“Battle of Ink and Ice: A Sensational Story of News Barons, North Pole Explorers, and the Making of Modern Media” by Darrell Hartman; Viking, 2023; 400 pages, hardcover, $30.

On the face of it, the two basic subjects of Daniel Hartman’s new book “Battle of Ink and Ice” seem unrelated: the quest of explorers to reach the North Pole around the turn of the century, and the history of newspapering around the same time. But like much in history, it turns out the two strands are intimately connected.

There were many ill-fated attempts to reach the North Pole in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But the main story came to revolve around two explorers in particular, Robert Peary, a Maine native and Bowdoin College graduate, and Frederick Cook. In thoroughly researched detail, Hartman describes the journeys north from outposts along barely charted island territories inside the Arctic Circle and across sheer ice pack. Whole expeditions were reduced to a few haggard survivors, or disappeared completely. Peary himself in one ill-advised trek during winter suffered frostbite that resulted in the painful loss of his toes, nearly preventing him from further pursuing his burning ambition to be the first to stand on the North Pole.

In these expeditions, taking and even recording latitude and longitude readings to prove locations were forbiddingly difficult. When Cook suddenly returned in September 1909 from his last effort to reach the pole, a reporter for a London newspaper noticed with suspicion that the renowned explorer answered questions very vaguely about not only the journey, but also his documentation, which should include descriptive journals as well as detailed daily logs of the expedition’s geographic location. Cook told reporters he had left his books safely stashed at an outpost, and would be retrieving them later. It was a long time before Cook came up with much evidence at all.

That Cook was meeting with reporters was no coincidence. For intimately connected to the story of Arctic exploration were newspapers. Publishers and editors in the mid-1800s discovered they could not only report events, they could actively create them. Hartman recounts in some detail how Stanley’s famous search for Livingstone in central Africa was organized by newspapers to gain stories they could splash over their front pages.

The race to the North Pole was promoted and to different extents funded by The New York Times, led by Adolph Ochs, which threw support behind Peary, and by the New York Herald, which backed Cook. The Herald’s flamboyant publisher, James Bennett, followed extremely risky whims, sometimes succeeding wildly, as when he figured out how to turn the new telegraph technology into a boon to breaking news, and sometimes failing horribly, as when an effort to manufacture polar-quest stories led to a terrible, avoidable disaster for an entire expedition.


In Hartman’s skillful telling, we see how the news media whipped up the popular appetite for stories about the pole despite the fact that many turn-of-the-century scientists regarded the enterprise as more or less irrelevant. Along the way, we get deft portraits of all the players, including the egotistical Peary, the evasive Cook, the mercurial Bennett, and the stolid Ochs, as well as Joseph Pulitzer, who recognized that his New York World and other papers such as the New York Sun were dancing with what he called, shortly before the turn of the 20th century, “fake news.”

In the end, it was never established that either Cook or Peary had actually stood at the North Pole. Probably neither did. Their icy claims, it turned out, were a concoction of newspapers and gigantic egos.

“Battle of Ink and Ice” is an engaging, illuminating history of the origins of the news media we know and feel ambivalent about today.

Darrell Hartman grew up in Whitefield and now lives in New York. He is a travel and environmental writer and a co-producer of the short documentary film “Dulce,” which tells the story of an 8-year-old Colombian girl’s experience learning traditional lifeways amid rising seas and other dangers of global climate change. “Battle of Ink and Ice” is available through local and online book sellers.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first Friday of each month. Contact Dana Wilde at dwilde.offradar@gmail.com.

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