John Cowles

By Herb Strentz, Drake University

Was John Cowles really the Communist sympathizer/dupe depicted by the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade in the early 1960s?1 Or was John Cowles "the Midwest's principal member of - the American Establishment?”2

The questions are asked as a matter of style, not substance, because it is inappropriate to begin a commentary on John Cowles with anything but a question.

John Cowles was born with an inexhaustible supply of question marks. In his prime ... [he] interrogated his friends and colleagues about their views on anything and everything - incessantly, incisively and, some thought, annoyingly.

So began a 1974 profile of the then 75-year-old John Cowles Sr.3

Almost 40 years earlier, in a 1935 profile on the Cowles family, TIME magazine reported that at age 16:

... small John often would go with his father to the [Des Moines] Register & Tribune office, perch himself on the desk of his father's secretary, Agnes ("Mac") MacDonald, (and) spout a stream of questions (about details of the newspaper business). He still asks questions wherever he goes.

No corn-fed bumpkin, no dallying rich-man's-son, inquisitive John Cowles has stored behind his thick-lenses glasses and his moon face a wealth of essential fact. An excellence of perspective on top of a sound judgment makes him one of the most important young newspaper publishers in the land.4

James Reston of The New York Times observed:

John Cowles didn't invent the "dumb-boy" technique of questioning - to gather more facts, which is still the best interviewing trick in our business - but he practiced it to the benefit of himself and his papers and the country.5

Kenneth MacDonald, who served more than 50 years at the Register and Tribune, as an editor and publisher, attributes the inquisitive nature of both John and Gardner (Mike) Cowles Jr. to their parents. MacDonald says flatly that he never met a more perceptive and more persistent question-asker than Gardner Cowles Sr. At the dinner table, on the road, in the office, at bedtime and at breakfast, question-asking came first nature to the Cowles boys.

What did John ask questions about? Two things mostly: the newspaper business and public affairs. First, about newspapers.

"The newspaper business was the one I knew," Cowles responded when asked about how he might have fared in other lines of work and investment.6 That knowledge came early in life.

Born in Algona, Iowa, December 14, 1898, Cowles was not quite 5 when the family bought an interest in The Des Moines Register and moved to the new home. John was the fifth of six Cowles children, to be followed in four years by the youngest, his brother Mike. John attended Des Moines schools before enrolling in the Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, N.H., where he was graduated cum laude in 1917.

Even with interrupting his studies at Harvard University for a brief training stint in the U.S. Army, he still graduated from Harvard with honors in 1920 and had the distinction of being the first undergraduate to serve simultaneously as an editor of the Crimson, the Lampoon and the Advocate - the student newspaper, humor magazine and literary magazine.

Fresh from Harvard, he joined The Register and Tribune as a reporter, covering the Iowa Legislature in 1921 - his first extended exposure to politics. Only a year later, he organized the Register and Tribune Syndicate, which offered news and features for sale to other newspapers around the nation. That was a somewhat audacious move, since it was a bid to be one of the few successful news syndicates outside New York and Chicago. At its peak, the syndicate offered 60 to 75 features - including such comics and cartoons as "The Family Circus" and "Spiderman" and commentaries by David Horowitz, Stanley Karnow, political cartoonist Werblock and others. "The Family Circus" was the most successful item, sold to more than 1,000 newspapers. The syndicate was sold to Hearst and the King Features Syndicate in 1986 for $4.3 million.

John became vice president, general manager and associate publisher of The Register and Tribune Company in 1923. That same year he married Elizabeth Morley Bates of Oswego, N.Y., who was to become a significant community leader in Iowa and Minnesota in her own right, in addition to helping to shape John's political views and policies.

From the mid-1920s to the mid- 1930s, John and Mike Cowles – who joined the Des Moines papers in 1925 - built a record of growth and newspaper innovation that was envied in board rooms and news rooms around the nation.7 With their father they pioneered, among other things, in newspaper graphics and photojournalism, public opinion polling, building circulation revenue and developing a reputation for newsroom independence and for public service. Those are among the reasons that TIME praised the Cowleses so much in the 1935 article noted above.

In 1935 the Cowles family branched out to Minneapolis. The short version of the story is that the Cowleses looked around for an opportunity to duplicate the success they had enjoyed in Des Moines and in Iowa. In Minneapolis, they bought The Star, which had the lowest circulation of the city's three papers - just the situation the Register was in when Harvey Ingham and Gardner Cowles Sr. bought it in 1903. In Minneapolis, within six years, the Cowleses had built a morning, evening and Sunday monopoly situation, just as they had in Des Moines by 1927.

And the news-reporting policy would be the same, too, as enunciated by John Cowles:

... the primary obligation of a newspaper is to give its readers the news, all the news, without bias or slant or distortion or suppression in the news columns. We believe that only on our editorial pages should our own opinions be expressed.8

But success wasn't quite that simple. The Cowles family did buy The Star for $1 million in 1935. But the paper lost $225,000 in the first year of operation and $325,000 in the second year. During that time, although John Cowles was the publisher, he commuted from Des Moines – making it easy and inviting for the competition to picture him as an outsider interested in making a quick killing in Minnesota.9

So, John and Elizabeth Cowles and their four children moved to Minneapolis. A front-page picture in the local news section of The Star documented their arrival, noting that the family had moved to Minneapolis to stay at 2318 Park Ave. S., which turned out to be the parents' address for the rest of their lives. The fortunes of The Star were turned around, thanks to aggressive salesmanship by Cowles, who dealt with advertisers on a one-on-one basis,10 and strong news coverage by The Star. Contrary to a counting-house mentality that made some newspapers timid, The Star attracted and held advertisers and readers as it developed a reputation as the local newspaper that would not yield to advertising pressures or to covering up news that reflected poorly on community influentials.

Not that the competition melted away. In the circulation wars, some representatives of the Tribune tried to smear the Cowles family by telling customers that the Cowles family was Jewish. But, if anything, that tactic backfired.

When The Star was purchased in 1935 its circulation was listed at 79,000. With the purchase of the evening and Sunday Journal in August 1939, the combined evening Star-Journal had a circulation of 240,000. And a new building, one that Editor and Publisher called "the finest newspaper plant between Chicago and the West Coast,”11 was started in the fall of 1939 and completed the next summer. Another giant step was announced May 1, 1941 - all Minneapolis newspapers were realigned under Cowles command. The morning and Sunday Tribune were purchased by the Star-Journal. The Times, which had taken the place of the afternoon Tribune, also was controlled by Cowles.

The purchases reflected a twofold Gospel of Cowles, as found in many of the speeches and writings of John:

Our formula was simply this. Give readers a superior product; deliver it better and promote it effectively.12


... I am convinced that where newspapers have combined or suspended and single ownership newspaper cities or fields have evolved, the resulting product has, in almost every instance, been much superior to the newspapers that preceded it.

I say flatly that with only a small number of exceptions the best newspapers in America are those which do not have a newspaper competing with them in their local field. By best I mean the most responsibly edited, the fairest, the most complete, the most accurate, the best written and the most objective.13

The Star reached a peak circulation of almost 300,000 in the early 1960s. The Tribune grew from its 1941 circulation of 61,000 daily and 200,000 Sunday to more than 240,000 daily and 600,000 Sunday. The Tribune and The Star were merged into one publication in early 1982.14

During these years, John Cowles was moving through the chairs in some of the professional and business associations of the journalism industry. In 1929 he was elected a vice president of the Associated Press news-gathering cooperative, and he served as an AP director from 1934 to 1943. He was a director of the Audit Bureau of Circulation from 1929 to 1933. His 1956 honorary doctorate from Harvard, one of 10 he received, recognized him as "a journalist with a public conscience." That same year he received The Minnesota Award from the University of Minnesota for distinguished service in journalism.

During these years, he was a prolific writer and world traveler, returning from his journeys to often produce a series of articles offering insights to developments in Russia, Asia, Europe, England and South America.

The first such effort was a series of nine essays, "Glimpses of Soviet Russia," from his visit to Russia in September and October of 1923, when he was 24 years old. The final article, "Conclusions," provides insights, to Russia, yes, but also to Cowles' skills as a writer. The essay is not labeled as "pros" and "cons," or "point" and "counterpoint," as it might be today. Rather, it is deceptively simple in structure with a left-hand column seemingly sympathetic to Lincoln Steffens' observation of Russia - "I have seen the future and it works" - and the right-hand column seemingly sympathetic to the "evil empire" school of thought. But a closer reading shows Cowles is almost saying the same thing twice, with a twist of wording and perspective providing the condemnation or the praise. For example, this positive assessment in one column:

The bolshevists have made many social reforms and hope to make more. They are doing their best to educate the people and to stamp out illiteracy.

is rephrased in the adjoining column:

The bolshevist leaders are in effect ruthless scientists, determined to go through with their experiment regardless of the cost in blood and suffering.15

The subtleties that in Cowles' writing that intrigued this reader somehow escaped the Iowa Bar Association. The president of the Bar called Cowles a "red-bellied Bolshevik" for not favoring war against Russia.16 Cowles drew similar fire from other groups three decades later when he often said it was time for the United States to face up to reality and recognize Red China.

A sampling of his essays and commentaries suggests that many of his insights have held up well. For example, consider his 1951 comments at the advent of the television age, a good 40 years before the advent of talk shows and "news discussion" panels that are rhetorical brawls.

There is considerable reason to believe, I think, that television, when its facilities become nation wide, when telecasts are in color, and when the number of receiving sets has doubled, will become the nation's most single powerful instrument for the mass transmission of ideas and entertainment...

Because of its powerful impact, television may tend to make the maintenance of our free society more difficult. Badly informed, emotionally adolescent TV viewers may tend to adopt hysterically extreme views on complicated political and economic issues concerning which they know, and would otherwise care, little. .. Television may be the greatest potential agency for adult education we have, but there is a grave danger that it will develop in a pattern where it will not serve the public welfare as it might ... (T)elevision station operators will be under the same type of pressures as newspapers in overly competitive fields.17

The comment about television hints at the link between Cowles' newspaper career and his interests in politics and service in the administrations of five presidents - Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson. For one thing, his speeches and articles frequently consider the newspaper to be a classroom, an educational institution, for citizens; secondly, he may have likened the role of the publisher to that of the non-partisan government servant. For example:

(Cowles) remarked that, on the highest levels of national policy, partisan politics has no meaning. The service of John J. McCloy and other men of this type, in and out of government service, who are nominally Republicans, is couched on this same level of patriotism. It is the problems of the country, not of the party, which interests these men.18

Cowles expanded on this thought, as it regards newspaper publishers, in a letter of Aug. 8, 1963:

I have never had any interest in personal participation in party politics, and I think any newspaper is seriously injured if its head does involve himself in partisan politics. I worked for [Wendell] Willkie's nomination only because I thought it was an extremely critical time for the country and that it might be fatal if an isolationist who would not build up the country's military capabilities were elected. When a newspaper editor or publisher accepts any important political appointment, the Administration assumes that his publication will automatically editorially support it. In two administrations I had been asked if I would accept an ambassadorship19 or other high federal office, but unhesitatingly declined. A newspaperman who accepts such an office loses not only his own independence, but that of his publication as well. This does not mean, however, that I think newspaper executives should not be willing to take temporary non-partisan appointments if they think their services may be in the public interest. For example, F.D.R. asked me to serve on the Foreign Bondholders Protective Council, which was to advise the government and the bond owners as to what, if anything, should be done about all of the foreign bonds sold in this country that had gone into default. President Truman asked me, I assume at the suggestion of, or certainly with the advance approval of, Herbert Hoover to serve on the subcommittee of the Hoover Commission which was devoted to proposed changes in our military establishment. This was an important assignment and indirectly resulted in some basic improvements in our defense setup. Truman also appointed me to the White House Conference on Public Education. Eisenhower made me a part-time consultant to the National Security Council shortly after he took office. President Kennedy appointed me to the General Advisory Committee of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, which is a statutory body whose members have to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. This committee meets for a couple of days a number of times a year. I think it is important and valuable. I know of no reason why newspaper editors or publishers should not take temporary, non-partisan jobs of these kinds.20

The most significant recognition Cowles received for such national service was the Medal of Merit, the highest U.S. government decoration for civilians for war service. He received it from President Truman in 1947 for his service in Washington, North Africa and England in 1943 as a special assistant to the Lend-Lease administrator, E.R. Stettinius Jr.

This philosophy of public service applied, too, to private organizations and foundations. Perhaps most prized by Cowles was his role as a director of the Ford Foundation, to which he was appointed in 1950. His view on world affairs, he said, was greatly influenced by Paul Hoffman, the Ford Foundation president and former director of the Marshall Plan. Some of Cowles' international travels were on behalf of the Ford Foundation. In mentioning others who influenced his political and social attitudes, high on Cowles' list was his education at Harvard and the role of Harvey Ingham, editor of The Register and Tribune and his father's partner.21

Another influence was his wife of 53 years, Elizabeth, who died in 1976. She was a founder of the Maternal Health League, which later became Planned Parenthood, in Iowa in the 1930s. She was primarily responsible for the opening of the state's first birth control clinic in 1935. She continued her Planned Parenthood work in Minneapolis, along with memberships in the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters and other civic organizations. She was a charter member of the United Negro College Fund and a lifetime member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

(Although the Roman Catholic church was involved in some of the Minneapolis newspaper circulation wars - because of opposition to liquor and burlesque advertising - The Star and Star Journal editorialized for birth control, and Mrs. Cowles' activities for Planned Parenthood were a natural follow-up to her work in Iowa).

In a 1974 profile, John Cowles said he now regarded himself as "an independent with Democratic leanings" and "As I've learned more I've become more liberal." Partly responsible for that "learning," John Cowles Jr. said, was Elizabeth Cowles.22

The couple were strong supporters of the arts in Minneapolis and Des Moines.

The Cowleses had two daughters, Morley Cowles Ballantine of Durango, Colo., and Sara Cowles Doering of Cambridge, Mass.; two sons, John Cowles Jr. of Minneapolis and Russell Cowles of Minneapolis and 16 grandchildren.

John Cowles' service to private corporations and 'foundations and universities included being a trustee or director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the American Assembly, the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts, the Minneapolis Foundation, General Mills, General Electric Co., Equitable Life Insurance of Iowa, the Gardner and Florence Call Cowles Foundation, the board of overseers of Harvard University, Phillips Exeter Academy, Carleton College and Drake University.

In addition to the honorary degree from Harvard, he received similar recognition from Coe, Simpson, Grinnell and Drake in Iowa, Macalester in St. Paul, Jamestown in North Dakota, Boston College, the University of Rochester in New York and Allegheny College in Pennsylvania.

Cowles was chairman of the board of The Des Moines Register and Tribune Company from 1945 to 1970. He was president of The Minneapolis Star and Tribune Company, and predecessor companies, from 1935 to 1968 and chairman from 1968 to 1973.

In his October 1961 conversation with Professor Gerald, Cowles said he was aware of the differences between himself and other newspaper proprietors of the 1930s. We did not find them progressive in business or in public affairs.

Cowles put it more pointedly in a chapter he wrote on American journalism for a 1938 book, American Now -An Inquiry into Civilization in the United States by 36 Americans:

When you hear a critic charge that the journalist as a professional man in an honorable craft is non-existent, tell him his statement is bunk! ... There's nothing much wrong with American newspapers today except us publishers.23

Thirty six years later, Cowles said his greatest satisfaction as a publisher was helping to change the mindset of Minneapolis and the region:

Bigotry in the form of Anti- Semitism and second-class treatment of Negroes was pervasive here when he entered the Minneapolis newspaper field, Cowles recalls ... He thinks his newspapers have played a constructive role in making Minneapolis a more enlightened community.24

A Minneapolis human relations group in 1956 recognized both Cowles and his newspapers for "sound editorial and sensitive news policy" and for personal relationships that respect that dignity of each person on "which human rights are ultimately founded."25

  1. The Crusade's efforts to chase Minneapolis advertisers away horn The Star and Tribune were mentioned by Cowles at an October 16, 1961 luncheon with Professor J. Edward Gerald of the University of Minnesota School of Journalism. Gerald's notes from that luncheon and others now are part of the John Cowles papers at Drake.
  2. The characterization is attributed to Richard Rovere by Willie Moms in NEW YORK DAYS (Little, Brown and Company, Boston, New York, Toronto, London, 1993), p. 122
  3. Peter Ackerberg of The Minneapolis Star in "Forever Curious," reprinted in The Des Moines Tribune June 25, 1974.
  4. "Iowa Formula," TIME, July 1, 1935, p. 26
  5. Reston made the comment in a 1973 speech in Minneapolis and it was quoted in the Feb. 26, 1983 Star and Tribune in Cowles' obituary.
  6. Gerald notes, op. cit.
  7. A reader is struck by the unqualified praise of the Cowles family and Cowles publications in TIME, Editor & Publisher and Fortune magazines.
  8. This summary is from comments by Cowles at the dedication of the new Minneapolis Star and Tribune building in 1949.
  9. Gerald notes, op. cit.
  10. A laudatory article in Editor and Publisher, February 13, 1943, characterizes Cowles as "Working quietly and with a kindly manner so characteristic of the Cowles tradition, John started a one-man campaign to win over Minneapolis" and succeeded. "Cowles Boys Made Amazing 6-year Record in Minneapolis," p. 7
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. A theme sounded often by John Cowles, with this summary from "The Responsibility Of a Free Press In a World in Crisis," an address at the 43rd Annual Journalism Week, the Universily of Missouri Bulletin, Vol. 52 No. 33, Journalism Series, No. 124, p. 7
  14. From The Star and Tribune obituary of John Cowles, Feb. 26, 1968.
  15. John Cowles, "Glimpses of Soviet Russia," reprinted from The Des Moines Register, 1923
  16. Ackerberg, "Forever Curious," op. cit.
  17. Cowles, "The Responsibility Of a Free Press In a World In Crisis," op. cit. p. 2 and p. 14
  18. Gerald's notes, Oct. 16, 1961
  19. Reference here apparently is to President Eisenhower's inquiring whether Cowles would be interested in being an ambassador to India, partly because of Cowles' good acquaintance with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Also, at the Eisenhower Library, I found John Cowles' name listed once on a long-list of potential candidates for secretary of state.
  20. Letter to J. Edward Gerald
  21. Gerald interview notes, Oct. 16, 1961
  22. Ackerberg, op. cit.
  23. The book was edited by Harold E. Steams and published by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York
  24. Ackerberg, op. cil.
  25. Ibid.