In these days of automotive bankruptcies and newspaper closures, it may be hard to recall—even to imagine—that the auto companies, and particularly General Motors, were once the dominant enterprises in the land, and that national newspapers were a novelty, a business on the rise.

But that is the way it was in the Spring of 1954, when Barney Kilgore, the brilliant publisher of The Wall Street Journal, stood down a challenge from GM, and helped establish a bedrock principle of modern journalism.

The auto business had been booming in the postwar years, and 1953 had seen some of the best sales months in the industry’s history. But competition was cutthroat, fear was widespread that the postwar boom might be ending, and an auto shakeout was well underway, with smaller firms folding into each other (American Motors had just been created out of such weakness, with the merger of Nash and Hudson; Packard and Studebaker would hold on for a few more months before joining forces). Government scrutiny of the practices, in particular, of industry giants GM and Ford was intensifying. GM chief executive Harlow Curtice was under substantial pressure.

On April 15, The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Justice Department had launched an antitrust investigation of the industry, focused on “the hammer and tongs struggle for supremacy” between GM and Ford and whether the two companies were trying to create a duopoly. GM’s market share had reached more than 45 percent in 1954, its high point since before the Second World War; Ford’s share was nearly 32 percent, its highest since Alfred P. Sloan had driven GM to overtake Ford for market leadership; the six-going-on-four remaining automakers were left to divvy up the remaining 23%. (Today, GM’s share is 19 percent, Ford’s 13 percent.) Each of GM’s five brands—Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and Cadillac—vastly outsold the entire outputs of each of the smaller manufacturers. Chevrolet, the market-leading brand, sold more cars than Chrysler, American Motors, Packard and Studebaker combined.

General Motors chief Curtice was 60 years old, a Michigan native and GM lifer, having joined the company’s AC Spark Plug division as a bookkeeper in 1914. He had become president and chief executive officer in 1953, when his predecessor, Charles Wilson—the man who memorably said that “for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa”—was named secretary of defense in the Eisenhower Administration. Sloan, aged 78, remained the corporation’s chairman. Curtice, known to friends and associates as “Red,” had recently placed a large bet—a billion dollars to expand production. The company he led had larger revenues than any other private concern in the world and employed more than 550,000 people. Two million Americans in 1954 were expected to attend GM’s Motorama, a traveling show which the Journal described as aiming “to promote the company’s cars with much fanfare, music and beautiful models.”

Curtice’s world was a sheltered one. He made more money than any other salaried employee in the country. He lived, as he had since 1914, in Flint, a city where nearly two-thirds of the workforce was employed by the company he ran, and flew back and forth on corporate aircraft each week to work in Detroit. As Time magazine would soon describe Curtice’s existence:

In many ways he lives a life that is beyond the comprehension of most of his car owners. Platoons of subordinates jump when he twitches. Garages filled with gleaming limousines and beaming chauffeurs stand ready to transport him wherever he desires. A private eighteen-plane air force of multi-engined, red-white-and-blue airplanes is at his disposal. Private secretaries and public-relations men take care of bothersome detail, see to it that Cadillacs, hotel suites, restaurant tables and theater seats are there when and where he wants them. High-salaried assistants smooth his path, greet him wherever he arrives, order his drinks, fetch his newspapers.

On May 3, 1954, Harlow Curtice can hardly have been pleased by what he found in one of the newspapers they fetched. The Journal had written two editorials the previous month attacking the government’s antitrust investigation, and defending GM and Ford’s competition with smaller rivals and each other as pro-consumer. But on May 3, a Journal news article laid bare a tactic the auto manufacturers had recently been deploying to great effect.

The tactic revolved around the practice of “bootlegging” cars—sales by smaller, independent dealers of excess new car inventories at cut-rate prices. The independents would take the cars off the hands of authorized franchise dealers and unload them at prices the authorized dealers feared could undercut future sales. “Bootlegging” was thus something of a safety valve for the industry from a dealer perspective, but not necessarily in the interest of manufacturers. A GM proposal to the Justice Department to be allowed to ban bootlegging through a new provision in the standard franchise agreement with dealers had recently been rejected by the Department.

Now the Journal revealed that GM and the other manufacturers had apparently also tried another tack to limit bootlegging. GM, Ford and Chrysler were the nation’s three largest newspaper advertisers. In 1953, GM had spent nearly $33 million on newspaper advertising; Ford and Chrysler combined for nearly as much again. The three companies alone (not including their dealers) thus accounted for about half of all newspaper spending on automobiles, and automobile advertising accounted for a little more than one-fifth of all newspaper ads nationally. (In 2008, the figure was still 11.5 percent.) For the Journal itself, the picture was even more dramatic: of the four largest national newspaper advertising categories, the Journal participated only in automotive; it did not publish advertisements for groceries, alcohol or toiletries.

This kind of spending yielded a certain amount of influence, and that influence, seemed to be being used to limit advertising of bootlegged cars. From an auto industry point of view, it was the perfect resolution to the problem of bootlegging: the safety valve remained in working order, but the non-public nature of the lower prices meant that the effect on other or later sales was minimized.

The New York Times, the Journal reported, had changed its advertising policies in late April, just after the Justice Department rejected GM’s anti-bootlegging contract language. The Times, very much still a local paper, now refused to accept advertising offering new cars for sale by non-franchised dealers. The Times’s advertising director said, “It is our opinion that our readers’ interest is best served by doing business with franchised dealers.”

New cars were defined as those with fewer than 2500 miles on them. One independent new-car dealer continued to advertise in the Times, indicating that its cars for sale had “run over 2,500 miles”. But a Journal reporter visiting the showroom noted that of the sixty cars on the showroom floor “not one… appeared to have run 2,500 miles. Some still had shreds of factory wrapping on them.” Mileage indicators on a dozen cars checked by the reporter ranged from one mile to thirty-six miles. A salesman at the independent dealership told the Journal, “We don’t have any used cars. That’s the only way [the Times] let us advertise.”

Nor was the Times alone. The New York Journal-American had gone so far as to take out an advertisement of its own in Automotive News headlined “NO ‘BOOTLEGGING’ PROBLEMS IN THE NEW YORK JOURNAL-AMERICAN.” The classified display advertising manager at the New York Daily News, the nation’s largest-circulation paper, reportedly acknowledged to an independent dealer that he feared the loss of other business if he continued to accept advertising from bootleggers. “Zone managers [from manufacturers] have told us face-to-face across the table what would happen to us if we took ads from discounters.” The dealer had a similar experience with the New York Mirror, the city’s (and the nation’s) second-largest selling newspaper.

But even before the Journal’s article was published, the reporting of the story had an effect. The Mirror reversed itself, and resumed accepting advertising from the bootleggers. The New York World Telegram & Sun declared that it was re-examining its policies. The ad manager from the New York Herald Tribune, the most direct competitor of the Times, told a Journal reporter, “This is a very touchy subject: I understand the F.B.I. is asking some of the same questions you’re asking.” He added, “I wouldn’t say we have a policy.”

Industry reaction was swift. On the day the story was published, Ward’s Automotive Reports canceled the Journal’s subscription to the weekly newsletter.

The confrontation between Barney Kilgore’s newspaper and Harlow Curtice’s company was only beginning.

On May 28, the Journal published another exclusive story, this one the work of Detroit bureau chief John Williams, revealing details of the styling of the 1955 new car models due in the fall.

Read today, Williams’s story seems innocuous, even perhaps excessively promotional. It began: “Forecast for 1955 auto models: More makes will be thoroughly restyled than ever before in the half-century of automotive history. Under the hoods will be new, more muscular engines.” Additional revelations: more makes “joining the wrap-around windshield trend,” “bigger bumpers, bolder tail lights, plenty of chrome ‘gingerbread.’ Many a car will stare at you in a different way: its headlamps will be visored.” V-8 engines would proliferate, horsepower would continue to grow. Illustrations for the article included renderings of the new Chevvy (then itself rendered with two “v”’s) and Dodge. Making clear throughout that the reporting, which had taken more than a month, was based largely on interviews with industry die-makers, the article detailed projected changes in all eighteen car brands then on the market.

The designs were months away from being unveiled but the dies and tools required for creation of the ‘55’s are being made right now; patient prowling in the shops which make these disclose much information. And men within the auto companies will often talk about what competitors have afoot: they make it their business to know.

Among the GM lineup, only Chevrolet and Pontiac had significant changes in store: Both models, Williams’s “patient prowling” revealed, were slated to more closely resemble their cousins at Buick and Oldsmobile.

Williams later recalled, “I worked hard, got my material together, and got lucky. Someone offered me pictures.” Pressed by an editor to get reaction from the manufacturers, Williams couldn’t get anyone to agree to look at the renderings, save a representative from GM. He remembered,

I went to the General Motors headquarters on Grand Avenue [in Detroit]. The press relations man came out of his office to see me and looked at the picture I showed him [of the ’55 Chevvy]. When I asked him to comment on its accuracy, he declined rather tersely and returned to his office.

From an industry perspective there was a problem—a big problem. But the problem wasn’t the renderings—it was the story’s timing. As the story itself noted, “the alterations are certainly intended to be sufficient so that 1954 models will strike their owners as old-fashioned, once the ‘55’s are in the showrooms; they will stir the itch for a brand-new car.” In September or November (the timing of new model releases was also kept a secret) that would be good for business: the ‘54’s would be nearly all sold. Just ahead of June, traditionally the industry’s biggest sales month, the revelations were thought by the automakers to cause a possible disaster: sales of the about-to-be-“old-fashioned” ‘54’s could dry up prematurely, as buyers awaited the exciting ‘55’s. The president of Chrysler told Williams he “had put a dagger into the hearts of the dealers.”

The automakers had traditionally avoided this problem by briefing reporters well ahead of the new model introductions, but doing so “off the record.” But this year the Journal had declined to participate in the briefings, apparently recognizing that the information could be derived independently and published earlier. As Kilgore later told Time magazine, “For years almost everything in Detroit has been ‘off the record.’ We just decided not to play it that way. It isn’t journalism.”

In fact, the Journal had been easing away from “playing it that way” for three years. In March 1951, reporter Ray Vicker wrote an article on the 1952 model cars which relied heavily on visits to machine tool companies. Vicker was able to determine which engines manufacturers intended to use in which models—V-8’s for Dodge and DeSoto, etc.—as well as other changes, such as the introduction of a new automatic transmission for Cadillac and of power steering for Oldsmobile. But Vicker’s story had dealt almost exclusively with engineering rather than design.

In August 1953, Williams had taken Vicker’s efforts further, and had published a piece on the 1954 model cars quite similar to his later piece on the 1955’s. Its lead: “For Buicks and Oldsmobiles: A thorough restyling job, featuring the “wrap-around” windshield and longer, lower lines.” More such detail followed on Cadillacs, Fords, Mercurys, Hudsons, Chryslers, Pontiacs, Chevvies. But there were two key distinctions between this precursor and Williams’s later story: first, the article on the 1954 cars lacked illustrations; second, it predicted that, “By and large, 1954 will not go down in automotive history as a year of great model changes.” That is, it offered readers no compelling reason to wait for the new models or to stop buying 1953-model cars.

GM’s pent-up fury at the bootlegging story and the premature release of the innovative—and illustrated—1955 new car designs quickly exploded. Curtice himself, while running the Buick division, had years earlier personally made the decision to begin advertising in the Journal. Business Week later reported that Williams’s 1953 story had left GM “particularly incensed”, but no action had been taken. Now, however, on the very day the new-designs story was published, GM, acting through five different advertising agencies, canceled all advertising in the Journal. The immediate cancellations came to just over $11,000, but The New York Times estimated that GM had been running in the Journal at a rate of at least $250,000 annually (nearly $2 million today).

When one of the ad agency representatives told a Journal sales manager that the paper needed to send someone to Detroit and apologize, the ad manager, knowing instinctively how Kilgore would react, said, “You’re talking to the wrong department… I will probably go to Detroit one of these days but it won’t be to apologize for anything.”

GM also cut Williams and his colleagues off from the weekly auto production figures released each Friday. When the Journal asked the Associated Press, a newspaper cooperative of which it was a member, to request the figures so it could use them, the AP was denied access as well. The only other source of the figures was Ward’s Automotive—but that publication had cut the Journal off after the bootlegging article.

Meanwhile, private complaints to the Journal news staff by the GM public relations staff were rebuffed. Then, a week after the new model story, the Journal appeared to rub salt in GM’s wounds. Another front page article by Williams described one Detroit dealer’s desperation tactic of offering a new ’55 car, when they arrived, to anyone who would buy a ’54 model now and accept only wholesale value for their trade-in. Other dealers feared that news of the tactic could pressure prices across the country.

If Curtice had hoped that the Journal’s pro-business editorial page, which had leapt to his defense in the antitrust dispute, would now turn on its own news columns, he was quickly disappointed. On June 16, in an editorial entitled “A Newspaper and Its Readers,” the Journal explained that the two news stories “did not make anything happen. They only provided some more information on what was already happening.”

The editorial went on to declare that “A newspaper exists only to provide information to its readers. It has no other reason for being.” Moreover,

In the end the truth about what is happening is the only thing that is of value to anybody. And when a newspaper begins to suppress news, whether at the behest of its advertisers or on pleas from special segments of business, it will soon cease to be of any service either to its advertisers or to business because it will soon cease to have readers.

Eight letters from readers, seven of them automobile dealers, were published in the Journal the same day as the editorial. Thomas Grasso, of Grasso Motor in Bayonne, New Jersey, wrote that the newspaper “of late has acquired a new hobby, namely, running the automobile business into the gutter.” Fred Walters, of Fred Walters Oldsmobile in Newark, New Jersey, pronounced himself “disappointed and disgusted.” J.R. Sutton, of Sutton Motor in Beaumont, Texas, was canceling his subscription; R.H. Horton, of Horton Chevrolet in Sibley, Iowa, wouldn’t be renewing.

The advertising cancellation and press release cut-off remained unknown to the public. General Motors had not announced them, and the Journal had not reported the story. But at just the moment the editorial and letters were published, the editor of Advertising Age heard of the cancellations at a conference in Montreal. Kilgore soon confirmed the story to Ad Age’s reporter.

Once Ad Age issued a press release on its scoop, GM issued a statement of its own objecting to the publication “of statements and particularly sketches which have as their source confidential information and material divulged in breach of a confidential relationship and in violation of our property rights.” The statement continued,

While we have no advertising policies as such based on a situation such as this, we certainly do not believe that we should be placed in the position of impliedly approving or condoning such a practice by permitting our paid advertising to appear on one page of a publication which might at any time on another page of the same issue publish information involving our property rights and trade secrets, which have been obtained from sources in a confidential relationship with us.

The statement concluded, “To the extent that news releases are issued to the press for general publication, our practice is to make them available to everyone.”

The New York Times gave the story wider circulation. Just ten days after attorney Joseph Welch’s televised condemnation of Senator Joseph McCarthy with the historic put-down, “Have you no decency?,” the Times headlined its account “G.M. Blacklisting Wall St. Journal.”

Kilgore did not flinch. He issued a statement that concluded, “I find it hard to believe that this represents the policy of General Motors top management, because I do not think that General Motors would use this sort of pressure to express disapproval of editorial or news policies of any newspaper.”

On Monday, June 21, rather than report on the matter itself, the Journal reprinted The New York Times news story on the dispute on its own editorial page, with an introductory note that said, “Since The Wall Street Journal is one of the subjects of this story we wanted our readers to have an independent news account.”

On the Journal’s news pages, the same day’s paper carried the weekly article by reporter Williams on automobile production figures. In a tone of modest triumph, Williams’s story noted that, “While General Motors declined to give this newspaper its weekly production figures, The Wall Street Journal obtained estimates of the motor company’s output figures which it believes to be accurate. These statistics indicate that Chevrolet, Buick and Pontiac registered relatively minor declines last week from the previous week while Oldsmobile and Cadillac displayed modest advances.”

Two days later, the Journal’s editorial page again entered the fray, with an editorial headlined, “A Difference of Opinion.” In a tone following Kilgore’s lead, more in sorrow than in anger, the newspaper declared “we regret our present differences with General Motors Corporation.” The editorial said that GM’s statement “has, perhaps without realizing it, raised some very basic questions about the business of the press.” It canvassed these questions before concluding,

We do not intend to suggest that a newspaper has the right to demand that a company disclose trade secrets or that it advertise. But our business is publishing information, not withholding it. When there is news available about so vital a segment of our economy as the automobile industry we intend to be free to use our own best judgment about publishing it, undeterred by the fact that it may not be ‘authorized.’

And the fact that a company happily chooses to advertise with us cannot be allowed to put the newspaper under any obligation to the advertiser which breaches its obligation to all its readers.

We are sorry there is a difference of opinion about this. But for us to follow any other course would, we believe, make it impossible for us to fulfill our function as a newspaper.

Kilgore thus drew the lines clearly between himself and Curtice. For him, and for the Journal, this was a matter of high principle, a matter of essential institutional identity. For GM, as the Journal saw it, it was just a matter of business. The implication: there would be no compromise. Kilgore was prepared to wait out GM, confident that waiting would bring results. He wrote to his father back in South Bend, Indiana, that he thought the controversy “will blow over and I think a big company makes a mistake by getting mad and doing such things.”

But he was not unaware of the short-term cost, and, as if to underline the point, the Journal ran a brief story two days after the editorial setting out the American Newspaper Publishers Association’s annual statistics on the largest advertisers in newspapers. GM, of course, was first. Kilgore also told Time, “The Journal is not mad at anybody. I have a General Motors car—and I certainly don’t intend to sell it.”

Others were less kind to GM. Ralph Ginzburg, who later gained fame for his prosecution on obscenity charges but was then a reporter at LOOK magazine, wrote to GM’s Public Relations Department from his home in Brooklyn “[a]s an owner of a General Motors car… to express my indignation”; he stated that, “By pulling your advertising out of that paper, you’ve demonstrated that your own integrity does not measure up to that of The Wall Street Journal.”

A letter from the publisher in Tide magazine, an advertising trade journal, was even tougher on GM. Tide’s publisher called GM’s reaction “one of those backward steps in the gradually improving behavior of business”, and attributed it to “red-headed temper” a thinly-veiled swipe at Curtice personally. Tide contrasted GM’s behavior unfavorably with that of Ford Motor, which had been angered at a Journal story on its finances in late 1953, noting that in Ford’s case “no one cancelled any advertising.” Tide called for an end to the boycott. A Tide news story concluded that “Eventually, say some automotive public relations men, GM will have to back down.”

Kilgore was not, however, under the illusion that everyone, or even every Journal reader, would see it his way. A week after the publication of “A Difference of Opinion,” the Journal ran ten letters from readers in response to Williams’s design story and the Journal’s two editorials. The first, from V.C. Marshall of New York City, said, “I believe you rendered the economy a disservice when you stressed the glutted conditions you expected to become rampant throughout the used car markets. Likewise you were grievously wrong to publish advance information about what any one manufacturer was contemplating doing in the way of design for the 1955 car.” The letter was published without editorial comment, even though the story had directly predicted no such glut, and had, of course, published advance information about the plans of all manufacturers.

Letters published in the Journal ran 7-2 in the paper’s favor (with one using the dispute to make a separate point). I.F. Kain of Coshocton, Ohio called the editorials “most welcome in this decade of conformity and witches.” B.F. Davis of San Francisco was more prosaic and direct:

I subscribe to your paper because of its fine reporting and for your journalistic scoops.

Permitting anyone to dictate to you or censor your columns would be disastrous.

Stand your ground! Don’t let General Motors or anybody else run your business.

On the same day these letters were published, Kilgore sought to defuse the escalating crisis.

The vehicle that he chose was another letter from a Journal reader. Roy Brenholts of Columbus, Ohio had written in support of the Journal’s “Difference of Opinion” editorial, and had asked that the Journal forward his letter to General Motors. Just three paragraphs in all, his letter included the following:

I have two Cadillacs and a Ford. I was considering trading the Ford for a Chevy. Now I will trade for another Ford. I had considered trading one Cadillac for a new one. Until General Motors tells you they will stop their Hitlerite attitude I will not consider another Cadillac.

Kilgore wrote back to Brenholts himself, saying that, because “you have…made some statements I am sure the company would want to know about”, he was making an exception to policy and would pass along Brenholts’s letter to GM. But he also told Brenholts that, “I personally hope that the action of the company with respect to its advertising does not represent the considered judgment of General Motors top management.” That said, he also stated that GM’s public relations department had “only yesterday” declined to check a “very important story” the Journal news department was pursuing. But Kilgore concluded his letter by advising Brenholts against answering boycott with boycott. “Please do not misunderstand me,” he wrote. “I appreciate your support of our editorial position. I just don’t think that differences of opinion in one particular field should be allowed to spread into others.”

Then, clearly by design, and on the very same day, Kilgore turned around and sent both Brenholts’s letter and his own reply to Harlow Curtice. He ended his letter to Curtice with something of a plea for reasonableness to prevail:

As a newspaperman I don’t suppose I should complain about articles published in other newspapers and magazines, but I do feel the publicity about our differences of opinion have tended to prolong those differences and I am particularly aware of the possibility that various members of our own organization may be unduly influenced by published material. The same thing might possibly be true on your side.

If you have any good ideas on how we might sort of break this thing up I would appreciate having them.

For his part, Curtice recognized that he had made a mistake. Kilgore’s top lieutenant recalled it as “an enormous public relations error.” Some observers noted that the pending antitrust investigation made the timing of the dispute especially inopportune for the auto company. The ban on the Journal receiving GM press releases had been lifted as soon as the controversy became public. On July 1, the day after the second batch of letters appeared in the Journal, the newspaper was provided with GM’s weekly production figures. The weekly story on industry output appeared in the paper on Friday, July 2. But there was no crowing—the GM figures were mentioned only in the ninth paragraph of the article, and with no reference to the controversy, or to the source of the figures. (By the next week, Ward’s Automotive had also lifted its collateral ban on the Journal.)

The day the weekly production story appeared Curtice replied to Kilgore. He defended the GM position on the Chevvy blueprints, even as he disclaimed any interest in refusing to cooperate with the Journal news department. His letter did not mention GM advertising. But it did invite Kilgore to visit him in Detroit on Wednesday, July 7, following the Independence Day holiday weekend.

Kilgore did not see Curtice’s response until Tuesday, July 6. He instantly sent a wire to Curtice, saying that, “[i]f your schedule permits”, he would arrive at 11 a.m. the next morning. At 6:35 that night, Curtice replied by telegram that “WILL BE GLAD TO SEE YOU TOMORROW MORNING AT ELEVEN AM.”

A colleague recalled the following account of the meeting from Kilgore:

I just told Curtice that as much as we would like to be friends with General Motors and as much as I hated losing all that advertising, I couldn’t let anyone dictate what the Journal could or couldn’t print.

The two men considered “just letting things take their normal course without a public statement of any kind” but concluded that “a public finish seemed necessary.” They hammered out an exchange of letters during the meeting. Curtice’s letter to Kilgore was dated the day after the Detroit meeting, and written “in accordance with our discussions.” Curtice’s letter went on to rehearse GM’s legal arguments on the impropriety of the Journal’s receipt and publication of the rendering of the 1955 Chevvy. GM, he wrote, had had two choices: sue the Journal, or break off business relations, and had—generously, he suggested—chosen the latter course. The company’s public statement had been issued only because of an inquiry from the Associated Press. In the future, Curtice warned, GM might choose to sue in such a case.

But having thus supported his more bellicose colleagues and mollified his lawyers, Curtice finally climbed down publicly. His letter concluded,

It was never our intention to interfere with your editorial policies, and I am surprised that anyone would seriously think otherwise. I might point out, by way of explanation, not justification, that where such a purpose is sought to be accomplished by a coercive practice, you will generally find that a legal remedy is not available.

I regret the misunderstanding that has developed, and trust that our position is now clear to you.

Kilgore told his father that both letters “were not particularly brilliant, having been hashed around a good deal, but they served their purpose.” Part of that purpose was to tell the troops, on both sides (including some at the Journal who worried that Kilgore had been too conciliatory), that “the war had ended.”

It had. The nation’s largest corporation, and the newspaper industry’s largest advertiser, had capitulated to The Wall Street Journal. Kilgore had sought an opening and found one, had shown respect, but had not deferred. The entire incident would be chalked up to a “misunderstanding,” and GM did not promise there would not be a recurrence. But the Journal would continue to receive production reports, the bootlegging and new model design articles would stand unchallenged for accuracy, and GM advertising in the paper would resume.

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.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

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.