Press Democrat editor Ernest L. Finley got along with almost everybody in Santa Rosa, with a couple of notable exceptions: One was James Wyatt Oates, whom he went out of his way to describe in his reminiscences as a disagreeable bully. His other nemesis was whoever sat in the editor’s chair at the rival newspaper.
Finley’s previous foe at the Santa Rosa Republican was Allen B. Lemmon, whose tenure as editor and publisher ended shortly after the 1904 elections, following weeks of the two editors lobbing insults at the other political party, its candidates, and even personally at the other editor. Taking control of the Republican were a pair of out-of-towners who had worked at papers in Sacramento and Oakland. They quickly made an impressive debut with a little muckraking series on the poor conditions of Santa Rosa schools (complete with photographs!) and added a chatty “society” column. Perhaps impressed with the newcomer’s initiative and a little cowed by their journalistic acumen, the Press Democrat no longer mentioned the other paper at all. That truce lasted all of four months.
In mid-March 1905, Finley aggressively went on the attack with a parody claiming to be an advertisement from the Republican. “This excellent household journal,” began the fake ad that appeared in the Press Democrat, “having just passed under control of people from the big town, who never saw a pumpkin in their lives, will henceforth be devoted to the pleasant, though arduous task, of teaching metropolitan ways to hayseeds, and introducing city culture to the backwoods.” With no disclaimer whatsoever, the PD parody, which ran about 800 words, tried to ridicule the competing paper for its “Sussiety news,” making a few minor errors, and running a contest. It comes across as something that was probably side-splitting funny when read loudly to comrades at a saloon, but now just seems snarky.
The Republican responded the next day by reprinting the Press Democrat’s entire parody with an added light-hearted preface. Their article (transcribed below) had one of the best-est headlines ever: “IS THE PEE-DEE SMOKING ‘HOP'”?
The Republican staff apparently thought Finley was playfully engaged in bonhomie jousting. They were wrong. The Press Democrat ran yet another parody ad March 21, but this one had fewer yucks and more sneering. Finley pressed his accusation that the Republican editor was both elitist and ignorant: “While the people here have been poling hogs and mulching turkeys and grafting onions, we have been acquiring information upon all things of importance to the people of rural communities. Since our arrival here, and our assumption of the editorial helm of the Republican, we have been disseminating this wisdom without stint.”
This second parody from the Press Democrat also ventured deeper into the confusing hall of mirrors by mostly pretending to be the Republican criticizing the Press Democrat: “…bearing in mind our self-appointed task of moulding local journalism and local conditions generally into a more metropolitan form, we continued to scan the morning paper daily, and held up a mirror to its short-comings in a way that, although it may have been painful, was nevertheless for the best interests of the public. It is an actual fact that since taking charge of the Republican we have paid more attention to the way the Press Democrat is conducted than to the course of our own journal. We expect no pay for this. The approval of our own conscience is sufficient reward until such time as the people of Santa Rosa and Sonoma county awaken to our merits and accord to us the credit justly due.”
Both parodies reveal much about Finley’s deep wellspring of resentment against outsiders, but it was the second offering that showed how thin-skinned he was. Contrary to the parody’s theme, the new management at the Republican hadn’t been criticizing the PD; in the month prior, no editorial mention of the Press Democrat can be found at all. The Republican had invited the attack, however, for having the temerity to point out an error made by Finley.
Without wandering too deeply into the weeds here, a Press Democrat reporter had asked Luther Burbank whether a sour grape could be bred (really, a grape with high levels of tartaric acid). The nurseryman said yes, it was possible. On March 17, an article in the PD with the headline, “Grapes to Yield Nothing But Acid,” quoted Burbank as saying that a grape could be created “that will yield tartaric acid altogether.” The reporter had either misquoted Burbank or the remark had been mangled in rewrite by editor Finley. That same evening, the Republican ran a short article with a clarification from Burbank: sure, over time a grape could be developed that had more acid, he said, but it could never be a little blob of just acid, as implied by the Press Democrat. The Republican headline read, “Mr. Burbank is Chagrined” that such misinformation had been attributed to him.
Caught in an error – and one misrepresenting a scientific statement by the venerated Luther Burbank, no less – the Press Democrat reacted quickly. But not to correct the mistake; instead, Finley changed the subject into whether Burbank was “chagrined” or not.
That same night, a PD reporter (certainly Finley himself) was knocking on Burbank’s door. The newspaper was told, “There is certainly no reason why I should have been chagrined by anything that has ever appeared in the Press Democrat in connection with my work …I also sincerely hope that you will not allow the matter to swerve in the least the warm friendship that has always existed between us.” The love fest continued with Burbank saying that he and his Secretary had also complimented the Press Democrat’s record of accuracy. The headline: “Mr. Burbank was not ‘Chagrined.'”
The Republican followed up the next day with yet another visit to Burbank for clarification and comment on the not-chagrined kerfuffle. This is now the fourth time that a journalist has pestered him about the theoretical possibility of sour grapes – is there any wonder why the poor man tried to keep away visitors?
The first PD parody appeared in the next issue, and the feud was on. From then until the earthquake a year later, rarely a day went by without one or both papers taking an editorial page potshot at the other. Finley excelled at coming up with little mottos that were probably cute and apt at the time, but today seem bizarre, or maybe like coded spy messages: “The Evening Fakir is at it again,” “Our friend down the street bleeds easily these days,” and my favorite, “Although the Republican spars for wind, it has to ‘acknowledge the corn.'”
IS THE PEE-DEE SMOKING “HOP”
While Under Some Influence, the Scribe “Hands It” to The Republican.
The “Sussiety” Writer is Really Pained — Nay, More, Thinks the Pee-Dee is “Vewy Rude, Dontcherknow!”
“The principal trouble
With some people is that
They go through life
Imagining that all the other
People are fools.”
– The Great Pee-Dee.
Whether the Press-Democrat scribe has been indulging in tartaric acid, gall or wormwood is not easy to determine. That something has upset his stomach seems, however, quite certain — witness the following from the Sunday morning issue of that paper. The Republican re-prints it for the edification of its readers:THE DAILY REPUBLICAN.
This excellent household journal, having just passed under control of people from the big town, who never saw a pumpkin in their lives, will henceforth be devoted to the pleasant, though arduous task, of teaching metropolitan ways to hayseeds, and introducing city culture to the backwoods.First Aid to the Foolish.
In the brief space of two months, this enterprising journal has introduced the codlin moth for the benefit of the fruit growers of Sonoma county, has discovered the quacking drake and the loss of blood without hemorrhage. To this record we point with pardonable pride.
Another startling discovery for which the Republican claims credit, and the honor of first heralded it to the world, is that there is a busy railway station known as “Melino” in Green Valley where thirty-two trains pass every half-hour. But for the Republican’s enterprise, this place might never have been found.
With its unparalleled facilities for gathering and disseminating information the Republican now follows the practice of publishing today’s news yesterday — sometimes even earlier. In fact, we have on several occasions told of events so far in advance that they haven’t happened yet.
In addition to these advantages the Republican is equipped with a private and exclusive system of grammar and rhetoric, which no other paper in the county is entitled to use, or would know how to use if the right were granted. Besides all this, we have an especially devised and copyrighted code of journalistic ethics, not known or even attempted elsewhere in the world. All these benefits are enjoyed by the Republican’s subscribers without extra charge.Useful and Reliable Information.
It is not every rural community that can command the service of trained and cultured metropolitan journalists spreading the light of knowledge. How many of the farmers of Santa Rosa or Sonoma county would ever have found out that the codlin moth is beneficial, had not the Republican made this important discovery and given its subscribers the startling news the very day after it was unearthed?
The Republican has made many other discoveries, equally startling and of equal importance to the farmers of Santa Rosa and Sonoma county. How many of the ignorant tillers of the soil here know the proper way to harvest rutabega squashes? Few, indeed. Here it has always been the custom to shake the tree and pick up the squashes from the ground. By this process most of the ruta-bagas were bruised; gangrene set in; and the result was that jelly made from these squashes would not keep well, and was positively unhealthful. Rutabagas should never be shaken from the tree. They should be carefully picked with sugar tongs, wiped with pink tissue paper, and the pickled for two weeks in a solution of lime, sulphur and gasoline. Handled in this way, they form a dish fit for the gods, build up the wasted tissues, improve the breath, harden the gums and, in short, tone the system generally.Portland Tours Contest.
If there is anybody in this community whom you would like to get rid of, send his name to the Republican on a blank ballot furnished for that purpose. The man who gets the most votes will be sent out of the state. None of the Republican staff is eligible under the terms of the contest. This condition is made necessary by the fact that before it was imposed nobody voted for anyone else except Republican writers.The Real Thing in Sussiety News.
Through the courtesy of the Superintendent of the Glen Ellen Home, the Republican has secured the service of The Prattler, that most distinguished writer upon social topics, hotel arrivals, etc. Those outside the pale of white ties and hard-boiled shirts who may have imagined that Sussiety news cannot be interesting, should read the thrilling stories from this brilliant writer’s trenchant pen, and learn what literature really is. The Prattler is intensely enthusiastic regarding his work — so much so that he says that after one function has been pulled off he can scarcely wait for another. He just wishes such things could last forever!Now is the Time to Subscribe.
You should not delay, but send in your name at once for this incomparable and incomprehensible newspaper. The very next issue may contain information that will keep you awake o’ nights and be worth a fortune to you. Old residents of the county, men who have taken all the county papers for years, say they have never seen anything like the Republican under its present management. Don’t delay. There may be something in the very next number that will astonish you as well as everybody else, and make your hair curl.– Santa Rosa Republican, March 20, 1905