Uncovering the Life and Career of a Pioneering Journalist

03 Sep 2020 9:11 AM | Melony Shemberger (Administrator)

(Editor's note: Raymond McCaffrey is an assistant professor and director of the Center for Ethics in Journalism at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. He received the McKerns Grant in 2019.)

By Raymond McCaffrey

     My first encounter with Louis Stark occurred ten years ago while combing the “stacks” at the University of Maryland’s McKeldin Library as part of an assignment for a journalism history course required for doctoral students. The topic that I had picked for my research paper concerned how journalism textbooks might reveal how early educators addressed the physical and psychological risks faced by journalists. One of the texts on a library shelf was an anthology titled, “A Treasury of Great Reporting; ‘Literature under Pressure’ From the Sixteenth Century to Our Own Time,” which included a contribution by Stark, a New York Times reporter who had had covered the 1927 executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the so-called “anarchists” convicted of killing two men during a robbery.

     Stark’s first-person account was dramatically different than the terse, objective news stories he wrote for the Times. Stark’s harrowing depiction revealed that journalists had insight into the psychological toll of covering traumatic events long before the topic became a focus of research near the end of the twentieth century. Stark wrote about what it was like to be in Charlestown State Prison on the day of the executions, writing that the prison was like an armed camp, with rioters outside the gates, and reporters were herded to a room next door to the execution chamber: “The windows had been nailed down by a nervous policeman ‘because somebody might throw something in.’ The shades were drawn. The room was stuffy, and in an hour the heat was unbearable. We took off our coats, rolled up our sleeves, and tried to be comfortable. The morse operators were the coolest of the fifty men and women in the room. The noise of the typewriters and telegraph instrument made an awful din. Our nerves were stretched to the breaking point. Had there not been a last minute reprieve on Aug. 10? Might there be one now?”[1]

     Stark’s account offered a unique view of stressors faced by reporters covering a traumatic event on deadline, intensified by the need to meet the increasing demands of the evolving technology of the day. But I met with an unusual sort of dead end when I searched for more of the author’s personal writing. Most of what I found by Stark was the work of a master of the objective, almost deeply impersonal news writing that was practiced by New York Times reporters. Stark went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for pioneering a completely new journalism beat that quickly became a staple in many newspapers in the United States: coverage of the increasingly powerful U.S. labor movement. In 1951, nine years after winning the Pulitzer for labor reporting, Stark moved on to writing editorials for the Times, specializing in analysis of the labor movement. Stark also appeared to have embraced the type of stoic response to personal setbacks that is common amongst journalists. When Stark died in 1954, shortly after turning 66, the Times published a tribute that celebrated “a devotion to duty” that motivated Stark to come to work until the very last day of his life, despite what was characterized as “a series of mild heart attacks.”[2] Though too sick to come into the office, Stark wrote his final editorial at home, ultimately having to ask his wife to call the newspaper and phone in his piece. Three hours later, at 4 p.m., Stark “died unexpectedly,” and his last editorial - “Trade Union Democracy” – ran in the same edition that carried his obituary.[3]

     Stark, who had so powerfully depicted the on-the-job stress faced by the working journalists, also appeared to exemplify the kind of macho journalistic ethos that I was interested in studying. Yet the preliminary evidence that I found only supported a potentially fascinating study about Stark and his role in pioneering the labor beat. Unfortunately that wasn’t the part of his story that fascinated me. So I put Stark on my list of possible long-term story ideas with the understanding that ultimately I was going to have to make a tough practical decision. My only real chance to discover Stark’s personal story was to examine his personal papers that had been donated to the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. But in order to allocate the time and money to travel to Boston from Arkansas, where I now teach, I felt I needed to be committed to telling the story of Stark, the pioneer of the labor beat, especially if his papers failed to contain much of his personal side.

     The American Journalism Historians Association ultimately helped me make that decision by awarding me a Joseph McKerns Research Grant in 2018. The grant not only eased practical concerns by helping to support my travel to Boston, but also offered some external confirmation that the overall story of such a pioneering journalist was worth telling. The two days I spent at the Nieman Foundation, located in the historic Lippmann House, were ideal for an historian with a tight schedule. The Nieman administrators gave what every researcher should hope for: a quiet room filled with stacks of assiduously inventoried file boxes. During two days of reviewing notes, correspondence, and other writings, I constantly felt as if I was in Stark’s presence, even if that involved being in the company of a journalist who was deeply private, but only to a point.

      Amid the writings that spoke to the politics and key players behind the growing labor movement, I found a diary, which Stark kept sporadically, starting in 1932. His personal writing  contained the type of insights he included in his recounting of the 1927 execution. In one entry, he wrote about the human suffering in one impoverished mining community where he was confronted by a child begging for food. “Somehow my attention always swings around to the children,” Stark wrote.

      Stark’s papers also provided many insights into the professional practices of a legendary journalist. Stark’s reputation as a journalist who was trusted by his sources could be seen in an exchange of letters he had with the powerful labor leader George Meany in 1954. Stark’s request for insider information on an “off-the-record basis” resulted in an extraordinarily candid account that Meany documented on American Federation of Labor stationary (with a return address of the Monte Carlo Hotel, in Miami Beach, Florida).

      Some of Stark’s most personal writing involved his correspondence with William M. Leiserson, a scholar and labor expert. His letters, addressed to “Billy,” included brief references to personal information as well as fascinating takes on the inner workings of official Washington. The letters were so informed yet conversational that one could imagine the Times posting much of them online today as part of ongoing blog.

     My review of the papers led me to conclude that two stories about Stark that I saw having to choose among — the personal versus the professional — were actually one and the same. The journalist who wired the labor beat seems to have been the same one whose nerves had been “stretched to the breaking point” while awaiting two public executions. The careful eye he used at Charlestown State Prison was also on display when he was observing the struggling people in union country, where his attention always swung around to the children.

                                                            END NOTES

[1] Arthur Krock, Hanson Weightman Baldwin, and Shepard Stone, We Saw It Happen: The News Behind the News That's Fit to Print (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1938), 366.

[2] Louis Stark," New York Times, May 18, 1954, 28.

[3] Trade Union Democracy.” New York Times, May 18, 1954, 28.

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