If the telegraph was the Victorian internet, its newspapers were the era’s web browsers and media feeds. In big cities, papers were updated twice a day, with morning and evening editions, and ‘extras’ appeared whenever the publishers had anything resembling breaking news to sell. In “Battle of Ink and Ice,” Darrell Hartman uses the lens of Arctic exploration to tell the gob-smacking history of the Age of Newsprint.

It’s a great story, thoroughly researched and exuberantly related. The media barons of those days were as famous as Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, and a lot more colorful. William Randolph Hearst (the New York Journal), Joseph Pulitzer (the New York World) and Horace Greeley (the Tribune) are the publishing names we most remember, but around the turn of the 20th century, James Gordon Bennett Jr., owner of the New York Herald, was the most notable of all.

A former employee described Bennett as “the most picturesque figure in the whole history of journalism,” and after reading “Battle of Ink and Ice” it’s hard to disagree. With an abiding interest in “singers, dancers, and actresses” and “a total inability to hold his liquor,” he was making news for his competitor’s papers as often as his own paper was trying to draw attention somewhere else.

He had an office in the Herald’s New York building that he never used and a 314-foot mega-yacht with personal staterooms on each of the boat’s three decks – one, the gossip went, for each of his mistresses. The ship even had a dairy cow so Bennett would never be without fresh milk and cream. Theodore Roosevelt, Hartman writes, once said of Bennett, ‘He possesses one redeeming characteristic: He lives abroad.”

Every day, the papers competed for eyeballs. Bennett’s Herald specialized in being first and covering the world. He reported the story of Custer’s last stand four full days before any other paper. Adolph Och’s New York Times presented itself as a nonpartisan “voice of reason” amid the clamor. Pulitzer’s World, in a precursor to tabloid journalism, gave the masses the kind of sob-story sensationalism they devoured. One Hearst headline shamelessly declaimed “WAR will probably be DECLARED.” When they didn’t have something real to report, they made stuff up. The only paywalls were the penny or three it cost to buy a paper.

Bennett knew his readers wanted adventure and drama, and he sent reporters around the world to find it. In perhaps the only anecdote Hartman missed in his entire book, Henry Stanley, the journalist Bennett sent to find the missing Dr. Livingstone, found time along the way to scratch three lines onto the Gate of all Nations at Persepolis. “Stanley New York Herald 1870.”


Amid the clutter and chaos, one persistent theme emerged – the quest for the North Pole. It was a litany of failure that the public loved. Before Bennett funded the disastrous Jeanette Expedition of 1879-1881, there was the 1845 Franklin expedition (disappeared without a trace), the 1871 Hall voyage (its leader poisoned), and a series of similar fiascos. And several decades later, the ambitious, egocentric Mainer Robert Peary had failed so often that Bennett stopped funding him.

Then, on Sept. 1, 1909, Bennett got a cable from an explorer named Frederick Cook. “REACHED NORTH POLE APRIL 21, 1908… HAVE LEFT EXCLUSIVE CABLE OF TWO THOUSAND WORDS FOR YOU…FOR WHICH I EXPECT THREE THOUSAND DOLLARS.” It was a massive scoop. Only five days later, the world saw another telegram, from an explorer funded by Ochs’s New York Times. “Stars and Stripes Nailed to the Pole. Peary”

The Peary-Cook controversy raged for two years, with doubts emerging about both explorers’ claims. Cook face-planted first, with critics and witnesses contending he never came anywhere near the Pole, but Peary’s diary and celestial data proved dubious as well. Researchers now believe he got close to the true Pole but never actually stepped on it.

Who cares? The North Pole is just a conceptual dot on a vast expanse of ridged and broken sea ice, and once Peary achieved his ‘first,’ it was decades before anyone bothered to be second. But Hartman’s immensely entertaining story about how the press made it important, and vice versa, is an absolute delight.

John R. Alden, a retired archaeologist who lives in Portland, has never been anywhere near either pole, and this book did nothing to make him regret that choice.

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