So historian Richard Norton Smith, McCormick's biographer, finds it ironic that billionaire Sam Zell has swooped in to take the paper's parent Tribune Co. private."It's a great paradox," said Smith, "that the Colonel's newspaper—the champion of the free market—is about to be rescued from the excesses of the free market."
When it came to running the newspaper, those two towering figures in Tribune (and Chicago) history weren't fettered by what anyone else thought. While Zell has not indicated he is buying Tribune Co. to gain editorial control, the history of journalism has shown that private ownership "opens the door to a more distinctive brand of journalism, one less interested in the bottom line," said Smith, a scholar-in-residence at George Mason University in Virginia.
It was that sort of freedom that made it possible for Medill, who led the partnership that bought the paper in 1855, to campaign successfully against slavery. Not only were he and the Tribune instrumental in the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, but they also were cheerleaders for the Union cause in the Civil War.
"Lenity [leniency] and forbearance have only nursed the viper into life —war has begun . . .," the paper proclaimed at the start of the conflict. "We say to the Tories and lickspittles of this community, a patient and reluctant, but at last outraged and maddened people will no longer endure your hissing. You must keep your venom sealed or go down."
Medill used the newspaper's editorial page to stump in 1863 for equal pay for men and women in every profession (57 years before the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave women the vote). And it was a bully pulpit for him to crusade in the 1880s against the concentration of financial power in the hands of a few "wealthy predators."
But his greatest crusade was the one he waged to help save Chicago in the aftermath of the Oct. 9, 1871, fire that reduced much of the city, including the Tribune's "fireproof" building, to rubble and killed an estimated 300 people.
"CHEER UP" was the headline on the main editorial in the first post-fire Tribune, published by Medill on Oct. 11 out of a small print shop on Canal Street. It began: "In the midst of a calamity without parallel in the world's history, looking upon the ashes of thirty years' accumulations, the people of this once beautiful city have resolved that CHICAGO SHALL RISE AGAIN."
Meanwhile, William Bross, another of the Tribune owners, took the first train east to preach to New York financiers that, having leveled the city, the fire provided a golden opportunity for new investment.
Within weeks, Medill was drafted to run for mayor on the Fireproof ticket, winning handily and taking office on Dec. 4. During his two years in the post, the city banned the construction of wooden buildings in the central business district and created its first public library.
When Medill died in 1899, he had led the Tribune for 44 years. After an interval, McCormick and his cousin Joseph Patterson took over the running of the company in 1911 and, three years later, began editing the paper. (1911 was also the year that the Tribune christened itself the World's Greatest Newspaper, a characterization that remained on the front page for 66 years.)
For more than a decade, McCormick and Patterson took monthly turns as editor in chief until, in 1925, Patterson moved to New York to run another family paper, and McCormick was the sole editor and publisher of the Tribune, a post he held until his death in 1955.
Like Medill, McCormick also served in public office—first as an alderman and later as the president of the Chicago Sanitary District, now the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.
An archconservative, McCormick, who won the rank of colonel during World War I, turned his newspaper into a beacon of Republican ideology, vigorously pro-capitalism, fiercely anti-communist and firmly isolationist. And he wasn't afraid to make his point—over and over and over again. During Prohibition, for instance, the Tribune published some 1,100 editorials against Prohibition, which McCormick saw as an unwarranted government intrusion and a futile attempt to legislate morality.
But it was during the New Deal that the colonel came into his own as a conservative Don Quixote jousting against his former Groton schoolmate Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In late 1932, McCormick sent the president-elect a "Dear Frank" letter, promising that "party considerations will not weigh with me when I think you are doing the correct thing."
The rapprochement didn't last long. A typical Tribune headline during the New Deal was: "VOTE TAX TO SOAK EVERYBODY." Hoping to promote an anti-FDR vote in 1936, the colonel featured a regular front-page notice: "Only [number] days remaining to save your country." At one point, Roosevelt, trotting out an old prep school nickname, told a Tribune reporter, "John, you tell Bertie he's seeing things under the bed."
There was a negative side, though, to the freedom that private ownership brought to McCormick. His control of the Tribune was so complete that there was no one to tell him when his ideas or plans went too far.
Consider his decision in 1934 to unilaterally change the spelling of scores of common English words.