BATTLE OF INK AND ICE: A Sensational Story of News Barons, Arctic Explorers and the Creation of Modern Mediaby Darrell Hartman
It started with a cable. “REACHED THE NORTH POLE,” American explorer Frederick Cook telegraphed September 1, 1909, to James Gorden Bennett Jr., the Paris-based publisher of The New York Herald, who gave Cook’s 2,000-word “EXCLUSIVE ACCOUNT” of his discovery.
Days later, a telegram to news agencies rained down on Cook’s parade. “Stars and Stripes Nailed to the Pole,” declared rival explorer Robert Peary, who linked his star to DailyExpertNews, then owned by Adolph Ochs. “We are the exclusive publishers of Peary’s story,” Ochs told his wife. “Every newspaper in New York is freaking out about us great scoop.”
These conflicting claims from more than a century ago come roaring back to life in Darrell Hartman’s “Battle of Ink and Ice,” a tale of arctic adventure and newspaper warfare that will interest Hampton Sides readers and Gay Talese alike. (Think “In the Kingdom of Ice” meets “The Kingdom and the Power”.)
Diligently researched and crafted in prose that rarely turns purple, “Battle of Ink and Ice” reads more like a literary history than a thrilling page turn. It covers a wide berth: the history of polar disasters; the rise of popular journalism; the advent of transcontinental telecommunications; the discovery in 1872 of a Dr. Livingstone, famously tracked down by a Herald correspondent in the wilderness of what is now Tanzania. But at the heart of the book is a juicy thread about two towering egos and their race to the ends of the earth.
Cook, a physician before he began pursuing his own daring exploits, had made a name for himself saving lives on the ill-fated Belgica expedition to Antarctica a decade earlier. He had also been a surgeon on an expedition led by Peary, an inveterate adventurer who began his career in the United States Navy. Now the two men had become bitter opponents, embroiled in international scandal.
New York’s circulation-hungry broadsheets feast on the great North Pole controversy of 1909. Cook had the backing of Bennett’s Herald, a pioneering “penny paper” that opened the floodgates to a wide readership when Bennett’s father founded it in 1835. century, Hartman notes, The Herald was the most profitable newspaper in America, helping to subsidize the expat owner’s extravagant lifestyle: a $625,000 superyacht, a Stanford White-designed corporate headquarters, lavish New York and Newport properties to Versailles and the Champs-Élysées. The Herald championed polar research more enthusiastically than any other American newspaper. It had previously bought the rights to Peary’s expeditions, but this time it put its money on Cook.
Peary, short of money and missing eight toes from a bout of frostbite several years earlier, struck a deal with The Times where Ochs—a Tennessee transplant who’d made his way into the cutthroat New York news market in 1896—went had established. as Bennett’s formidable rival: self-made journeyman versus gilded scion.
Cook didn’t wait for an official verdict from the scientific authorities to celebrate. Instead, taking advantage of the attendant media frenzy, he embarked on a lecture tour to supplement the $30,000 he had received for his exclusive Herald series. According to Hartman, Peary went on the offensive, laundering lewd accusations against Cook through the pages of The Times, the most damaging of which arrived in an exposé accusing Cook of falsifying astronomical data. The Herald dutifully refuted Peary’s propaganda – a bloody “war of words,” as The Nation put it, which also acted as a proxy battle of sorts between Ochs and Bennett.
None of it cast any of the explorers in a particularly flattering light. Cook appeared to be cashing in on an unproven victory, Peary had the air of a petulant child, and their respective magazines subjected themselves to well-deserved backlash. Life magazine scoffed, “The only thing anyone wants in the North Pole is headlines.”
The controversy reached a critical juncture when the National Geographic Society endorsed Peary’s claim — regardless of his close association with the society, which convened a sympathetic panel to review his evidence. But the book’s climax comes when a group of scientists in Denmark pass judgment on Cook, forcing the tension in the story to a surprise finale. I won’t spoil it for you here, but I will note that a cloud of skepticism hangs over both expeditions to this day. (As for the competition between The Times and The Herald, well, the winner is pretty clear.)
Hartman, a freelance journalist who knows his way around an adventure article, has made his mark in the relevant archives and has a real feel for the material; he shares with his protagonists a membership in the 1904 New York-based Explorers Club.
But his structural choices sometimes warrant a scratch on the head. Short chapters keep the story moving, but 52 might be too much. Some chapters seem to end before they’ve even started, pulling you out of a certain arc as you’re being pulled into it. Windy detours during the earlier fight between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst help pave the way for the upcoming Times -Announce the showdown – and also predicts today’s real-time 24/7 news cycle – but sometimes feels disconnected from the story available.
Given how big Ochs looms in “Battle of Ink and Ice,” it’s a shame he didn’t give the historic record more of his thoughts on the fiasco that “stood The Times head and shoulders above its peers,” as Hartman writes. He doesn’t let that deter Ochs from having the last word, which comes in a quote from the publisher’s last will and testament: “I trust that the news columns can continue to present the news of the day honestly, without friend or enemy.—”all news fit to print.” ”
Joe Pompeo is a Vanity Fair correspondent and the author of “Blood & Ink: The Scandalous Jazz Age Double Murder That Hooked America on True Crime.”
BATTLE OF INK AND ICE: A Sensational Story of News Barons, Arctic Explorers and the Creation of Modern Media | By Darrell Hartman | Illustrated | 387 pp. | viking | $30