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The Boss

By David Dayton McKean
This Web version, edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2003

In almost any city in the United States if a tax rate had one up under one administration from $921 per thousand of ration to $43.38 per thousand – accompanied by increases in assessments that brought the average to 100 per cent and many properties to 150 per cent – and if on top of that another increase in the rate to $53.13 were announced, there would have been scathing newspaper editorials denouncing the waste and inefficiency of the party in power. But when Jersey City announced, January 20, 1940, these tax rates and the highest budgets in history, there was not even a word of newspaper protest. The editors printed the budgets and wrote editorials about theater film booking, the execution of two Irish murderers in England, and a drive on relief chiselers. Out-of-town newspapers commented upon the general salary increases in the budget, but not the Hudson County newspapers. Whenever Mayor Hague is engaged in some public controversy the editors are sure to be found on his side; they love to harp on the tune that outsiders have not been called upon to advise Jersey City, that if they don't like the way things are run there they need not come in, that if they would look at their home towns they could find sufficient matters for reform, and so on. In other words, there is no newspaper criticism of public officials or public policy in Hudson County, but constant defense of what seems indefensible.

There are three leading newspapers in Hudson County, all of which circulate throughout the county. The morning paper is the Hudson Dispatch, published in Union City, which adjoins Jersey City on the north. The Dispatch had a circulation of 27,586 in 1939. The Jersey Observer is an evening paper published in Hoboken; the circulation for 1939 was 36,722. The one daily published in Jersey City is the Jersey Journal, which had 39,535 circulation in 1939. The small total circulation for an area containing 650,000 people is to be accounted for in part by the circulation of New York City newspapers in Hudson County; because of the commuting population, exact figures cannot be obtained, but the total probably exceeds that of all the Hudson County papers.

The Jersey Journal was once a militant anti-Hague paper. Its files for the twenties contain every sort of printable charge against the Mayor. Its reporters opened up most of the charges which the Case Committee subsequently investigated; and indeed its constant hammering did much to move the legislature to investigate. While the investigation continued, the Jersey Journal kept up its attack.

The organization counter-attacked on every possible front. In 1926 an assessment of $375,600 on the Journal property had been set by the State Tax board. This was increased to $550,000 by the Hudson County Board of Taxes and Assessments. Mayor Hague asserted that the Dear family, owners of the Journal, had attempted to obtain a quarter of a million dollars in excess of the true value of their property from the city at the time of the Journal Square improvements. The City Commission changed the name of `Journal Square' to Veterans' Square; but the railroads would not change the name of their station, and Journal Square it has remained to this day, although the official name is still Veterans' Square. Public printing, of course, was taken away from the Journal. Firemen and policemen were ordered to subscribe to a rival paper, and each man was expected to obtain four extra subscriptions.

The hardest blow was the boycott of theater advertising; every moving-picture house but one withdrew its advertising. Although a permit had been extended to that theater shortly before, suddenly more than twenty violations of police, fire, and health regulations were discovered, and it was closed up. As for the others, the Case Committee later discovered that they had been paying from 1924 to 1928 to a Joseph Bernstein, a member of the Jersey City Board of Education, between $50,000 and $60,000 a year in connection with a campaign to permit the showing of moving pictures on Sunday; Mr. Bernstein could not find his check book or his bank book when the committee wanted to see them, but other owners did produce cancelled checks; so that the control of the organization over the theaters was established. (Transcript, p. 1103.)

The Jersey Journal charged the Mayor with receiving part of the money that Bernstein admitted he collected. This allegation displeased Hague; he said to the Case Committee:

The papers, the Jersey Journal, has had a headline every night ... charging me direct.... Now, I think it is unfair for this Jersey City paper to associate me with that. Senator Yates. Why don't you sue them for criminal libel?
A. Well, you know what you get suing a paper for libel, Senator.

Mr. Watson. Don't you think you could have done something?
A. No, sir. (Ibid., pp. 1108-1109.)

Finally, Assemblyman Joseph P. McDermott of Hudson County introduced a resolution to impeach Judge Joseph A. Dear, editor of the Journal, who was also a lay judge on the Court of Errors and Appeals. The lay judges are paid a per diem for each day they certify that they work on a case, and he alleged that Judge Dear had put in bills for days when he was not in the state.

Gradually the Journal became more temperate, and then the attacks ceased altogether. When Judge Dear's term expired, he was reappointed by Governor Moore. The theater advertising came back; the legal notices reappeared; and the Journal got its share of the public printing. All is now friendly. When the Mayor was on the stand in Newark in 1938, he testified that Mrs. John Rickett, wife of a political columnist on the Journal, had a thirty-five-hundred-dollar job as `investigator' for the Court of Common Pleas of Hudson County. (Transcript, pp. 1321 and 1356.)

The Hudson Dispatch has always been a loyal pro-Hague paper. Its editor, Haddon Ivins, the Mayor called `one of my best friends.' He ought to be, indeed, for he has the five-thousand-dollar sinecure position of state librarian. The Dispatch is owned by the Hudson Dispatch Publishing Company, in which the Mayor has been reported to have held stock.

The newspapers came into the C.I.O. case because the Mayor testified that from them he got his information of the danger of a red `invasion' of Jersey City. He was asked about the Jersey Observer.

`Now, Mayor, the Observer is a pretty reliable sort of paper from your point of view, isn't it?'

`Yes,' he answered, and went on to add that it frequently printed the ballots.

Whether the Observer has any employees at the present time on the public payroll does not appear, but in 1929 the Case Committee showed that one reporter was supposed to be working full time for the city while also working full time for his paper.

The freedom of the press in Hudson County is thus checked in three principal ways: by the use of property assessments, by advertising boycotts, and by putting editors and reporters on public payrolls. The freedom of the press is often asserted as if it is a right that involves no corresponding obligation on the part of the newspapers to uphold the public interest; on this basis it would be easy to castigate the press of Hudson County for its supine acceptance of the Hague regime. But the publishers are perfectly aware of what can be done to them, and, humanly, they have elected to stay in business.

As the Mayor testified, the local papers are fully satisfactory to him. Their reporters do not misquote him, as he thinks the New York papers do. Since no instance of misquotation has been proved, it may be inferred that he likes the local press better because it does not quote him literally, as the metropolitan papers do. The New York Post is his particular hate because of the series of articles by David G. Wittels on the Hague organization that it published in 1938. The New York Times is second on his list because it picked up and published the I-am-the-law statement and many other ill-considered remarks.

The police in Jersey City and in other municipalities in the county make life unpleasant for newsdealers who display hostile newspapers. When the first of the Wittels articles appeared in the New York Post, approximately two hundred newsdealers were ordered by the police to remove the offen sive publication from their stands. The Post immediately obtained a federal injunction from Judge William Clark in Trenton restraining the police from interfering with the dealers. James A. Hamill, Jersey City corporation counsel, appeared to oppose the injunction. He said, `We are contending that these investigators, who don't know conditions in Jersey City, who come over from New York –'

The judge cut in with: `Stop talking about people who come from New York. People who come from New York have just as many rights in Jersey City as anyone else, just as Jersey City people have rights if they go to New York.' (New York Post, May 20, 1938.) The argument that a critic is an outlander is a never-failing refuge for the Mayor's adherents; when they cannot meet the critic's evidence they charge him with being a foreigner.

An injunction may restrain the police in a single instance, but newsdealers are dependent upon police tolerance for their business existence. When Life published in 1938 a number of unflattering pictures of the Mayor and pictures of the sweatshops in operation, it too was barred from sale on the streets of Jersey City.


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