miller is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism, and currently works for the photo desk at TIME Magazine. View his work as a journalist at www.jaredtmiller.com