Give Light

Saturday 9 February 2013

After writing a short note here yesterday about weak and deferential journalism in the United States, I was reading today about a fearless American newsman from a different age.

In the 1920s, Carl C. Magee kicked up a shitstorm when his Albuquerque newspaper published revelations about what was called the Teapot Dome scandal. This was, according to the History News Network:

...the most famous of several scandals that ruined the reputation of President Warren G. Harding, who served from March 1921 to August 1923 and is often described as the worst president our country has ever had. At its bare bones, Teapot Dome is a simple case of bribery. Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, a former senator from New Mexico and a friend of Harding's, was convicted of taking bribes from oil executives.

Magee's newspaper, the Albuquerque Morning Journal, had apparently infuriated President Harding by revealing details about this corruption. He was later called to testify in Washington and his testimony helped convict Fall, who was sentenced to one year in prison and fined $100,000.

There was a backlash against Magee during these years. He received death threats, was physically assaulted, and one district judge at the time was implicated (pdf) in efforts to discredit, or possibly imprison him. Eventually he was forced to sell off the Journal after being driven close to bankruptcy by financial institutions which, under political pressure, refused to renew his loans.

But Magee couldn't be stopped for long — emerging just two months later with another newspaper, named Magee's Independent. On the front page, printed beneath the sketch of a rising sun, there was a motto: Give Light And The People Will Find Their Own Way.

The firebrand continued to call out corrupt officials and reveal wrongdoing in a regular column titled "Turning on the Light." He was unfazed by the threats and intimidation.

"They did as they pleased without criticism," Magee was quoted as saying. "State institutions were run negligently. Public money was deposited in the banks, and state officials took the interest and put it in their own pockets."

Magee died in 1946 aged 73. A brilliant character whose tenacious muckraking embodied the pure spirit of good journalism.

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