Kilgore’s letter to Curtice in response was dated the next day. Kilgore wrote that he “too, regret[ted] that a misunderstanding has developed and from your letter I think misunderstanding was unnecessary.” He noted that the normal flow of news releases had resumed, and matched Curtice’s reservation of the right to sue with his own reservation of the right to make editorial decisions, and to use both authorized and unauthorized sources.

On the legal issue of the Chevvy rendering, Kilgore was deft:

Before the story and pictures were printed, a reporter from The Wall Street Journal met with a member of your public relations department. At that time, the legal issue was not raised and perhaps it is unfortunate that neither of the men was familiar with it. Had it been raised, I am sure that the editors of The Wall Street Journal would have decided that it merited careful consideration.

Now that it had been raised, Kilgore averred, the Dow Jones lawyers and the General Motors lawyers did not exactly agree. (His deputy recalled that Kilgore “had become convinced that the Journal may have been on shaky legal grounds so far as the one sketch was concerned.”) But, Kilgore wrote Curtice, the Journal did respect property rights, and Curtice had done the industry a service in defining your position on this matter so clearly.

No reasonable definition of property rights will interfere with the independence of editorial and news judgment which we consider the essence of this newspaper.

I am pleased that we have reached an understanding on the difference that existed between The Wall Street Journal and General Motors Corporation.

Privately, Kilgore told his father, stories on new models would continue, but I don’t think anybody will print company drawings of new cars, and I don’t think they ought to if the companies will take reasonable precautions to keep the drawings out of general circulation around Detroit.

The Journal published the exchange of letters between Curtice and Kilgore on July 12—and did so without comment. Three weeks later, Curtice confirmed in writing that GM had decided not to sue, and that the “controversy” was “closed.”

Yet, however modestly they portrayed it, the showdown with General Motors had been a watershed moment for Kilgore and the Journal. One Journal executive later wrote that it “firmly established in the public mind, including millions who never had read The Wall Street Journal, and presumably never would, that here was a newspaper of unshakable independence and integrity. GM had done us a priceless favor.” David Lilienthal, former Tennessee Valley Authority and Atomic Energy Commission chairman, wrote Kilgore that it was “a classic in the history of newspapering.” Author Edward Scharff later concluded that this “new-won reputation was worth inestimably more than the General Motors advertising account.”

A junior ad salesman who later headed up sales for the Journal, summed up the implications simply: “Our future was assured.”

Mr. Tofel is the author of Restless Genius: Barney Kilgore, The Wall Street Journal, and the Invention of Modern Journalism, from which this is adapted.

Richard J. Tofel is general manager of ProPublica and the author of Restless Genius: Barney Kilgore, The Wall Street Journal, and the Invention of Modern Journalism.