Book review: Propelled by polar exploration, ‘Battle of Ink and Ice’ examines the early 20th century’s media landscape

“Battle of Ink and Ice: A Sensational Story of News Barons, North Pole Explorers, and the Making of the Modern Media”

By Darrell Hartman; Viking Press, 2023; 400 pages; $30.

It was perhaps the biggest news story of 1909. Or perhaps it’s better said that there were two competitors for the biggest news story of 1909, both of them seeking the same headline. Arctic explorer Robert Peary returned to civilization that summer, having spent more than a year making his third attempt at reaching the North Pole. He was famous across America and Europe for his tireless quest to be the first person there, and on April 6 of that year, or so he claimed, he had reached it. For a man with a singular obsession, it was his moment of greatest triumph.

There was only one problem. Days earlier, Frederick Cook, another polar explorer of some note and the man who claimed (falsely, it subsequently turned out) to have scaled Denali in 1906, had also emerged from a lengthy foray into the Arctic. He, too, claimed to have reached the planet’s northern axis, reporting success a full year earlier. For Peary, it wasn’t just a crushing blow. He was fully convinced Cook’s claim was false. For American newspapers, the dispute was an even bigger story than the attainment of the pole itself. Editors and journalists took sides. So did their readers. What followed was a media-driven culture war.

This is the story that Darrell Hartman recreates in “Battle of Ink and Ice,” an account of the newspaper battles that gripped and polarized America more than a century ago, and of a dispute that helped one of them emerge as the nation’s newspaper of record.

It should be noted here that this is not a book about polar exploration, and those looking for the history of Peary and Cook’s northern forays, as well as the reasons why both are now presumed to have been liars, are advised to look elsewhere. None of the action in this book takes place in the Arctic. It happens in New York City, Copenhagen and London, where the competing claims were assessed, and in newsrooms, where the dueling claimants were either upheld or denigrated depending more often on the whims of editors and publishers than on a sober reading of the evidence presented. It was a media landscape not so very different from the one we know today.

New York City in 1909 was home to an array of newspapers that battled for readers by stoking political passions, angling stories based on editorial positions, and, when all else failed, manufacturing news. This is what James Bennett Jr., had done after his father handed him control of the New York Herald in 1868. The following year he was famously involved in sending Henry Morton Stanley to Africa, looking for the missing Dr. David Livingstone. This led to papers boosting exploration relentlessly, although the Herald’s later sponsorship of the calamitous 1879 Jeannette Expedition would temper some of that enthusiasm.


Bold accounts of man against nature sold papers, and Bennett was a partisan for Cook. When the dispute over who first reached the pole erupted, his paper, which leaned in a populist direction and appealed to working-class readers, quickly took a side and began attacking Peary.

Peary, meanwhile, had the support of the more even-tempered New York Times, which had been rescued from near ruin by Adolph Ochs. Ochs valued serious journalism and aimed his publication at high-minded readers and the Republican business establishment. He sought facts, or so he believed and honestly tried, and it was one of his reporters who first noticed enough discrepancies in Cook’s account to start raising questions about its veracity.

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Though far less inclined towards hyperbole than Bennett, Ochs was himself at least partially blinded by his own support for Peary. The problem for Cook was a dearth of evidence that he had ever been near the pole, and his ever-shifting promises of when and how that information would be provided. The Times was relentless in its demands that Cook offer proof, but it placed a far lesser burden on Peary, whose own story had holes, and who also lacked material support for his claim.

The two papers had at each other and the rival explorers for months, while scientific bodies and exploration societies tried to make determinations. Countless smaller publications both within and beyond New York also weighed in. The dispute gripped America and divided the country along lines we’re now familiar with. Urbanites and educated Americans embraced Peary and scorned Cook, while beyond city limits, and especially in the heartland, the reverse was true. “Behind the gun smoke of the polar controversy lay a hidden landscape of political and cultural divisions,” Hartman writes, “and Cook and Peary, stark in their differences, occupied opposite sides of this contested terrain.”

Hartman is as interested in how the newspapers reached the point of offering such radically differing views on who reached the pole first. To do this he devotes over half the book to a careful reading of the media landscape of late 19th and early 20th century America. Students of history will recall that it was New York newspapers more than any other factor that drove the country into the Spanish American War, and Hartman examines these events on his road to understanding how the polar dispute played out. Only in the book’s final third does the epic publicity duel between Cook and Peary take over the narrative.

In this context, Ochs emerges as a hero of sorts for his commitment to presenting all sides of an issue and for avoiding the sensationalism that pulsed through most newspapers of the time. He doesn’t escape criticism, however, since he failed to apply his own standard to Peary. Indeed, not until the 1980s would the Times retract its 1909 reporting on Peary’s claim to have been first to the pole.

This final point provides a cautionary note for today’s media, and for the country at large. Both men apparently lied, and both sides were wrong. “Battle of Ink and Ice” is the story of the mess that ensued.

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David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer, and editor of the Alaska literary collection “Writing on the Edge.” He can be reached at