For all the media frenzy swirling around the trial of Scott Peterson for the murder of his wife, Laci—or, for that matter, all the coverage accorded the O.J. Simpson case a decade ago—the prototypic American convergence of journalistic excess and legal tragedy occurred in the early years of the 20th century, and it was played out not on television or radio but in the medium of print. That this case, involving the 1913 murder of a 13-year-old Atlanta factory worker named Mary Phagan and the subsequent lynching of her convicted killer, a Cornell-educated Northern Jew named Leo M. Frank, would point the way to much that has followed seems, in retrospect, not so surprising.
For one thing, an Atlanta Constitution reporter accompanied the officers who responded to the 3 a.m. call that the girl had been found brutally slain in the basement of the National Pencil Company, of which Frank was the superintendent. By dawn, the Constitution had an “Extra” on the streets. For another, an Atlanta Journal reporter—none other than the young Harold W. Ross, who in a few years would found The New Yorker—was hot on the competition’s trail. Though the Constitution got the scoop, the Journal— thanks to Ross’s light-fingeredness around newsworthy documents—got possession of one of two enigmatic notes discovered by the victim’s body and immediately splashed it atop its front page.
Ultimately, though, it was a third party that ratcheted up the action. On the morning Mary Phagan was found murdered, William Randolph Hearst had been the owner and publisher of The Atlanta Georgian—with a circulation of 38,000, the weakest of the city’s three dailies—for just over a year. During that time, he’d staffed the paper with hardened veterans of his New York and Chicago operations. According to Herbert Asbury—one of the most talented of these imports and the future author of such roguish books as “The Gangs of New York”—Hearst’s journalistic storm troopers had been sitting around Atlanta bored out of their minds, waiting for something to happen. Word that a virginal child laborer had been found slain in a child-labor factory thrilled them. “We played the case harder than any Hearst paper had ever played such a case anywhere,” Asbury would later write.
The Georgian’s coverage of the Phagan murder employed almost every armament in Hearst’s arsenal. Stripped down the center of the paper’s first front page devoted to the story was a photo of Mary Phagan’s body snapped at the morgue. A banner headline emblazoned over the masthead offered a “$500 Reward” for exclusive information leading to the perpetrator’s arrest and conviction. Despite the fact that the weather was dry, a feature story quoted the victim’s grandfather demanding vengeance while standing in a torrential downpour. (“It wasn’t raining, but it might have been,” the reporter who wrote the article confessed years later.)
The most shocking aspect of the Georgian’s performance involved the number of Extras it published. Nearly every hour, a new edition—each topped with crimson streamers—rolled off the presses and was in the hands of newsboys. Little wonder that Herbert Asbury would subsequently recall: “Our paper was, in modern parlance, a wow. It burst upon Atlanta like a bomb and upon the Constitution and the Journal like the crack of doom.”
A headline from the Hearst paper in October 1914.
A headline from an extra edition of The Call in August 1915.
A Competitive Spiral of Sensationalism
As the investigation into the Phagan murder progressed, the Constitution and the Journal attempted to emulate the Georgian. “Frank Tried to Flirt with Murdered Girl, Says Boy Chum,” declared the Constitution in a front-page headline. “Was Factory Used as Secret Rendezvous?” asked the Journal. Yet despite such efforts, the Hearst paper owned the story—much to Leo Frank’s misfortune. On the morning the superintendent was arrested, the Georgian ran a Page One banner that over a large picture of Frank unequivocally proclaimed: “Police Have The Strangler.” A greater lapse in journalistic practice would be hard to imagine.
Predictably, the surfeit of headlines implicating Frank in the crime convinced many Atlantans of his guilt before the first word of testimony was uttered. (Less predictably, a protest by the city’s Jews against the Georgian’s irresponsible coverage prompted the Hearst paper to reverse course; thereafter, it not only editorialized in Frank’s behalf but slanted news stories in his favor.) There was also a related impact. Summarizing an interview with a source who ultimately admitted that the information she claimed to possess came to her in a dream, a Pinkerton detective hired by Frank noted:
“This is an intelligent woman. She reads all the news on the Phagan murder case, and I think she drew these conclusions and thinks of them so much that she does not know whether she read them or whether someone told her. That is, she is well-read to the extent that she is crazy.”
Thus 70 years before the term “information overload” was coined, the symptoms of prolonged exposure to the sort of raw information the mass media too often disseminate were already in evidence.
The disorienting bombardment continued unabated during Frank’s month-long trial. As frequently happened with celebrated legal proceedings of the day, the Constitution, the Journal, and the Georgian covered the trial in a fashion not dissimilar to the way “Court TV” presently operates. Reporters in the courtroom took notes in shorthand, which copy boys rushed by foot to the papers’ respective newsrooms. There, as compositors set the “Q&A” in type, rewrite men pounded out fresh leads. Meanwhile, plates were engraved from sketches produced by courtroom artists. The result: Lavishly illustrated Extras were available almost hourly.
As one might expect, Hearst’s sheet excelled at this kind of thing, publishing editions on the fly both when events warranted and when they did not. The upshot: Readers fell in love with the Georgian. On the day of Frank’s conviction, the paper printed 131,208 copies—more than triple its pre-Hearst circulation.
Prior to and during Frank’s trial, sensationalism was the chief failure of Atlanta’s newspapers. To the extent that there was bias in the coverage, it was mostly in Frank’s favor, as both the Georgian and the Journal, evincing the prejudices of the time, ridiculed the state’s star witness—a black factory janitor named Jim Conley, who accused Frank not only of Mary Phagan’s murder but also of sexual perversity. The Constitution, which was politically allied with the prosecution, largely eschewed race-baiting.
News Media as Advocates
After Frank was convicted and sentenced to death, however, the coverage took a decidedly different turn—the glandular excitements of yellow journalism gave way to the white heat of advocacy and muckraking. The view that Frank was not only innocent but also the victim of an anti-Semitic plot was first voiced by various Atlanta Jews, but it was promulgated by two powerful media barons—Albert D. Lasker, president of the Chicago-based Lord & Thomas Advertising Agency (predecessor to Foote, Cone and Belding) and Adolph Ochs, publisher of The New York Times.
Lasker, who was responsible for some of the most successful ad campaigns (Sunkist Orange Juice, Budweiser Beer) of his day, worked his multiple connections in journalism and in Hollywood. In short order, publications such as Collier’s Weekly and various newsreel companies leapt to Frank’s aid. To win such support, Lasker spent more than $100,000 (in 1999 dollars, approximately $1.66 million) of his own money.
As big a part as Lasker played in the campaign to free Frank, his role ultimately paled in comparison to that of Ochs. Though the publisher initially resisted overtures from Frank’s backers because, as an assistant put it, he didn’t want the Times to become “a Jewish newspaper,” by early 1914 he had decided to devote the resources of both his news and editorial staffs to the cause. During the next year and a half, the Times would publish hundreds of articles and editorials about the case. While some of the pieces strove for balance, many were one-sided, quoting defense lawyers at length while failing to seek comment from anyone connected with the prosecution. There were only three days during December 1914, with the campaign hitting full stride, that the paper did not publish a major story concerning Frank’s battle to win a new trial. Sample headlines from the month give an accurate sense of the Times’s point of view: “Lawyers Unite For Frank,” “Friends Plea For Frank,” “Georgians Urged To Plead For Frank,” and “Atlanta’s Mob Spirit.”
On New Year’s Day, Frank wrote Ochs a note of thanks: “I think that a more thorough understanding of the issues in the case among the people throughout the United States has been brought about to a great extent by the space you have so kindly given to it.” Several days later, in response to a letter from Frank in praise of the publisher, Albert Lasker concurred: “I quite agree with you that Mr. Adolph Ochs, through his espousal of the ‘cause of an innocent man,’ largely made possible the progress we have made.”
Unfortunately for Frank, however, the Times’s decision to put its powers to such use produced an unintended and damaging backlash. Not only did a vast majority of Georgians believe the factory superintendent was guilty of the murder of Mary Phagan, but at a time when the bruises of the Civil War were still painful, they resented a Northern newspaper dictating to their courts. They viewed Ochs’s coverage as “outside interference.” Articulating this stance was the legendary populist Thomas E. Watson, who had served as William Jennings Bryan’s vice presidential running mate in 1896 and published an influential weekly paper called The Jeffersonian. Beneath the banner headline “The Leo Frank Case. Does the State of Georgia Deserve this Nation-Wide Abuse?” Watson declared:
“Mr. Adolph Ochs, a most useful servant of the Wall Street interests, runs a Tory paper in New York whose chief end in life seems to be to uphold all the atrocities of special interest and all the monstrous demands of Big Money.”
And so the battle was set. To each article or editorial championing Frank in the Times or in The Atlanta Journal (which also became a forceful advocate for the defense), Watson responded with an article or an editorial asserting—often in anti-Semitic tones—Frank’s guilt. The fight raged for a year, with the Times holding sway in the North and The Jeffersonian—whose circulation jumped from 25,000 to 87,000 during that period—holding sway in Georgia. Following the decision of Georgia Governor John Slaton to commute Frank’s death sentence to life imprisonment, Watson called for a lynching. On August 16, 1915, that call was answered when Frank was abducted without a shot being fired from a state prison in the middle of Georgia and driven 150 miles through the dead of night to Marietta, the hometown of Mary Phagan, northwest of Atlanta. He was lynched at dawn the next morning.
All three Atlanta newspapers strongly condemned the lynching, as did most of the South’s other major dailies. So, too, did The New York Times. Then, for a combination of reasons, the coverage stopped. For the Constitution and the Journal, the crime literally struck too close to home—the publishers of both sheets had relatives involved in either the lynching or a later attempt to desecrate Frank’s body. For the Georgian, the vulnerability was financial—people in Atlanta began boycotting the paper.
The Leo Frank story dominates the front page on July 18, 1915.
Denouncing the Times’s Intervention
The Times was stilled by a different consideration, one articulated in two powerful pieces of writing. The first was by a Times’s correspondent named Charles Willis Thompson, who was reporting from Georgia. In explaining why Frank had been lynched, Thompson adduced a number of reasons. Among them was one that shook Adolph Ochs:
“The bitter resentment over what everybody in Georgia calls outside interference; and this does not mean only the ‘interference’ by the New York newspapers by a long shot, though Tom Watson has done his level best to make it appear that the New York newspapers are attempting to govern the state of Georgia.”
Heretofore, Ochs had regarded his role in the Frank affair as that of a crusader, never considering how it all might have appeared to the opposing side.
The other piece of writing that was a factor in the Times’s decision to drop the case was produced by a Georgian. In the immediate aftermath of the lynching, Ochs had ordered his staff to distribute the Times’s editorial denouncing the crime to all of the state’s papers. The hope had been that they would reprint the broadside, but there had been no takers. In fact, W.T. Anderson, editor of the anti-lynching Macon Telegraph, was so alarmed by the publisher’s thinking that he wired him back. In his diary, an assistant editor at the Times named Garet Garrett summarized the wire’s contents:
“The message … said that for the sake of the Times and Mr. O., it [the Telegraph] would not print the editorial as requested to do, and for the sake of the decent people of Georgia and especially for the sake of the Jews in Georgia, would Mr. O. not stop this offensive propaganda. It was the outside interference of the Jews, led by the Times, that had made it necessary to lynch Frank.”
The next morning, the Telegraph gave prominent play to an eloquent restatement of these sentiments:
“As it now stands [in Georgia], Israel itself stands indicted and is the object of a great deal of indignant anger, but the individual Israelite is liked and respected.
“Against the race generally, there is, however, a sentiment of anger, a proneness to denunciation, which is at the present in quiescent status quo.
“If among the outside newspapers generally there is any attempt at sustained denunciation of this state, Thomas E. Watson will, with a quick eagerness, accept what he will consider a gage of battle thrown at his feet, and he will answer in kind—more than in kind. “Watson will be answered in kind, and so it will go on until the time will come when he will tell the people of the state of Georgia that the rich Jews of the nation have bought up the press of the Republic to vilify and blackguard the state of Georgia in revenge for the killing of Leo M. Frank. And when that charge is brought it will be passionately and plausibly presented—and Georgia generally will believe it.
“What will follow such a charge? Anti-Semitic demonstrations? Certainly. Anti-Semitic riots? Probably. Actual violence to Jewish citizens? Possibly.
“The men responsible are … the Ochses, the Pulitzers and other leading Jews of New York and the East generally. These men now hold the comfort, safety, peace and happiness of the Jews of Georgia in the hollow of their hands.”
Following so quickly upon Charles Willis Thompson’s dispatch, the Telegraph’s reaction deeply troubled Ochs, awakening in him not just the realization that he might share some of the blame for Frank’s fate but the fear that by aligning himself so thoroughly with the poor man he had endangered the Times itself, coming perilously close to making the sheet the one thing he’d never wanted it to be—a Jewish newspaper.
At a subsequent editorial conference at the Times, the debate was sobering. Some in the room argued that the Telegraph’s wire was “but a kind of intimidation,” maintaining that if Ochs genuinely believed Frank was innocent, he should continue to demand that the Georgia authorities prosecute his murderers. Others, among them Garrett, advanced the opposite view:
“I said we should consider a few simple facts. Mr. O. was the most prominent newspaper publisher in the country. He was a Jew. The Times had printed more stuff for Frank than any other newspaper …. It was clear what a great many people would make of those facts.”
After listening to the back-and-forth, Ochs rendered his judgment—the Times would halt its coverage of the Frank case. Wrote Garrett:
“Mr. O. … has really a remarkable gift of putting himself in the other man’s place. He said that if he were a Georgian he would have resented the outside interference ….
“So perishes a great enthusiasm for the sake of The N.Y. Times.”
The press’s wholesale abandonment of a topic that had made front-page headlines for two years was little noticed in the larger scheme of things. The conflict that would become World War I had started, and coverage of the fighting and of America’s likely participation dominated the news. Yet those who’d been involved in the Frank drama understood that they’d been shunned—they just didn’t understand why. In a note to Frank’s widow written a month after the lynching, a family member uncomprehendingly observed: “Strange to relate, the ‘N.Y. Times’ does not carry anything these days.”
And so the caravan moved on. Unlike today’s press, that caravan was not composed of satellite trucks, mini-cams and all the other obtrusive electronic gadgetry. And the sort of advocacy journalism practiced in this instance by the Times seems anachronistic—although maybe the folks at the Augusta National Golf Club who bridled at the paper’s recent coverage of attempts to enroll a female member wouldn’t think so. Nonetheless, the Frank case remains emblematic. This was a modern media frenzy, and while the medium was, in contemporary terms, an old one, the effect was startling and new and feels very familiar.
Steve Oney, a 1982 Nieman Fellow, was a reporter for Atlanta Weekly, the Sunday magazine of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for five years. He also was a senior editor at California magazine and a senior writer at Premiere. He is the author of “And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank,” published by Pantheon Books in 2003. Oney spent 17 years researching and writing “And the Dead Shall Rise.”