Planet Money
9:14 am
Tue May 1, 2012

How The Richest American Ever Learned To Spin The Press

Originally published on Thu May 3, 2012 10:29 am

In the latest issue of the New York Times Magazine, Adam Davidson profiles Ed Conard, Mitt Romney's former business partner and an unabashed defender of the one percent. It's not an easy position to defend. Take it from John D. Rockefeller, the richest American in history.

In 1878, Rockefeller wrote to his mother, "I am eating celery which I understand to be very good for nervous difficulty." The press had taken an interest in his growing fortune and his control over almost every pipeline and oil refinery in the country. The coverage soured as the government filed antitrust lawsuits against his company, Standard Oil.

Rockefeller's initial reaction was to hide. He hunkered down in a vacation home in Lakewood, NJ. Spotlights were swung on anyone who approached the estate at night, and delivery wagons were searched for intruders. The papers mocked his seclusion. One headline read, "Grandson Born to John D. Rockefeller and He, Mewed Up in His Lakewood Fort, Could Only Rejoice by Phone."

Eventually, he hit upon a solution that was unusual for the time, but is now standard practice for any super rich guy in the public eye: he hired a full-time press agent. Joseph Clarke, a cigar-wielding editor for the New York Herald, buttered up reporters before sending them in for an interview with Rockefeller. One reporter came out of the interview with a whole new storyline: "The Human Side of John D. Rockefeller."

Source: Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., by Ron Chernow

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