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Colonel Robert R. McCormick found something to smile about with Henry Ford, who had sued the Tribune for libel in the 1920s.

Colonel Robert Rutherford McCormick

Burton Cooke
South Middle School, Arlington Heights

Colonel Robert McCormick was a very important person in the history of journalism and of Chicago. He was the owner of the Chicago Tribune for several decades, and made it one of the nation's most important newspapers. He was an outspoken man of conservative opinions but was also an innovator in his field.

Robert McCormick was born on July 30, 1880, in Chicago. His parents were Katherine Medill McCormick and Robert Sanderson McCormick. He had two siblings, Joseph Medill, and Katrina, who died before Robert was born. Robert was taller and clumsier than other boys his age and something of an outsider. He and his brother were sent to the University School for Boys, near Lake Michigan. In 1889 his father became a staff secretary to Robert Todd Lincoln, Minister to London. The family lived in England for several years, and there the boys attended prep schools. When Robert was eleven, he went to the French Riviera with his mother. He was sent to live with a French couple so he could learn the language. The McCormicks went back to Chicago in 1893. Robert then went with his brother to Groton, a school in New England. He was shunned by the other students because he was a midwesterner. One summer Robert developed a profitable business installing doorbells in nearby


houses. That summer the things he learned about electronics would help him later in life. When he was eighteen Robert left school to live with his ill grandfather in San Antonio. His grandfather was Joseph Medill, the founder and editor of the Chicago Tribune.

In the fall of 1899 Robert entered Yale, as his brother had. The subjects he chose were physics, mechanics, economics, and accounting. When he was out of school in the summer he did a lot of traveling. After his senior year at Yale, he enrolled in Northwestern Law School. He was admitted to the bar in 1907.

At the age of twenty-three, McCormick ran for alderman of his native twenty-first ward in Chicago and was elected. Soon after that, he became president of the Chicago Sanitary District. He ran for reelection of the sanitary district in November 1910, but lost the race. In 1911 McCormick became president of the Tribune. He proposed a plan for the Tribune to build its own paper mill to keep the price of the newspaper low. In 1912 construction of the mill near Niagara Falls began, and was completed in 1914.

In 1915, during World War I, McCormick went to Russia to interview the Czar, and he and a cameraman made the first war newsreels in history. When he returned to Chicago he wrote a book about his experience. He then supported an invasion of Mexico in 1916, and actually became involved in the conflict as a cavalry major. Later McCormick went to Paris as part of a World War I artillery unit; at the end of the war he was a colonel in an executive post at Fort Sheridan, Illinois. During these years he saw firsthand the pain, death, and devastation of war, and he decided that the United States should stay out of such conflicts.

He returned to work full time on his newspaper; it was successful and grew, becoming the world's richest newspaper. His new Tribune Tower was begun in 1920. McCormick's ideas were progressive and innovative. His paper was the first to install a continuous line of all the printing press and folding units. And it was the leader in color technology, beginning in 1920 when the Tribune was the first to print more than one color on a continuous web of paper. While other newspaper owners were afraid of the competition from radio in the 1920s, he was enthusiastic about it and saw it as beneficial. The short radio news reports, he thought, would interest people in reading the longer articles in the paper. In 1924 he bought out the Zenith Radio Station in Chicago and established the station WGN. It was the first radio station to broadcast a World Series, an Indianapolis 500 race, and the Kentucky Derby; it even covered the Scopes Monkey Trial.

McCormick was a person who followed his own conscience, whether right or wrong, and used his paper to shape public opinion. He aroused the public to put pressure on the police and politicians to break Al Capone's hold on Chicago and put him in prison. In international and national politics he was a conservative and a Republican. When his father was working in London, Robert learned how the countries of Europe through many years made and broke alliances and fought many wars just to enlarge their territories. He remembered what he himself had seen in the battlefield and used his paper to urge Americans to oppose entering World War II. In this and in the matter of government spending and control he was at odds with President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal policies, and his editorials reflected this. He particularly resented Roosevelt's attempt to give the president the power to take away a newspaper's license.

McCormick was an ardent anti-Communist. However, his editorials condemning Communism and warning of spy networks helped make the American public paranoid. This played into the hands of Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s, when McCarthy accused many people in the U.S. government, army, and other professions of promoting Communism and even treason. The charges were not supported by evidence but many people believed him.

Robert McCormick died early in the morning of April 1, 1955, leaving the Tribune to its top executives. His was a lasting legacy of independent journalism in this country. One of the most lasting influences is the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, which he helped establish for future reporters.-[From John William Tebbel, An American Dynasty; Joseph Gies, The Colonel of Chicago; Gwen Morgan and Arthur Veysey, Poor Little Rich Boy.]


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