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C. K. McClatchy

C.K. McClatchyhr
McClatchy Newspapers
1858-1936

There were the predictable messages of loss from houses of journalism across the nation as well as from congressmen and governors and even the White House when the wires reported in April 1936, that Charles Kenny McClatchy had died at age 77 — bringing to an end his 53-year career as editor of The Sacramento Bee. And embroiled to the end in controversy.

Perhaps the regret C.K. would have treasured the most came from the pen of an obscure Nevadan C.K. had never met, but was representative of the many who had followed him through the years. His name: Seth Baldwin. Baldwin wrote from his home in a small mining town across the Sierra in Tuscarora: “Got my mail and in The Bee read of the passing of C.K. It made some- thing down inside me sick and brought tears to my eyes of which I am not ashamed. While you were placing him in his last resting place I stood with hat off and head bowed to honor C.K. the best I could ...”

Not all the mail that had come to The Bee during the more than half century C.K. had directed the newspaper was so caring. Take this response from the Colusa Herald to an editorial C.K. had written rejecting prohibition as unworkable:

“We have met the mad polecat on the staked plains of Texas. ...We have recoiled before the spiral of the flannel-mouthed moccasin — but (neither) has even given us the feeling of disgust, the stomach sick ennui, of good old fashioned bellyache that we get when reading the crazed ravings of that sinister saloon sycophant ... that disgusts the Sacramento Valley every- day ... in editorials in The Sacramento Bee.”

Any profiles on C.K. McClatchy necessarily must begin at the beginning with C.K.’s oft-expressed love and admiration for his father, James, editor of The Bee from its founding year in 1857 to his death in 1883 and who, incidentally, was installed in the CPA’s Hall of Fame in 1972.

C. K. teethed on his father’s typecase. So absorbed was he with journalism, he left Santa Clara University at 17 to take up his work alongside James; seven years later, at 25, he succeeded as editor at James’ death.

One need look no further than the guidelines his father established for The Bee to wonder what directions C.K. might take in his editorship — his dedication to his father clearly is understood.

James was among the first to fight land monopolists in the early years of Sacramento’s settlement. He went to jail for the cause, in fact, during the 1850 Squatters Riots. He would urge, all of his life, the fullest reservation of public lands for the people. And when monopolists proceeded to the ultimate — to ambitious plans to, in effect, subdivide Yosemite — he was among the first to protest.

In those turbulent years of Sacramento’s founding, James, as writer and as editor, fought hydraulic mining, demanded that the public interest not be forgotten in the giveaway to the railroads, urged public ownership of the utilities and the preservation of resources for the people; and in the middle of all this, he was constantly engaged in battle with the Legislature on issues involving the public trust, land reform and equity in taxation.

In the decades that followed, C.K. was to be found fighting the same battles — only with the extensions his own newer generation brought to the quarrels. He would:

  • Support labor’s right to collective bargaining.
  • Support the creation by municipalities of their own service facilities — gas, electric, water, sewage and waste control — owned and operated by the people, through governing boards elected by the people. Example: Sacramento Municipal Utility District.
  • Oppose, urgently, the rights of hydraulic miners to wash out the hills for pockets of gold. 
  • Urge, consistently, the adoption of charter reforms in county government and the manager form of government for the city.
  • Speak relentlessly for capital punishment. His credo: A life taken, a life given.  
  • Reserve, fiercely, the newspaper’s right to independence politically, and refuse to align The Bee with any “party, clique or faction.”
  • Speak out strongly against predatory influences of the railroads in the councils of government — city, state, state, nation.
  • Fight for the initiative and referendum to bring unresponsive councils and legislatures under more direct authority of the people.
  • Champion the direct primary and direct elections for president and vice president, and in the process abolish the electoral college; urge recall powers be reserved to the people; and strongly support women’s suffrage.

Two positions for which C.K. still is recalled and which made him a smoldering center of controversy in his decades in journalism were his constant opposition to prohibition and his rejection of the League of Nations.

One, prohibition, would be impossible to enforce, trafficked on certain personal rights of self and home and would produce a hypocritical and crime-oriented society, he held.

The other, the League, was the stuff of which dreams are made but, as drafted, membership would draw the United States inevitably into all of the petty border wars in Europe, he warned.

The dream of a world league was noble, he argued, but the mechanics offered for collective security against war were, in his opinion, idealistic at best and, at worst, fatally flawed.

He was so concerned about taking so stern a position against the league that he journeyed to Switzerland to personally view the League in session. He came away more convinced of his own judgment.

C.K.’s visit to the League was not extraordinary. He often personally examined the workings inside the watch, so to speak. He would attend both national and state conventions, in politics; he traveled the world widely, and would write dateline pieces from the most obscure places. He liked the up-front view. Partly as a result of this first-hand attention, his observations came to carry an authority lost to distance when the mountain beyond the horizon cannot be seen.

He took editorial positions most seriously, moreover.

Example: In the mid 1930s, several supporters of a certain gubernatorial candidate visited C.K. to protest The Bee’s endorsement of an opposition candidate. They urged C.K. to switch his allegiance.

“Mr. McClatchy,” one implored, “your candidate cannot possibly be elected. The Bee is riding a sure loser.”

C.K. leaned forward on his elbows. “My friend, I believe the candidate we are supporting is far and away the best candidate for governor in this election, and The Bee will support him if the only vote he receives is mine.”

In the years of James McClatchy’s editorship, the Bee had supported Republican presidential candidates consistently as the party of Lincoln and Union. In 1896, C.K. committed The Bee to William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat. Parting from the past, he argued the Republicans had turned the GOP into “slavery to the Big Trusts.” In the next years C.K. was to swing on several ropes — twice going to independent party candidates and hem-stitching his way, alternately between Democrat and Republican parties. The endorsements, summarized:

  • 1896 and 1900: William Jennings Bryan. Democrat. C.K. considered Bryan’s policies more expansionist, and Bryan as more independent of major money interests.
  • 1904: Theodore Roosevelt. Republican. Endorsed for his programs to develop the resources, reserve unspoiled lands for the people, assaulting the big trusts and ramming through conservation programs to protect the resources.
  • 1908: William Howard Taft. Republican. Taft came in with a strong record in trust-busting but by the end of his first term C.K. had become disenchanted with him. He found Taft “inconsistent” in obligations to his public trust.
  • 1912: Theodore Roosevelt. Progressive party. Roosevelt, too, was disappointed in Taft. “Teddy” was unsuccessful in gaining office himself but he brought down Taft — permitting Woodrow Wilson to slip in.
  • 1916: Woodrow Wilson. Democrat. Wilson had promised to keep the United States out of war and through 1916, he had. That alone was enough to support Wilson’s re-election, C.K. held.
  • 1920: Warren G. Harding. Republican. Harding had come out in opposition to the League. In itself, this was enough to win C.K.’s endorsement. But he harshly criticized Harding for “cronyism and favoritism” during Harding’s tenure.
  • 1924: Robert La Follette. Progressive Party. La Follette was both a strong and responsible independent who took aggressive stands on harnessing the resources, reserving lands for public use and writing stiff laws for conservation of the resources. Views shared by C.K. as primary obligations in public service.
  • 1928: Al Smith. Democrat. C.K. went to the Democratic Party in this election, favoring Al Smith over Herbert Hoover. He commended Hoover for his record in humanitarian interests but Hoover, he feared, would give “extraordinary allegiance” to money power “for that is where his heart is.”
  • 1932: This was the year of Roosevelt, and there was no question for whom C.K. would speak: FDR. One by one, Franklin Roosevelt introduced programs for greatly expanding hydroelectric facilities, creating flood control for the public safety — this, with first-priority concerns with caring for those struck down in the Depression. This was a candidate and a president for whom C.K. had waited most of his life; he supported him without reservation.

It is one thing to say C.K. spoke passionately for the unrepresented. It is another to quote from those who shared C.K.’s generation. Take three sound bites from his time:

Hiram W. Johnson, California’s governor and trustbuster and later, United States senator and very nearly president: “No cautious middle way was C.K.’s. He felt strongly, and he so expressed himself. He hated fraud and hypocrisy and mercilessly lashed both.” And of C.K.’s Fight for the Central Valley Project and the organized trusts fighting it: “Never would truth have survived the private power campaigns had it not been for the McClatchy newspapers.”

Themis magazine, in an 1889 profile on C.K. and The Bee: “Friend or foe who does not come up to The Bee’s standard of virtue while exercising public trust, must not expect to escape criticism or censure if he does not walk in the straight path ...”

Franklin Lane, an unsuccessful candidate for governor: “Had The Bee not given me its support, knowing it to be an independent newspaper, I would have felt less assured than I did throughout my campaign that I stood for policies which were of the utmost value to our people.”

There is an anecdote dating to C.K.’s request of President Taft for an interview during one of C.K.’s visits to Washington. C.K. would appreciate the interview, he sent word to Taft, but Taft ought to know The Bee had not championed Taft and was not seeking to champion him in this visit and that it “probably never will champion Taft.” Taft sent word that he would be “pleased to talk with the editor of The Bee.”

He called conspiratorial associations within society, such as the KKK, “an offshoot of treason” and in 1922 turned his entire reporting staff onto the Klan and exposed — naming names — Klan membership at a midnight Klan rendezvous in the Folsom Hills.

C.K. also fought the insurgency of “blue laws” in the early 1900s through which government sought to restrain, beyond public acceptance, Sunday work or recreation. Wrote C. K.: “Any law which checks the right of an individual is against the spirit of a free country and an outrage upon the liberty of the individual.” Only one Orthodox Jew, only one Seventh-day Adventist would have to be affected to make the law tyrannical, he insisted.

It didn’t seem to bother C.K. to hear himself being called the “town bully” or “boss editor.” Aberrations he bore even with humor. He tolerated quietly a Placer County newspaper’s reference to The Bee as “that dirty rag.” Nor did threats of libel suits disturb him. C.K. wrote in 1917: “Threatened on various occasions ... and boycotted by business organizations, with 19 libel suits on his hands, The Bee went forward on its way. Its proprietors ... believed that the course of determined honesty would pay in the long run; that the citizens would respect a paper, whether they agreed with it or not, that had the courage of its convictions.”

There was a rather tense moment, however, in 1893 when California legislators, making ready to adjourn, picked up the afternoon Bee to find a full page given to their shortcomings — with this headline dancing across all nine columns. “Thank God The Session Now Is Almost Over.” In it, The Bee charged the Legislature, that year, had been indifferent to the public good and that it had become notorious for the passage of corrupt measures. Reaction was instantaneous. Members took the floor to castigate The Bee and, finally, in a petulant mood, the Legislature voted to move the capital to San Jose where it thought it might be more appreciated.

Fear swept Sacramentans. Frightened, those attending a hurriedly called protest meeting pleaded with the legislature to reconsider. The Sacramento Board of Trade called for a boycott against The Bee to appease the wrath of lawmakers who had demanded that The Bee “be punished.”

C.K. reached for another piece of copy paper and “the shrieks of gangrened lawyers notwithstanding,” wrote: “The articles in last Saturday’s Bee were legitimate newspaper articles. The citizens of this city knew they were true. The Board of Trade knew they were true. The legislature knew they were true ...”

In a week’s time, the panic eased. The constitutional amendment the Legislature had authored, proposing to move the capitol to San Jose, was killed by the State Supreme Court. If anything, C.K. McClatchy was consistent. Some of the stories, man and legend, still are quoted in California journalism circles.

He had scant regard for money, as money. He was never very impressed with money. He knew it was necessary to any successful enterprise, but so far as The Bee was concerned, “The Bee shall never be run for the counting house.”

He believed that if The Bee insisted on its constitutional rights to publish, it was obligated to speak for the rights of all to publish — even the highly suspect International Workers of the World. C.K. argued the I.W.W. had the same rights to publish as The Bee, the San Francisco Examiner — as any publication within the mainstream press.

He refused, except for rare departures from policy, to speak at public gatherings. An editor, he said, should speak through his editorials. “He should report the news, not make the news.”

He thought too many in the newspaper business held exaggerated images of self-importance, writing; “The press is not sacred. It is not a holy of holies that must be approached with uncovered head …”

He believed that in times of national emergency, in the hours when the nation thinks it necessary to go on a war footing, if men are to be conscripted so ought labor and capital and the treasury. He spoke early and often for civil service.

And he asked, who can reasonably challenge labor’s right to bargain collectively, to organize? He would have created yet another recourse in labor-management disputes: compulsory arbitration.

And if society correctly holds labor to an accounting, its rights given, should not society create standards for public responsibility within capital? he asked.

C.K. urged, as well, the state printing of textbooks to cut out profit-taking publishers and the banning of high school fraternities with their tendencies toward creating an “elite” on campus; and consistently he took a watchdog position monitoring exploitation of child labor and women in sweatshop labor.

And trees. From James McClatchy’s years, the Bee had urged ambitious programs in the planting and their careful preservation. So consistent was that influence, Sacramento ranks with Washington, the nation’s capital, and Paris as a “city of trees.”

There is a story about two passersby who stopped to chat on a downtown street in C.K.’s time. “And did you notice the flag at The Bee is at half-staff?”

“No,” came the reply. “Did someone cut down a tree?”

The last years of C.K.’s life were years of expansion for C.K. — an expansion urgently urged by his son, Carlos, who — like C.K. — began his career with The Bee as a local reporter.

It was Carlos who persuaded his father to lake the McClatchy organization into radio, and, under Carlos, five stations were brought on line under the McClatchy letterhead — in Sacramento, in Fresno, in Stockton, in Bakersfield and in Reno.

It was Carlos, as well, who, serving as second in command to C.K., inspired expansion in McClatchy print. He personally guided The Fresno Bee through its first delicate years of growth. It was he who engineered the purchase of the old Sacramento Star and the old Fresno Republican for merger with the Bees and the purchase of the Modesto News-Herald, today The Modesto Bee.

Then came dark personal tragedy into the life of C.K. After 20 years of association with his father, Carlos died in January 1933, succumbing at 42 to double pneumonia. The California press, in commenting on his passing, singled him out as a quick study — bright, born to the pen — perhaps blessed with more of a business instinct than his father.

No more revealing a record exists, mirroring C.K.’s sense of loss, that the notice C.K. ran in the Bees 11 days after Carlos’ death. On Jan. 28, 1933, he wrote:

“I find it at least very convenient, if not necessary, to divest myself of any detail work in connection with the publication and editorship of the McClatchy newspapers.

“I will have an occasional fatherly eye over the direction in which the ships will sail and over the flags they will fly ... I hope, before long, to put on the harness again, and continue at my practically lifelong task of editorial writing until the good Father calls me.”

The “good Father” was not long in calling. Three years later, on April 27, 1936, C.K. died, at 77. Sixty years had passed since he joined his father as a local reporter; and 53 of those years he had served as editor.

It is impossible to calculate the loss to C.K. of his son, Carlos — and the loss to the growth of McClatchy newspapers and broadcasting under Carlos. He had only begun his work when he was taken. It is impossible, as well, to calculate the loss to both McClatchy newspapers and broadcasting had Carlos’ sister, Eleanor, declined to take over at her father’s urging. She was to put aside a career in theater as playwright and producer, already begun, and give the next 44 years to an almost fierce protection of precepts begun under James McClatchy and extended under her father.

The lone consolation C.K. might have taken in the years of his private grief was that he had on his staff a then-young Walter P. Jones — a political writer and tough-minded newspaperman. Jones was hand-picked by C.K. to succeed as editor, upon C.K.’s death. It was under his direction that The Bee won, for C.K. and the newspaper, its first Pulitzer award for meritorious public service through journalism. The year: 1935. One year before C.K. was to pass from the scene.

Paradoxically, C.K. himself had a great deal to do with winning the most coveted of Pulitzer awards for The Bee. It came with a Bee expose of corruption in Nevada court appointments after C.K. suspected unclean hands were at work and called his suspicions to the attention of his editors. The result: After two years of investigating, The Bee locked up the story — bringing about the expose and with it, reform. It was something special with which to cap a career spanning six decades.

Though gone, C.K.’s influence — in the direction of The Bee by Eleanor and Walter — was present. Eleanor once mused: “We knew what my father would have us do and we went about doing it.”

But these stories, of Carlos, Eleanor and Walter must be left for another telling, for they are, in themselves, the stuff of high drama.