For the 32nd episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Nick Hirshon spoke with Ken J. Ward about the libel suit that disreputable Denver Post publisher Frederick G. Bonfils lodged against the Rocky Mountain News in 1932.
Ken Ward is an an assistant professor at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. His article “‘The Vilest Man in the Newspaper Business’: F. G. Bonfils’s Case against the Rocky Mountain News” was published in the September issue of Journalism History.
This episode is sponsored by the Department of Communication and Media at Lamar University.
Nick Hirshon: Welcome to “Journalism History,” a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, guiding you through our own drafts of history.
This episode is sponsored by the Department of Communication and Media at Lamar University. The department offers undergraduate degrees with specializations in advertising, broadcasting, film, journalism, and public relations. Our fully online and traditional campus programs merge theory and practice together for the benefit of our students. To learn more about Lamar and our communication degrees, visit lamar.edu/communication.
Frederick G. Bonfils was one of the most successful newspaper publishers of the early 20th century, and one of the most despised. His remarkable transformation –
of the Denver Post was overshadowed by accusations of blackmail and land swindles, and in 1932, the Rocky Mountain News quoted a political leader declaring that Bonfils was “the vilest man who ever dealt in the newspaper business.” That characterization infuriated Bonfils so much that he lodged a libel suit against his paper’s chief competitor. And in return, the news dispatched a reporter to investigate Bonfils’ history of crime and corruption, not for publication, but to bolster the News‘ defense in court.
What followed was an unlikely series of events in probably the nastiest newspaper war that you’ve never heard about. In this episode, we discuss Bonfils’ libel suit with Ken Ward, an assistant professor at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. Ken, welcome to the “Journalism History” podcast.
Ken Ward: Hey, thanks for having me.
Nick Hirshon: We’re here today to discuss your article in the fall issue of Journalism History, which is named, “The Vilest Man in the Newspaper Business.” What a title [laughter]. Uh, and you –
and you examine it in this article, “The Newspaper War Between the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post,” particularly in 1932 when the Post publisher sued the news for libel. So we’ll get into the specifics there in a minute. I have to say that one of the key things that drew me to this topic, besides the fact, knowing that you were a distinguished scholar, you win many awards at conferences that I’ve been to.
Ken Ward: [Laughs]
Nick Hirshon: Is that – I was once involved in a newspaper war myself between a different News and a different Post. That was the New York Daily News, where I was a reporter for six years, and its main rival, the New York Post.
Ken Ward: Uh-huh.
Nick Hirshon: Um, so I thought it was just kind of interesting to see, like, “Oh, News and Post back butting heads again.”
Ken Ward: [Laughs]
Nick Hirshon: Um, uh, but, uh, first off, if you could just tell our listeners a little bit about why were you interested in researching the histories of these two newspapers in particular, maybe newspapers that don’t get a lot of other attention.
Ken Ward: Yeah. So this project actually came out of my dissertation, which centers specifically on the competition between these two newspapers for so, so long a period. Um, the Rocky Mountain News was –
the first newspaper in Colorado. It was founded in 1859 during the Gold Rush, and then the Denver Post came around a couple decades after that, but it really struggled during its first couple of years in the 1890s until 1895, when Bonfils, one of the guys, or really the main guy who’s discussed in this – in this article. Um, and another, uh, fellow by the name of, uh, Henry Tammen, or Harry Tammen, uh, purchased the paper and completely revolutionized it in all – all respects, uh, and then launched a newspaper war against the Rocky Mountain News that lasted until the Rocky Mountain News closed in 2009. Um, so this – this project came out of that much larger project that really looked at how those two newspapers went at it for that long period of time.
Um, and it’s relevant to me, because I grew up in Colorado. That’s really where – where the – the core of all this is. These were the two newspapers that I saw coming out of Denver to my home, you know, 80 miles away on the eastern plains of Colorado. And so both of them were sort of, uh, dear to me, and in a way –
they came out of my childhood, and I wanted to – to learn more about them, especially the Rocky – the Rocky Mountain News, which closed in 2009.
Nick Hirshon: And you describe in your article that there’s not a lot of scholarship that paid attention specifically to this libel suit that we’re gonna get into against the News. But has there been much out there in general on these newspapers, or I wonder, because of their geographic location, um, that maybe they get overlooked because they’re not in a market like New York, or Los Angeles, or Chicago where we tend to think about the beginning of the newspaper industry or the strongest newspapers over history. So do you think that they’ve been overlooked by scholars?
Ken Ward: Yep, 100 percent, uh, which is – which is an issue, especially with the Denver Post. The Rocky Mountain News was – was a well-respected and important newspaper. Um, and it – it deserves serious attention, but the Denver Post in particular deserves attention for – for reasons that are a little bit outside of – of what – what I talk about in this paper, but the big thing with the Denver Post is that it – it was a pioneer in yellow journalism. When we – when we talk about things related to yellow journalism coming out of the 1890s –
and into 1900s, um, we’d talk a lot about San Francisco. We talk an awful lot about New York, but Denver, Colorado gets left out of that mix, and I don’t know if it’s because it’s flyover country, or because, you know, people just like to focus especially on New York, which is a bias that – that runs through, you know, our literature. But it’s – it’s something that needs corrected because of – of the important role the Denver Post played, um, not only in – in, uh – uh, pioneering, uh, developing yellow journalism, but also as a force in the Rocky Mountain region, um, its – its coverage area. It claimed for itself and delivered to, um, all the way up to Northern Wyoming, uh, at least as far south as Santa Fe, New Mexico, west to Salt Lake City, and east to Kansas City. It was the dominant newspaper in a very large, uh, geographic region. Um, and so for that reason alone, it deserves our attention.
Nick Hirshon: For sure, and you mentioned before the main figure in your article is the publisher of the Denver Post, Frederick Bonfils.
Ken Ward: Uh-huh.
Nick Hirshon: And you describe how he transformed what was a failing –
newspaper at the time that he bought it in 1895 into the highest circulation paper in Colorado. The title of your paper, I really wanna get into this, because I just think it’s kind of a cool title, as I said before.
Ken Ward: [Laughs]
Nick Hirshon: Um, it’s an excerpt from a quote where the state chair of the Democratic Party called Bonfils “the vilest man” who ever dealt in the newspaper business. So could you just give our listeners a little bit of a setup here? Introduce Frederick Bonfils. Why was he perceived as so vile?
Ken Ward: Yeah, so – so – and – and you’re right to say, “Why was he perceived as so vile?” because there was no proof of this. There were an awful lot of rumors in Denver, um, but that was it. I’m trying to remember exactly when he was born. I wanna say it was 1860, um, but after he was born, he went to – he sort of – he was born in Troy, Missouri.
He wandered around a little bit. He was at West Point for a while, but flunked out because he couldn’t – he couldn’t, uh, get – get good enough at mathematics, apparently. Um, he was – he – he was in New York City for, I wanna say, a year. Then he shows up back in Kansas City –
in the real estate business. Um, and it’s here that the rumors later are based, because in Kansas City, there were rumors that he was involved in some land frauds and things like that, and that later in his life, that he had been involved in maybe some – some illegal lotteries, because he claimed that he had made the money with which he and Tammen bought the Denver Post by winning the lottery. Well, the rumor was that he was in fact the one behind the lottery, and that it was fixed, that he was actually, uh – uh, just – just raking in all the profits from lottery sales, but those were just rumors.
None of that had any – any proof, but these rumors were persistent in Denver. So when Bonfils comes in, buys the Post in 1895, makes it a – a monumental success. As he’s ascendant in the market, he’s starting to really rub shoulders with some people, um, such as the Rocky Mountain News, which before he had come, was not a dominant newspaper, but was the leading newspaper in Denver. Um, and Bonfils had just this way about him of [laughs] – he was – he was – he was aggressive –
– um, both in – in his editorial style, and in his business style. Uh, business tactics bordered on blackmail, um, and in some instances, probably crossed that line into blackmail. Um, and all of these – oh, he – he was involved in a couple different shootings of which he was the target, not the shooter. Uh, he was involved in a fistfight with the, uh – uh, editor and publisher of the Rocky Mountain News, who at that time was an old man.
Uh, Bonfils just walked up behind him and clubbed him and then yelled at him not to mention him in his paper again. So there are a lot of reasons why people might have looked at Bonfils and – and called him vile. Um, but again, with the exception of maybe some of these assaults that he committed, or – or attacks that he was the subject of, it was primarily rumor.
Nick Hirshon: Mm, I see, and just an aside there, because I mentioned the state chair of the Democratic Party, Walter Walker, I think was his name –
Ken Ward: Uh-huh.
Nick Hirshon: – called Bonfils the “vilest man.” So in addition to his role in the party, Walker was the editor and publisher of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel –
in western Colorado.
Ken Ward: Uh-huh.
Nick Hirshon: And I understand that newspaper publishers are often involved in politics. When I was at the Daily News, again, Rupert Murdoch was the publisher of the New York Post, and Mort Zuckerman was the publisher of the Daily News, and they were, of course, involved in political movements and sometimes endorsing candidates and appearing with them.
Ken Ward: Uh-huh.
Nick Hirshon: But it seems like a newspaper editor being so involved would certainly be viewed as a conflict of interest today.
Ken Ward: Certainly.
Nick Hirshon: Um, and I then – there may have been a – a bit of a – just a misnomer of the title, “editor and publisher,” but I’m just curious about that. In your research, is it common for there to be a publisher and editor who is that involved, that they are acting as the state chair of the Democratic Party while editing a newspaper?
Ken Ward: Uh, it’s not – it’s not actually that unusual in Colorado, and that’s one of the interesting things about Colorado, and why even [laughs] – I’m constantly trying to expand into – into new areas of research in the new regions. I’m really focused on geography, and maybe that’s a shortcoming, but you know, I’m – I’m really drawn to Colorado. I keep trying to find other research projects –
but there are these really unique things about Colorado – and those states around it that just keep drawing me back, and one of them is that Colorado was, you know, it was a frontier state. And it maintained, especially in parts of it, this frontier mentality, especially on that western slope, which is where Grand Junction is. It’s on the – on the western side of the state. Those mountains have a very independent streak in them.
And so that may be one reason why, um, this – this particular, uh, guy felt justified in both serving, uh, you know, his job as a newspaper person, and also being involved in politics. But again, it – it was a frontier region, uh, and it had this spirit of – of being on the frontier. And one – one thing that’s characteristic of a frontier press is, um, that the – or the – the partisan press tends to linger, or intermingle more with the commercial press, um, and so, you know, when we talk about the partisan press, that – that, you know, we – we look at as being dominant after the American Revolution, and uh, picking up steam in the early 1800s and lasting –
for several decades thereafter until the penny press rises. Well, it didn’t just die right then and there. Really, the partisan press continued on for decades. I mean, it’s still alive today. Um, and the way that it interacts with the – the commercial press is – is where things get interesting. In Colorado, those two coexisted for a very long time because, well, for a variety of reasons, but one of them is this frontier spirit that – that persisted.
Nick Hirshon: So just to continue this narrative here. After Walker spoke and called him “the vilest man,” a reporter from the Rocky Mountain News writes a story that extensively quotes Walker saying things that you say could be viewed as injuring Bonfils’ reputation, or advocating even violence against him, and sure enough, Bonfils sues the paper for libel, seeking $200,000 in recompense. So can you just catch us up on what was the legal standard for libel at the time? I know you mentioned that a little bit, but was, you know – were libel suits common, or legally what would you have to prove if you were going to wage a libel suit?
Ken Ward: Whew. Well, if – if the standard of libel here, I mean that gets into what – what the defense of the Rocky Mountain News was going to be, right? So if something is libelous, it’s – it’s injuring the reputation of someone in a way that – that has some material consequence. And that can just be the material. It can just be their – their reputation, right? So if – if what the – the News, the Rocky Mountain News published that someone else said injured Bonfils’ reputation, then Bonfils can then turn around and try and sue for some – some kind of damages.
Now today, you have various defenses as a – as a news organization. And one in particular says that if something is – or, uh, regardless of whether something is true or not, if a public figure says something, and it’s potentially libelous, you as the news organization aren’t necessarily liable for repeating that, because the fact that it was said by someone is in fact itself newsworthy. Well, that defense didn’t exist at this time, so anything that the Rocky Mountain News went out and – and published –
it had to stand by, and if it was false, regardless of who said it, it – it could be liable for it. Um, so that’s – that’s the basis of the legal case, which means that the Rocky Mountain News has to, uh, if it really wants to be safe, has to prove that what it published was true, which means that, you know, uh, some of the – the – the key phrases were that – that Bonfils was particularly mad about included, “The day will come when some persecuted man will treat that rattlesnake as a rattlesnake should be treated, and there will be general rejoicing.”
Bonfils was really upset about this particular passage because it seemed to be that the Rocky Mountain News was – was agreeing that someday, somebody’s gonna shoot Bonfils, because that’s what you do with a rattlesnake. Which means that if you’re the Rocky Mountain News, and you’re trying to prove that statement true, that you have to find a way to compare Bonfils to a rattlesnake. Which means you really have to absolutely destroy his reputation, or show why his reputation was so low that it could not be damaged.
Nick Hirshon: And I certainly wanna get later into how libel law evolved, and maybe –
even in part because of this suit and everything, um, but I appreciate you giving us that context of what it was like at the time, what they were up against when they were thinking of how they were gonna defend themselves.
Ken Ward: Sure.
Nick Hirshon: So, uh, was it common at this time, do you think, for newspapers wars to kind of transcend the pages and go into courts, whether for a libel suit or any other sort of way? I mean, it seems like, uh, you know, nowadays when we think of a newspaper war, certainly when I think of Daily News/Post in New York, as I had mentioned, uh, you know, this is mostly things of reporters competing for stories against each other. And every now and then you hear kind of a fanciful story about maybe a reporter slashing another reporter’s tires so that he cannot get to a scene as quickly.
Ken Ward: [Laughs]
Nick Hirshon: And, um, you know, these kinds of things that are mostly, uh, you know, restricted to the actual reporting of a story, and just taking heart when you have higher circulation numbers.
Ken Ward: Uh-huh.
Nick Hirshon: But, uh, to actually go to a court to kind of hope to kill a newspaper, or really harm them long term, I mean, is this something that was going on in –
Colorado newspapers, or just other frontier press at the time?
Ken Ward: That’s – that’s a question that I’ve really been curious about, and – and – and in the course of researching this article, I tried to find some – some good information on this, and I was unable to find, um, a – a lot. There – there – there was no good, like, core source that talked about that, um, because I, again, my core interest here is, uh, in the larger study related to these two papers as the way they competed with one another. And I’m very curious how newspapers used the law directly against one another to compete.
There are other types of law that they often will use as weapons against each other, or against newspapers in other markets, like the Newspaper Preservation Act. Um, but when it came to libel law, and them, you know, weaponizing it against one another, I couldn’t find very much material on that whatsoever. So that’s not to say that it didn’t happen, but it either hasn’t been studied very well, or it just wasn’t happening very often. And I can tell you, it certainly didn’t happen very often in Colorado.
Nick Hirshon: Right. Well, that seems to make your thesis here even more interesting, um, that it is such an unusual, extraordinary thing.
Um, and another key figure in the article is Wallis Reef, the investigative reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, who was dispatched on this months-long fact-finding mission borne out of this coverage and the libel suit itself. So can you tell us anything about Wallis Reef, either his background or sort of what he was assigned to do and how he handled that?
Ken Ward: Yeah, I don’t know a ton about Reef. Um, the reason that – that he forms the core of this study is because as a part of this larger project, I was – I spent – oh, God – I spent a lot of time at the Denver Public Library because they have all sorts of fun, uh – uh, stuff related to Colorado history. Uh, and in the part of digging through some stuff that related to journalism in the state, I found this collection of this guy’s reports of – of Reef’s papers from his – his investigative journey that – that this – this article focuses on. Um, and it was so substantial that I could not not use it, and we were talking about – I’m trying to remember how big that collection was. I wanna say it was, like, three – two or three research boxes. So, like, great, big copy boxes –
full of his day-to-day reports, um, with information on Bonfils’ past. Uh, it was just – it was fascinating to read because you get such a – such a clear idea of who this guy was in terms of his – his sort of journalistic, investigatory spirit. Um, yeah, but – so – so his – his charge was, um, after Bonfils filed this libel suit, the attorney who the Rocky Mountain News hired to defend the paper, um, his name was, uh, Philip Van Cise, and Van Cise really needed information.
He was desperate for information, because if – they either needed to scare Bonfils off by saying, “Look, we have all of this information about your past. We’re gonna show this in open court unless you drop this suit,” and really, that was their main strategy. That’s what they wanted to do. Or two, try and prove true the things that had been said about him. Um, in order to do either of those two things, they needed proof. They needed things to back up these rumors that had been floating around Denver for decades. So Wallis Reef was the guy who was picked to go out –
and dig up that dirt. Now, they had some people working in Denver as well, but – but Reef was the one who was sent on this – this multistate trip, first down to Texas, then over to Oklahoma, uh, and then to Missouri, uh, and – and, uh, in Kansas. All over the place, just trying to find out whatever he could to back up these rumors about Bonfils.
Nick Hirshon: And you’ve mentioned how you found some of this information, the sources you consulted, including Reef’s papers. Uh, so you went to primary sources in Colorado, Indiana, Ohio. Can you describe where they were, how scattered they were, what kind of conditions they’re in, because I think sometimes the actual investigative work that you did as the researcher is very interesting and kind of goes unseen sometimes by the reader or the listener. So can you just describe to us, you know, where you found all this stuff, and what condition it was in?
Ken Ward: Sure. Uh, the stuff in Colorado, boy, it’s – it’s been a little while. I’m trying to remember. The stuff in Colorado was part of this. There were several core collections –
that were – that were useful to me, and they – it was – if it was part of the collection that I’m thinking it was, which is the Bill Hosokawa papers at Denver Public Library, it was this largely unprocessed, um, or at least poorly organized mass of – I wanna say it was 10, 17 boxes. It was a ton of stuff, uh, and this happened to be nestled in it. And again, I probably wouldn’t have found this if I weren’t so obsessed with this other, you know, this larger project. And that’s the nice thing about this – this separate project, is it’s borne out of some bigger work that I wouldn’t have come across unless I were trying to do something, you know, that’s – that’s ranging all over the country.
And then the stuff in Washington, D.C., you know. When you deal with the Library of Congress, at least in my experience, it’s – it’s – it’s a breath of fresh air compared to what you sometimes find, because it’s often very well organized. Um, you – you – you – it’s – it’s just a really smooth process. Um, but I did have to go to D.C. in order to get it, and then the stuff in Indiana, um, was just stuff in the Roy Howard papers. Again, the stuff in DC was –
in the Roy Howard papers as well, but the stuff in Indiana that I had found online that seemed relevant to the Rocky Mountain News, or I hoped it would be, uh, and it – it happened that, uh, the folks there were able to e-mail me PDF’s of it. Roy Howard only came up because he was, you know, the – the – the lead of Scripps Howard, the Scripps Howard newspaper chain, during this particular era. And so I was just hoping that maybe he was sending personal correspondence to folks, uh, in Denver. And he did a little bit for this project. He did a lot more for the larger project, but I was able to glean some important things relevant to this study from, you know, like, it was a handful of relevant documents in D.C. and Indiana.
Nick Hirshon: That’s what interests me so much about my own research or research, uh, the fact that these things are scattered, unorganized. You’re kind of a detective looking for clues sometimes of, well, did this person, who was maybe an ancillary character in the main story, but they somehow saved some of these documents that ended up maybe in a far-flung place, and –
Ken Ward: Mm-hmm.
Nick Hirshon: You mentioned even traveling –
to D.C. and all of that, um, so that there are things that go in archives that are not even in the obvious geographic locations that we’d expect.
Ken Ward: Right.
Nick Hirshon: And it all – and it goes, but then you’re, you know. You’re really doing a benefit for the readers, because then you’re culling all of these different sources, different places, together, and, uh, presenting it as one kind of cohesive story. So it seems that – yeah.
Ken Ward: And it – it winds up being kind of – uh, I – I agree it’s fantastic. It winds up – once – once it happens to you a couple of times, and you find something relevant to a project that was, you know, by some – some minor character in the story, it winds up sort of intruding upon other research that you’re working on, because suddenly you’re going, “Okay, I need to do a dragnet search for any name, you know, that – of someone who worked at this newspaper, because maybe they left some, you know, handful of letters that’s at some archive somewhere.”
And so I have to go and look everywhere. Um, that’s one thing that actually came out of – out of this research that’s – that’s giving me a little bit of trouble now, is the desire to go out and look everywhere for everything, um, because it’s just – it’s exhausting. And – and I certainly don’t have time to do that sort of thing now.
Nick Hirshon: Sure. It’s certainly time consuming, and can end up, uh, leading to us never finishing a project.
Ken Ward: [Laughs] Exactly, yeah.
Nick Hirshon: “There’s gotta be one more library. I’ve gotta wait and see!” Um, but I just think it also just speaks to your determination, what makes the final research so rewarding, hopefully for you, and certainly for the reader, um, to see all of that effort go into something like this. Um, so you stated in the article four primary reasons why you feel your research is significant, and I wanted to just kind of go over those one by one.
Ken Ward: Mm-hmm.
Nick Hirshon: Uh, first you’d argued that you were able to demonstrate the length of the shadow cast by Bonfils and the Denver Post. So what do you mean there about the length of their shadow?
Ken Ward: Yeah, that was – that was my main goal, was, um, you know, you – then I – I – I didn’t explain this very well earlier. You had asked whether – whether there was research on these Colorado papers or not. Uh, and the answer is there – there’s some, like, uh – uh, newspaper-specific histories. The Denver Post has a book. Bill Hosokawa, this – this guy whose collection is involved here, wrote a book called Thunder in the Rockies –
uh, and so he wrote about the Denver Post. Uh, Robert Perkin, uh, wrote a book called The First Hundred Years, which is a history of the Rocky Mountain News up through 1959. Those were the two big texts that have been written about these books – or these newspapers, and in a – in each of them, there’s a lot of rumor about Bonfils and his past. And it’s – it’s interesting.
It’s the same sort of rumor that had been echoed throughout Denver throughout Bonfils’ life. Uh, and so my – this – this main purpose of this work was to go back and say, “Look, Reef, although we only have his reports, Reef is telling us there is proof of these things.”
We don’t need to always cast it, you know, in – in – in these – these soft terms and say, “Well, these are rumors that Bonfils had done these things.” Well, if we can trust Reef at least, we – we can say, “No, he – he was, in fact, involved in land fraud. He was involved in an illegal and fraudulent lottery, and he was in fact – we can – we can at least come very close to saying a blackmailer.” Um, and so there – there is this long shadow, this – this – this villainous streak –
that he has, and to – as far as the – the length of that shadow goes, that stretched throughout this region because Reef found, the investigative reporter, found that when he got to Oklahoma and Texas and Kansas City, that – that the people there who may have known something about things Bonfils did when he was – he was involved in these illegal things in those regions didn’t want to talk to him because they feared Bonfils. We’re talking about places that were hundreds of miles away from Denver, where they maybe still got copies of the Denver Post. Um, they were with – within the – the broadcasting range of 850 KOA, which was a broad – or a clear channel AM radio station that reached into Oklahoma and Texas. These people were afraid of Bonfils and the power that he had because of his Denver Post in Denver, um, and so [laughs] that – that shadow really stretched farther than I think people understand. His – his – his influence on American journalism and on the goings-on of – of the sort of Rocky Mountain region extended well beyond Denver.
Nick Hirshon: I’d certainly like to return to that theme –
a little bit later, thinking, you know, are there modern figures who kind of inspire that same sort of [laughter] – a reporter calls, or an editor, or a publisher, owner of a news organization that has that same sort of reputation, but that’s very interesting to hear. Um, so the second reason that you give is you say that you were contextualizing Bonfils’ involvement in an earlier journalistic crisis of great historical significance, and that is the enforcement of the code of ethics that was established by the American Society of Newspaper Editors in the mid-1920s. I have to admit, I’m more familiar with the code of ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists that I’m involved with. Um, but can you tell us a little bit about this, uh, crisis, and I guess it’s kind of lending to the establishment of a formal code of ethics. It seems like some of the practices on both sides here, on the News and the Post, may not be considered ethical today.
Ken Ward: [Laughs] Well, that’s – that’s certainly true. Um, yeah, so – so this – this research dovetailed into something that – that I’m working on right now, and um, as I was –
going through revisions on this article and – and the lead up to publication, this is just something that, uh – that the reviewers mentioned. Well, I know something about it. Maybe I need to include that here. And that is that, uh – uh, in the – in the 1920s, the, uh, American Society of Newspaper Editors newly created, right, had its first annual conference in 1923, created or, uh – and – and – and put into – into – into force its – its code of ethics there at that first national meeting.
Um, they very quickly found themselves with a member who seemed to be in violation of that code of ethics, that – that member being F.G. Bonfils, who was – was involved in the Teapot Dome scandal. Um, and so very quickly, the ASNE had to turn around and go – they – they just wanted to create a code of ethics. Uh, they didn’t necessarily want to talk about how they should enforce it, and in fact, as it turns out, they really did not want to talk about whether or not to enforce it because they knew that it was probably gonna stick a wedge in between, uh, you know, uh, among their membership people who said, “Oh, we should go out and police journalists.”
And other people who said, “No, right? Ethics are a personal concern. How could we go around policing, and what power do we have anyway?” Um, and [laughs] so as – as a result of Bonfils being a member of this organization, once, uh, Bonfils wound up in Washington, D.C., testifying before the senate investigatory committee about his role in Teapot Dome, suddenly the ASNE is going, “Oh, God. Now we – we have to decide whether or not we’re going to – to, you know, be the journalistic police.”
Uh, and Bonfils forced that issue [laughs]. Uh, had he not been there to – to, you know, cause this particular controversy, the ASNE probably would’ve gone several more years, at least, without going, “Well, can we enforce this upon our members, or upon, you know, people outside of our organization or not?”
Nick Hirshon: And just before we get into some of those other reasons that you mentioned your research is significant, do you feel that that had a long-term impact on the way that journalism ethics was defined?
Ken Ward: Oh, boy. I think so, uh, because, uh – so yeah, and that – that – that’s something that – that this – this, uh, research doesn’t deal directly with, but –
comes up. It’s – it’s important because, um, what Bonfils wound up doing in that ASNE case was threatening to sue every member of the board of directors if they actually tried to enforce their rules on him, and so the ASNE backed down. And so the connection there is, well, he’s threatening to sue the Rocky Mountain News for libel. Would he have actually followed through with this? Um, because as we’ll see, once we get a little later in our conversation, we’ll talk about how this – this particular case ended in a fairly nonconventional way.
Um, but did this have lasting, uh – uh – a lasting impact, the – the ASNE case, on the way that we look at journalistic ethics? I think so, because in the 1920s, we were sort of riding this crest of professionalization in the industry, trying to decide, okay, are we – what are we? Like, are we – are we independent, you know, practitioners? Are we artists? Like, is there an art of journalism, or is there a profession of journalism? Do we have these – these clear rules? Uh, one thing that came up in the – in the course of the ASNE’s deliberations were, like, are we – are we going to –
police ourselves like lawyers do, and like doctors do, because that’s what a profession does. Are we that kind of profession, and if so, what does – like, what – what are going to be the ramifications on our industry of that? Um, and as a result of the ASNE deciding, uh, not really to police its members, that really backs away from professionalization in some profound ways, because it means that we’re not gonna have a supreme court of journalism, which was a term that was sort of bandied about when the ASNE came – came along.
Um, we don’t have this group that’s willing to call out journalists and say, “Look, we’re going to sanction you in some way,” right? We’re not – we’re not just concerned about awards and accolades for journalists who are outstanding. We’re a profession. We have standards of conduct, and when you violate those, there will be some kind of – of penalty, some kind of repercussion. The ASNE decided, because of – or, uh, in context – in the context of the Bonfils affair, not to enforce that way, and as a result, journalism evolved the way that it did.
Nick Hirshon: Sure. Well, getting back then to those reasons you thought –
your research was significant here –
Ken Ward: Uh-huh.
Nick Hirshon: – you, uh – you explored the experience of a reporter loaned out by his newspaper. We talked about this a little bit before with Wallis Reef – to research not a story, but a legal case, and you know, there’s not much scholarship on the culture around professional practices of journalists in the first half of the 20th century. So can you get a little bit into that experience of this reporter dispatched to research the case?
Ken Ward: Well, this is – this is one of the things that I thought was most important to – to put down in this article, um, which reviewers pushed – pushed back a little bit and said, like, “Why – why is this actually important?” And my response is, “I don’t – we don’t know whether this is important to talk about in this article or not,” because there’s no real research that I could find, um, that was specifically about journalists doing journalism things, right? Acting as journalists, but not as journalists, right? So he’s a – he’s a journalist. He works for the Rocky Mountain News as an investigative reporter, and now, instead of going out and investigating for a story for the public – you know, for public use, uh, dissemination –
he’s instead doing the same thing, but for an attorney, which to me, makes him more like an invest – like a private eye than it does a reporter. And so I’m very curious, like, what are the – what’s the overlap between those two skill sets? What’s unique about this experience or, this is the big question, is it unique? I can’t – I can’t find proof in the literature that this was happening very often. I can’t find proof in the literature that it happened in another case. I’m sure it did, but this seems to me to be fairly important because I – I’m very interested in how these skills that journalists have, um, parlay into these opportunities or these – these – these, I don’t know, applications in other fields.
Nick Hirshon: Um, and also just, I guess, the overall finding, a – a journalist finding himself in a situation where you’re kind of fighting for the reputation of your own employer, uh, and all of that. Just the – the ethics of it and the –
Ken Ward: Absolutely [laughs].
Nick Hirshon: – maybe awkwardness of it, um, especially when – uh, certainly when I was in the newsroom.
You know, reporters pride themselves on being neutral, and we’re not involved in that part of it, and even if you are part of a News–Post war, there’s some understanding that, well, we’re all colleagues here. We’re all out to get the truth and bring it to readers, um, but then actually to be like, dispatched in this way. It just seems so unconventional.
Ken Ward: Right.
Nick Hirshon: And it would, uh – it would certainly make you question your own role.
Ken Ward: Well, and I think it’s – it – it – that – that alone is important, because, uh, in – in – in Denver, things were collegial, right? Of course – of course, I don’t think people were like, you know, disdainful of people who worked with the other newspaper, but the competition was real, and there was very little sympathy for journalists on the other side, whoever was on the other side of the fence, and this, I think it’s really interesting to note that this persisted up at least until the 1990s, and probably into the dying days of the Rocky Mountain News in the early aughts, because I, in – in – in the course of the larger research, talked to – to journalists who were talking about, you know, hiding. They would go to the – the – the – the local –
police station to go through police reports, and they would take whatever was significant that was in those police reports, and hide them somewhere around the police station, or at the bottom of the stack, or you know, find – find some way to disrupt this. Um, there was animosity when someone would switch teams, um, and go to the other side. So – so yeah, in Denver, I – because, uh, as – as we found, or as I found on this, Reef did not feel at all bad about digging up dirt on Bonfils. He felt no journalistic, um, like, tension between this – these – these two roles of being a journalist, but also being after this guy. No, he [laughs] – he had no qualms about doing that. He was out to get Bonfils in – in any way that he could.
Nick Hirshon: Mm-hmm.
Ken Ward: And I think that’s both because his newspaper was under attack, but also because of who this guy was. There – there was no – in – in this – in this town, and especially with this particular character, nobody seemed to really be upset about any journalistic ethics that may have been pushed aside, um, because there was – there was something that needed to be told, or anything that they could use against Bonfils was worth digging up and pursuing.
Nick Hirshon: It almost sounds like a Netflix series, or a documentary, or a feature film we’ll see someday. It’s like [laughter] just the kind of a story there, just being the supporter, going after, uh, the publisher of his main rival, and I don’t know. There’s a – there’s a really cool story I think that you’ve stumbled on here, um, so okay. So then you – you mentioned fourth that this article highlights an episode in American newspapering with tremendous implications to the Denver news market, and the potential to affect the Scripps-Howard chain as a whole, and how this libel suit marked the end of this multiyear detente in the newsroom. So can you talk about that aspect of, uh – of this article?
Ken Ward: Yeah. So – so this deals with the competition between these two newspapers. Um, Bonfils had owned this newspaper with Tammen, since, well, Tammen was – no, was Tammen dead? He died somewhere in the 1920s. Anyway, Bonfils had owned this newspaper since 1895. Scripps-Howard comes in and buys the rival Rocky Mountain News in 1926. Uh, and does –
they do a really weird thing. E.W. Scripps, who built that chain, had died. Roy Howard comes in and does something completely uncharacteristic for the Scripps-Howard chain. He comes into Denver. He literally comes into Denver, and goes before – I think it was the chamber of commerce, a packed audience, and said, “We just bought the Rocky Mountain News, and we’re gonna spend as much as it takes to destroy the Denver Post.”
Like, we are going to own this city, um, which is – was the antithesis of the Scripps model. The Scripps business model said that the way E.W. Scripps had built his chain was, you buy a newspaper cheap, you strip it bare, and then you let it – like, you put it in the pond, and if it sinks, it sinks. If it swims, it swims. You just throw it in, um, and so the Scripps chain had a – a real penny-pinching, uh, attitude.
And so Roy Howard is coming in now that he controls the Scripps chain. He comes into Denver and he says, “It doesn’t matter how much it costs. We’re going to win this fight.” That – that just does not make sense –
to Scripps-Howard. It really marked a turning point in Scripps-Howard history. Um, and so this – this episode comes after the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News had, um, in, I wanna say 1930, had finally said, “We have to stop the bleeding.” Those two newspapers had spent so much money trying to outdo one another in this war that Roy Howard started that they came together and – and formed a collusive agreement.
They agreed to split up the market in – in certain ways, and so there had been this uneasy peace for a couple of years between 19 – uh, 1929, 1930, until, um, this particular libel case. Bonfils had constantly been pushing the envelope, pushing the boundaries of this – of this collusive agreement. Um, and by suing the Rocky Mountain News, he in effect threw the entire agreement aside, and the implication was the war’s back on. Um, that we could see these two newspapers spending millions and millions of dollars trying to push the other one out of the market and monopolize Denver.
Nick Hirshon: Mm, so you kind of teased this before about how did the reporting play out then? What exactly was Reef able to find out about Bonfils and how was this, uh, received by the readers?
Ken Ward: Well, so as far as the readers go, the readers of the Rocky Mountain News did not get any of this. It wasn’t published. The stuff that Reef was doing, he was doing as a private investigator. Even though he’s a journalist, he’s – he’s – he’s not collecting information that’s gonna wind up in a story. Now, they’re recognizing as he goes, and he’s in correspondence with his editor this whole time, and that – that’s another, uh, source that’s – that’s in his papers.
Um, and his – his editor is saying, “Damn, this looks like a good story. Like, you’re – we’re gonna – we’re gonna make some hay out of this once you get back, um, but for now, we have to settle the case.” So the readers aren’t getting any of this, but, um, Van Cise, who’s the attorney representing the Rocky Mountain News, is getting some pretty useful stuff. So when – when – when Wallis Reef, the reporter, leaves Denver –
um, he leaves at a time when the defense has just been given a real blessing in the form of a huge legal misstep by Bonfils and his attorney. Um, Bonfils basically refused to – to comply with a deposition. He refused to answer some questions for no apparent reason. Like, it was so stupid, that decision, but as a result, Van Cise, the Rocky Mountain News‘ lawyer, was able to say, “We’re gonna have to let a judge decide on this,” and he bought himself two months’ worth of time to go out and dig up more dirt.
And so Reef gets sent out. He goes down to Oklahoma, because the first thing he wants to look into is this land fraud. So he goes down to this – this place where Bonfils was supposed to have been active in real estate. Uh, the – the town that existed that was – that was involved in the investigation was Canadian, Texas. So he goes down to Canadian, Texas. He starts digging around –
and he finds a bunch of information about Bonfils having perpetuated this land fraud, claiming that there was a town called Oklahoma City, and selling plots of land to people in Kansas City for this land in Oklahoma City. Well, the Oklahoma City that people were buying land in was not Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Again, this is – this was also around the time where – where a settlement opened up in Oklahoma. Uh, it was not in Oklahoma. It was in this paper town called Oklahoma City, Texas.
Nick Hirshon: Hmm.
Ken Ward: He wasn’t telling people this. He was telling people that they were buying land in Oklahoma City, and in fact, they were buying land in Oklahoma City, Texas. Reef was able to find that Bonfils had in fact platted out – plotted out – platted out a town called Oklahoma City, Texas, that nothing had ever been done to improve or develop Oklahoma City, Texas.
Nick Hirshon: Wow.
Ken Ward: There was nothing there. That Bonfils had put his name –
to – I can’t remember the number – hundreds, something like 700 plots of land in Oklahoma City, Texas. That on at least 50 occasions his name was on deeds that had already been sold to someone else, which means that not only was Bonfils selling plots of land in a town that didn’t actually exist, but sometimes he was selling the same plot of land to two different people who thought they were buying land, uh, in this town that existed that didn’t in fact exist. Um, and Reef was able to go down and find deeds that – that – that showed that Bonfils had been doing this.
So, uh, to Reef, this says, “Okay. He – he is committing land fraud,” right? Um, we’ve – we’ve got him on one of these things. We have proof of – of this – this dastardly activity on the part of Bonfils. So that was his first coup.
Um, and he found – oh, boy. The – some of the things – he actually went out to where Oklahoma City, Texas was supposed to be. Uh, there was nothing there. There was, in fact, a barbed wire fence running straight down –
where the main street was supposed to have been. He talked to a farmer, a rancher who owned some of the land and said, “Was there ever a town here?” And he said, “There has never been a damn thing done here.” Um, there was never anything.
He talked to another person who said that he had lived in Canadian. This is – that was his hub. He – he had lived in Canadian his whole life. Um, he told Reef that he had been there when – when a few people showed up, trying to find Oklahoma City, Texas.
Uh, and there was this – this, uh – my – my favorite example, a family of, I think it was five people, um, who showed up from Kansas City. Uh, the – the – the man in the family had owned a butcher shop in Kansas City. They had sold absolutely everything that they owned, all their butcher stuff, you know, his – his way of life, the way that they supported their family. They had paid, you know, spent everything getting a train ticket, getting train tickets, getting to Oklahoma City, Texas.
Showed up, and got to Canadian. Were told this town doesn’t exist, and they were just destitute. They had – they had spent – they had given away and spent everything that they had trying to get to this town that didn’t exist. So that was pretty significant.
Uh, and Reef – Reef felt pretty good when he found that information out, because he felt that they finally had concrete proof that Bonfils was doing some – some pretty nasty things.
Nick Hirshon: Ken, as you’re talking about this, I’m like, “Come on, you’ve gotta turn this into a documentary,” or [laughter] a movie. I mean you could play one of the characters. I don’t know. Just – I could just even see the scene when Reef turns up in the city and he’s talking to the farmer over a barbed-wire fence, and I – “There used to be main drag here? There used to be a saloon? There used to be–“ and he’s like, “Nah, not in this town, partner.”
Ken Ward: [Laughs]
Nick Hirshon: Um, it just seems so incredible, uh, that you’ve – you’ve uncovered this. It’s a – it’s a really fun story. I mean, as you’re just, uh, you know, doing all of this research, was it surprising to you, you know, continuously that there hadn’t been more done, or just how colorful this all kind of turned out to be?
Ken Ward: Yeah. Well, that’s the thing. Like, Reef’s papers, they – they – they weren’t a secret. They were sitting in the – the – the Denver Public Library. It’s not like they’re in some small, uh, public library out on the western slope, hidden somewhere, where nobody found them. No, they’re in Denver Public Library –
like, it’s – it’s this massive collection that’s just been sitting there, and we – we – we would’ve been talking about these rumors about Bonfils. Um, people continue today talking about these rumors about Bonfils, largely because there was a – a – a book written on the Denver Post, um, by a former staffer that was at least 50 percent made up. And so that just intensified the rumor aspect of all of this.
Nick Hirshon: Hmm.
Ken Ward: But I’m reading the things that Reef did. I’m going, “Uh, I know that we don’t have 100 percent proof,” but we have – we have what Reef says that he found there. But we have an investigative reporter for the Rocky Mountain News saying that he’s finding these things out there. Like, this is – this is a big deal. Well, why – why – why has this story not been footnoted somewhere?
Um, so yeah, it was – it was – it was remarkable to stumble upon. It was – it was a – it was a very good day, I can tell you that, when I opened up that box and went, “Well, boy. There are an awful lot of really well-organized reports right here. Let’s – let’s dig into this.”
Nick Hirshon: Right, because essentially you’re telling a story, right? I mean you’re trying to add to scholarship and generalizable knowledge and all of that.
Uh, but you’re telling a story, and I just think it’s so vivid. The sort of scenes that you describe, uh, make it really, uh, come out.
Ken Ward: Well, thank you.
Nick Hirshon: Um, yeah, of course. Um, and so then, you know, so that’s how his reporting or his investigation, uh, kind of goes. So what happens with this libel suit?
Ken Ward: Well, that’s the thing. So that – and I should – I should mention that was just the first step. From – from Canadian, Texas, he takes off. He – he pursues a couple leads out in, like, far northwest Texas, and then goes up to Guthrie, Oklahoma, because there’s a building still standing today, if I’m not mistaken, that has F.G. Bonfils’ name at the top that he – he – he funded. He goes to Alva.
I wanna say it’s on the Oklahoma side. Uh, Alva, Oklahoma, where Bonfils, um, sort of built, uh, the local government out of $40,000, involved in building a new county courthouse, I think it was. Then, uh, Reef went on to Kansas City, where he uncovered Bonfils’, uh, activity in – in the lottery. Again, this is the lottery that Bonfils said that he had won. Um, and this was the biggest – I think, the biggest success that –
that Reef found. Um, he found a – a – a barber in Kansas City, um, who claimed – who claimed – we – we can’t know this for sure, but this guy claimed that he had been the guy involved in Bonfils’ lottery, that Bonfils had – had sat in the top of this building in Kansas City, had run this – the Little Louisiana Lottery, he called it, throughout the region. The people all over the region and several states were buying tickets for this lottery. That this guy, uh, the – the barber, I think his name was Harry Lay, would go to some town around with a ticket in his pocket that Bonfils had given him. He’d go to some town.
He’d buy a lottery ticket in the Little Louisiana Lottery. He would wait around until the lottery, uh – uh, you know, that the numbers were called or whatever it was. Um, he’d wait around for like, another week. Then he would go to one of the shops that sold the lotto tickets, and he would say, “Hey, do you happen to know what the winning numbers were, you know, on – in this particular drawing?” And then he would produce that ticket that – that – that was planted in his pocket, um, and say, “Oh, I won the lottery,” and –
make everybody think that it was a legitimate lottery. Meanwhile, Lay would go back to Kansas City, get some, you know, some small sum from Bonfils, and Bonfils would just rake in these illicit lottery earnings. Um, and – and, uh, Reef, while he was in Kansas City, found a little bit of information to back up that, including, um, a prosecution against Bonfils for not – not quite lottery fraud, but for the illegal operation of a lottery. Um, so all of that went into Reef’s invest – in that. Those were all things that he uncovered about Bonfils, so you had the land fraud.
You had the lottery fraud. Um, and he also pursued some leads related to blackmail in, uh – in Kansas City that were pretty compelling as well. Um, but you asked about the – the libel suit. Um, so the libel suit sort of toiled around in Denver. It – it got stretched out because, um, after – if you remember, uh, um, Bonfils had walked out of a deposition. He had said, like, “I’m not answering these questions.” Um, and they had actually just stopped that deposition. Well, two months later –
they reopened the deposition in which Bonfils was supposed to answer questions from Van Cise, the Rocky Mountain News‘ attorney. Uh, they got in a few questions, after which point Bonfils started getting obstinate again, and refusing to answer questions, and at one point Bonfils and his lawyer just walked out of the deposition, which again, was just the best possible thing [laughs] that could’ve happened for Van Cise and the Rocky Mountain News, because now they get to turn around and go to the judge and say, “Look. We’re trying to do this thing by the book, but he’s just refusing to cooperate in this – in this – this, you know, charge that he himself has levied against our newspaper. What are we to do?”
Nick Hirshon: Right.
Ken Ward: [Laughs] Um, and the judge says, “You know what? Yep. Uh, we’re gonna – we’re gonna – he’s – he’s guilty of contempt, right? He’s – he’s in contempt of court at this point.” Um, and that gets stretched out. At this point, um, Bonfils’ main strategy is just to, it seems, kill the case. He’s realizing, “Oh, God. I really – I – I don’t know.” I – I struggled, myself, to understand, even at this point, what Bonfils’ thought process was –
exactly here. Um, how he thought this would end, because unless he expected the – the Rocky Mountain News to settle in some way, um, he had to know that he was either going to have to drop the suit, or that he was – he was going to lose. Um, but at any rate, he continues pursuing the case. Um, he tries to sort of make it go away by appealing his contempt charge, which he thought would stall out this case by tying it up in the Colorado Supreme Court, because the supreme court was a couple of years behind on its docket. It was just way behind on cases.
Van Cise managed to convince the – the Supreme Court to, “No, you don’t need to decide that right now. Um, you can decide that in two years when you’re caught up, but meanwhile, we can let the rest of the case go forward,” um, which meant that Bonfils was scheduled to be deposed. At this point, the judge says, “Look, if you’re not gonna cooperate behind closed doors, we’re gonna do this in open court,” which is Bonfils’ worst nightmare, because this means that all of Denver’s reporters are gonna be in the room. This means there are gonna be a bunch of spectators in the room. Bonfils had been in court in –
several times in the decades prior, and every time it was a spectacle. The courtroom was literally overflowing. People would – would stand and peer in the windows, trying to find out all of the salacious details about every little thing that he happened to be involved in. Um, and Bonfils was looking at this exact same thing happening in this case.
Nick Hirshon: That’s just all incredible, to think about how it played out, and, uh – and also, like you say, what was his mindset? But it seemed like maybe his personality was just such that he wanted to lash out by leveling this libel suit without any real consideration of long-term consequences or outcomes, and more just, “I want to make this difficult in the short term,” but then he wasn’t willing to put in the work to make sure this was a successful suit. Um –
Ken Ward: Well, that’s exactly it, and – and it – and as his – what – what happens here, that’s – that’s the connection with the ASNE, right, is to what extent is it bluster, and to what extent is it – is it true? Is he really trying to pursue a libel suit? Um –
and this is in – in the ASNE case, it doesn’t get to – to court, right? The ASNE backs down. It says, “Okay, fine. We’re gonna let – we’re gonna let this slide in our case.” They found some procedural way to – to weasel out of it.
In this case, the Rocky Mountain News stands – stands up and says, like, “No, we’re going to – we’re going to fight this in court.” Perhaps Bonfils’ hope was that the Rocky Mountain News would issue a correction, or a retraction, or something like that, or apologize. I’m not – some kind of concession, um, but I – I don’t know.
Nick Hirshon: All right. Yeah, that’s what just makes it even more puzzling and interesting to talk about, so –
Ken Ward: Mm-hmm.
Nick Hirshon: Um, how did this then affect the, you know – in – in the aftermath of this suit, the relationship between the Post and the News and their history. Uh, what can you tell us just in the – kind of a summary of what kind of happens after all that.
Ken Ward: Yeah. Well, the – the outcome of the case is really what determines that. So it looks like everything is building up to this big court day, which was supposed to be, uh, in – in very early 1933.
Um, it – the case had been in the court for, uh, eight – eight or so months, nine or so months at that point, and there’s a court date that says Bonfils is gonna show up in court on this day, and he’s gonna have to answer all of these questions in front of everybody. The thing is, Bonfils doesn’t show up that day. Uh, Van Cise is incensed. He says, “Judge, like, clearly let’s do this contempt thing again, because he’s refusing to show up, you know, when the court tells him to show up. We’re supposed to do this thing.”
The judge says, “No, no. No, no. Like, let’s see what’s going on,” um, because Bonfils’ attorney had said that he’s not – he wasn’t in court because he was ill. Um, that night, it turns out, oh, he was very ill. Uh, and Bonfils died [laughs], uh, overnight on – on the way to the – the next day. Um, and so that’s the actual resolution of this case, and that’s probably the reason why we don’t see any precedent setting. We don’t see anything like that with this case, is because the case just sort of fades away because Bonfils is dead, so first of all, the libel suit dies. He can’t – only – only the person who’s been libeled can pursue a libel suit.
And so there’s no – Bonfils can’t litigate it anymore if he’s in – if he’s – if he’s [laughs] in the ground, um, and at the same time, so – so the – the libel suit disappears, but what does Reef do with all this research? This is the real, I think, tragedy of the story is Reef went out, and he dug up all this stuff. This also explains why it’s just in – in Denver Public Library instead of in a – in a book written already somewhere. Reef did all of this research, but what – what is the point in publishing it at this point, right?
If you’re the Rocky Mountain News, sure, nobody’s looking around going, “Oh, yeah. Bonfils is dead. That’s so sad,” right? Everybody knows, “Okay, Bonfils is dead, like, boohoo.”
Uh, he – he wasn’t a great guy, but at the same time, the Rocky Mountain News can’t just turn around and start publishing all of this dirt that they found on Bonfils. That would be pretty bad. That would – that would be bad optics, and so all of this [laughs] stuff that Reef did, um, which the Rocky Mountain News‘ attorney, Van Cise, said, “Oh, like, you guys should let Reef write a biography of this guy. Like, he – he knows it all.” All of his research just disappears. It’s just in those boxes in the Denver Public Library.
Because there was no, you know – there’s – there’s certainly no honor in publishing that – that – that, uh, dirt so soon after Bonfils has died, but there was no reason, and certainly no legal reason either. Um, so all of Reef’s hard work, um, had served a purpose, because it gave Van Cise the confidence to walk into – into the depositions and into the courtroom knowing that he had a pretty damn good chance of the – of the case winding up in favor of the Rocky Mountain News. Um, but in terms of, uh, all of that, all of that information, it just – it just sorta got buried. Now, you asked about the competition, like how did that change the dynamic in Denver?
Um, and the answer is the case really didn’t, long term. But Bonfils’ death was a monumental shift in – in Denver journalism because Bonfils was the spirit of the Denver Post. Um, we could talk at length about what – what it was that he did that made the Denver Post what it was, but, um, despite Bonfils’ many, many faults, he breathed life into that Denver Post, and he made it a force to be reckoned with in –
American journalism. And when he died, the guy who replaced him, a guy with the last name of Shepherd, um, was a – a shadow of – of the – the man that Bonfils had been. Um, and the – the life really just gradually started hissing out of the Denver Post. It came back a little bit in the, oh, ’40s and ’50s, um, but really, it was – the Denver Post – the Denver Post has – has long been a good newspaper. It’s going through troubles right now. It – it has a very long and storied history in Colorado, but the Post under Bonfils was the Denver Post. That – that is what made, um, really Denver journalism what it wound up being, um, in – in the 20th century.
Nick Hirshon: So many – yeah – so many incredible things that you’ve just said there. And, uh, I also think sometimes, I don’t know if you feel this way, but when you were describing Wallis Reef, I guess either he or one of his descendants decided to, uh, leave behind these papers to the Denver Public Library, and make them available so that you could turn them up so many years later.
Uh, you almost just want to, like, thank these people that they had the foresight to do that. Um, and you also of course wonder how many other stories go untold because things are discarded, you know? He could’ve immediately thrown away all of his papers, all of his research, and said, “Oh, I did that.” Move onto the next story –
Ken Ward: [Laughs]
Nick Hirshon: – um, as a lot of reporters do, or he could’ve been a packrat, but then someday someone comes in and yeah, he passes away, and they say, “All right, take it all out to the dump.”
Ken Ward: [Laughs]
Nick Hirshon: And it never sees the light of day, right? Um, so the fact that it’s somehow made its way to an archive –
Ken Ward: Right?
Nick Hirshon: – uh, that – that maintained it and why we’re so grateful for, uh, the donors, and for the archivists themselves, librarians who make this available.
Ken Ward: Uh-huh.
Nick Hirshon: Um, it’s another great part of that.
Ken Ward: Well, and that’s – that one of the – one of the – actually, one of the shortcomings of this study, and one of the – the – the obstacles that I have to – to – that I run against in my Colorado journalism research all the time is that Bonfils is really the guy who – who is at the center of a lot of these stories. And I’ve got these papers from Reef. I don’t have anything from Bonfils.
Bonfils didn’t keep anything. Um, and so – so in this particular study, that means it’s a little lopsided towards the Rocky Mountain News‘ perspective, and certainly Reef’s, right? Reef comes out of this looking like – like a hero. He comes out looking bulletproof, and Bonfils looks pretty bad. Um, it would be really nice to have some material offsetting that so that we can get a little bit more of the Denver Post‘s perspective, although I don’t know how it would redeem Bonfils in any way. But, you know, yeah. You really – if – if only Bonfils or some of these other characters had kept something. In Bonfils’ case, and I’m pretty sure that he destroyed these things knowing that they were a legal liability, but, uh – but yeah. Yeah, absolutely, what you’re saying is true.
Nick Hirshon: Yeah. That’s just, uh, incredible, so, uh, moving forward then, just to look at, again, some of the impacts that are still being felt today or just similarities you see. Uh, when you were doing this research, now that you look back on all of it, uh, is there any similarity between the way that these news organizations acted and anything you see play out in a modern way, whether it’s in terms of libel suits or just these kinds of ridiculous ways of competing –
with each other through a court system, or anything else that kinda reminded you of things that we’re still experiencing today?
Ken Ward: I don’t. I don’t know. I don’t know that I do, really, um, because I think that some of this was symptomatic of – of its – of its time. I think that it’s, you know, I really have to reign in the number of times that I say, “Oh, well, things just aren’t the way they used to be in journalism,” because I don’t think [laughs] – you know, I think that’s something that we all understand.
We don’t need to draw any more attention to, but let me just say journalism ain’t the way it used to be [laughs]. And – and the things that we’re talking about here involve two, you know, behemoths. Two – two very large newspapers with – with massive resources. And so they’re – they’re willing and able to – to go out and do things like this in a way that, um, you know, at least in American journalism, um, news organizations probably aren’t often willing to do. But this is also still an era of personality in journalism, and like at the – at the – at the top of these organizations –
um, when we think about some of these names, and I wanna put Bonfils in this category, but when we’re looking at people like Scripps, we’re looking at people, um, you know, the – the heads of these New York newspapers. We’re – we’re still talking in – in the era of – of folks like Pulitzer. Um, and so some of it is that today we don’t have the same – I think – the same kind of personality, uh – uh, driving the industry forward, or making newspapers the sort of individual products of – of their minds and their – their temperaments that, um – that maybe we used to.
Nick Hirshon: Yeah, I was gonna ask you about that, because I had mentioned it before. Is there a modern Bonfils, um, in any way? Just – you were talking about the way his reputation stretched so far that people are maybe afraid to contradict him, or talk about him, uh [laughter], miles and miles away. Um and uh, just that kind of a, uh, reputation as “the vilest man” in the newspaper business, um, but you think that for whatever reason we don’t have, maybe because the newspapers themselves were not that strong. I feel like there were still –
figures, whether it is, you know, the Murdochs, and the Zuckermans.
Ken Ward: Right.
Nick Hirshon: Or just, uh, you know, Jeff Bezos, and other people who are involved in news media.
Ken Ward: Uh-huh.
Nick Hirshon: Uh, who have had maybe some element of personality, but you’re right. A lot of times we think of these large, uh, media organizations, and, uh, don’t necessarily know who’s in charge, or it’s kind of – the ownership keeps changing with time. There’s someone who’s the owner, who is not really, uh, placed at the center the way that maybe the, you know, a CEO or some other figure is.
Ken Ward: Right.
Nick Hirshon: Um –
Ken Ward: And – and – and some of that may be that, you know, that we deal so often anymore with publicly traded journalism, um, where we don’t – we don’t have – people don’t build up these chains the way that they used to, you know? The – the – the names that I – that I listed a – a little while ago, all of those people started their newspapers, or took them up from a very low level and built them into something – something massive. Um, and they were starting things, and so because they were starting things –
they had their hand in it from the very beginning, or near the beginning all the way until it reached the tippy top. And so their organizations couldn’t help but exude their – their character and their influence, whereas today, you know, the – just the ownership structure or the management structure of these organizations, uh, changes that so much. We do still see, you know, different chains and different newspapers do still have a character based on their composition or their makeup. If you look at any of the – of the Digital First newspapers, right, so that’s the owner of the Denver Post.
Um, they’re – they’re largely held by Alden, which is a hedge fund that – that really likes to milk newspapers, the profits out of them. Um, that results in a particular character in the Denver Post that it didn’t used to have, and that’s a result of its ownership structure. Um, but it’s not the same sort of character-driven, you know, personality-driven, um – um, nature that newspapers used to have, or media organizations, period, used to have.
Nick Hirshon: Well, and that seems to be somewhat to your benefit that you identified characters like that, and that you had some of the resources to really, uh –
portray them so vividly in your article, in our conversation. Um, it may be a problem for future journalism historians when they’re looking back and trying to describe some of these things. There’s always gonna be personalities, reporters, editors, and the people who they’re covering, for sure. Um, but it seems like you’re part of that era, as you’re saying, Hearst, Pulitzer, um, a lot of people who are, uh, just real characters to talk about. Um –
Ken Ward: Well, and I do. Just – just to – just to, uh – there’s – there’s something that I’ve – I just noticed in the past, uh – it’s – it’s been bugging me for a couple of weeks now, is just I’ve – I’ve been thinking about where I’m going next with my research. Um, and I don’t think I’m gonna go this way, but I – I was just thinking about how little research there is on the chains that dominate, like, historical research on the chains that dominate the media today. Uh, we like to – I know I certainly like to spend my time with these older chains that are so – you know, they’re characteristic of this – this era in journalism, um, that’s – that’s a little bit romantic and is certainly very interesting. But that doesn’t make the chains that are active now and have been built over the past few decades –
while they may not have the same character behind them, that doesn’t make them any less important to – to understand from a historical perspective. Um, and so, um, yeah, I was very fortunate in that there’s a Bonfils involved here, and that’s easy to hook readers in with, and it’s easy to get interested in myself. Um, but it – uh, if anyone here is listening who’s looking for research topics, I certainly would encourage all of us to start looking at some of these forces that are still dominant today in American journalism. And – and treat them – treat them, you know, with – with seriousness, and – and try and look at them from a historical perspective so that we can understand even better what’s going on today.
Nick Hirshon: That’s very well said, and I do think that these conversations can be inspiring, you know? Even as you were describing some of the characters, and the sources that you used, and all of that, I start thinking a little bit about, oh, projects I wanna do, and how I can –
Ken Ward: Right [laughs].
Nick Hirshon: – maybe go about it in – in similar ways, so I appreciate that. Um, so a final question that we always ask the guests on this podcast is, why does journalism history matter? Because it’s something that you’ve –
devoted so much of your time to, um, you know, your career. You’re a media historian. You go to all of our conferences, and submit to our journals, so, uh, in a broad way, why does journalism history even matter for a study, for the significance of overall history?
Ken Ward: I think that what – what drew – what – what keeps me interested in it is that I cannot help but see ways that – that the past informed and can influence the present and the future. Um, and it – it’s trite to talk about, you know, history repeating itself, and it doesn’t really repeat itself, and you know, the whole – it – it sure does rhyme, or whatever. Fine, but when we’re looking at problems that journalism is facing today, they are not unlike problems that journalism has faced over and over and over again when it comes to, um, the intrusion of these new technologies, when it comes to disruption. And if we want to help current journalists, current media organizations, leaders –
uh, and scholars who may do other types of research than we do, if we wanna help them in some meaningful way, um, we can pursue topics in history that deal with issues like disruption that can help them look for meaningful adaptations that journalism can – can pursue today, um, in the pursuit of a stronger journalism. It’s also just a lot of fun, and I think that’s really important [laughs]. Um, you know –
Nick Hirshon: Yeah.
Ken Ward: – uh, historical research in so many ways is so close to the type of journalistic research that a lot of us got hooked on, um, and so in – in that respect, you know, it’s just – it’s just a strong draw. It just feels natural to – to – to study history. Um, but I think that it – I think it matters. I think it – it is absolutely relevant to modern day concerns, to contemporary concerns. And for that reason alone, um, it’s worth finding the right research topics that – that can inform the present and then pursuing them.
Nick Hirshon: Well, you’ve turned up such an incredible story. Thank you so much for, uh, turning us onto it too, um, and, uh, giving us so much time –
to describe it so vividly.
Ken Ward: Of course. Thank you so much for having me on. This has been fantastic.
Nick Hirshon: Thanks for tuning into this episode of the “Journalism History” podcast, and additional thanks to our sponsor, the Department of Communication and Media at Lamar University, and to Taylor & Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Until next time, I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow, “Good night, and good luck.”