A Conversation With Martin Duggan
Photograph by Brian Fagnani
When you listen to Martin Duggan—his amused stories, his passionate political opinions—the conversation feels utterly current. Then he says something like “My parents drank gunpowder tea. The coffee-and-tea man came in a horse-drawn wagon,” and you remember with a jolt that he’s lived through four generations. When he started selling papers, they were literally two cents’ worth. The jump to three cents gave newsboys a raise (“We used to get two-thirds of a cent. Try making change!”), and the jump to a nickel came during World War II. “The economics of publishing have changed,” he notes dryly. Just about everything’s changed—except Duggan’s lively interest in the world. He created the news commentary show Donnybrook in 1987, and it’s now the most-watched locally produced PBS program in the country. This month, he steps down from his aptly named role as “provocateur.”
When did your journalism career start?
In 1939; it’s 70 years exactly. I had a summer job in the Globe-Democrat’s Sunday feature department, pasting up syndicated stuff.
What journalists did you admire?
My all-time hero was the Globe managing editor, Lon Burrowes. He was right out of the movies. He looked very stern and forbidding, and he had a bad eye, and when he took his glasses off, which he frequently did when he was bawling you out, it was noticeable. He was bald and trim and very much in command, and I honestly felt that if I merited his approval, it was better than a pay raise.
What was extraordinary about him?
He was a very gentlemanly person. He never tolerated any profanity or vulgarity in the newsroom—if I went down to the composing room, it was like being on a pirate ship. And I thought he was a genius in playing the news. I tried to model myself after his selection of stories and display. The Globe, while conservative editorially, was pretty dramatic graphically. We used banner headlines even on newsless days!
You grew up in the two-newspaper days…
Four. When I was young, we had the Globe in the morning, the Post and the Star and the Times in the evening. The Star bought the Times, and then in 1951, the Post bought the Star-Times and, overnight, jumped over the Globe in circulation. Burrowes overcame that, and we passed up the Post again.
How did you do it?
I think people liked the Globe because we stressed local stuff. The Post had a lofty reputation—it always made the 10 best list—but you know why? The same guys were voting every year! In the end, people usually like or dislike a paper because of its editorial position.
And you were the editorial-page editor when the paper folded.
I was 62, at the peak of my career, and some people thought I’d be the next publisher. Then the paper was sold out from under us.
Did losing a second paper affect St. Louis?
At first, I didn’t really realize what the city was lacking, what a loss it was not to have these choices. I would say the same if the Post had been the paper to go away. I grieve over it quite a bit, frankly. Now, the Post can be so lazy. They have the power to decide what to print, what not to print, what to ignore altogether. Their front pages are weird now! They come up with stuff that is not news, it’s just insignificant, and dwell on it at length. No wonder people are driven to the Internet!
Have you joined them?
Well, for years I ignored it. Then my daughter said, “Dad, you ought to get an Apple,” and I loved the easy access, the immediacy. Now I’ve been hooked to use it as a news source—but I don’t go in for all this blogging stuff. I stumbled across one written by some idiot who said that [Riverfront Times founder and SLM co-owner] Ray Hartmann has a brother named Dale! That is the kind of stuff that drives me crazy. People are totally uninformed.
So where will journalism be in 20 years?
God only knows. Channel 9 filmed a [deepens voice] “colloquium” or one of those big-sounding deals at which they had the typical professorial types, nonexperts, trying to decide. A nonexpert, in my mind, is somebody who’s never done it. If we’re headed for more of what we have now, I don’t think there’ll be any journalism. Just everybody Twittering away somewhere.
How did you come up with Donnybrook?
I got the idea from watching The McLaughlin Group. I said, “We should do something like this locally.” [St. Louis Business Journal founder and SLM co-owner] Mark Vittert and [KSDK producer and former Globe sportswriter] Rich Koster and I used to have breakfast every Saturday at Coco’s, and I tried the idea out on them. Well, guys are guys, and neither of them said, “Hosanna!” It didn’t make much of an impression. But I kept after them.
And Channel 9 agreed…
When we went in to do our pilot, it was a very fortunate news week. The Post-Dispatch was running a series about “The Schoemehl Money Machine,” and a sensational murder had occurred. So here we are, totally unrehearsed, unscripted, uninformed, and these are my opening words: “Ray Hartmann! A young Crestwood woman was found bound and gagged and burned to death…and they met through a so-called eligible ad in your newspaper!” For the first and only time, Ray threw up his hands. He didn’t have anything to say. Mark turned to me and said, “Martin, I’m surprised you would ask a stupid question like that,” and we were off and running.
You’ve had some funny moments since.
Mark, Ray, Rich, and Bill [McClellan], they were all co-conspirators. They call me Admiral Stockdale, and Bill likes to lean over and pat me on the knee every once in a while and say, “How are things going, Admiral?” Anyway, one night, with my usual bombastic Bugs Bunny manner, I say, “Ray Hartmann! What do you think about this?” and Ray says, “Well, I’d rather hear what Bill has to say.” Totally out of character. I say, “Mark Vittert!” and he says, “I agree with Rich.” And Rich hasn’t even said anything! And I’m sweating, thinking, “What the hell is going on here?”
Are there other shows like Donnybrook?
Other cities have tried to ape Donnybrook, but it hasn’t worked. Kansas City has one; they called it Ruckus, but I call it a snooze.
Are you as conservative as people assume?
Well, I’ve always considered myself a reasonable person. I think I’m generally conservative, and by generally, I mean I have Christian values. There are people who dislike me and what I stand for, but I don’t have any enmity toward anybody. If they have enmity toward me, that’s their problem.
Charlie Brennan will be your successor—what are his politics?
Unpredictable; he’s kind of a contrarian.
Do you have any advice for him?
Charlie’s been substituting for me for the last three years. From the tapes I have seen, I think he’s been a little reluctant to dispute the others and to move it along. He may be being too deferential.
You do dive into the fray—yet you always seem sort of untouched by it. How do you stay so cheerful?
Bugs Bunny is my model for life. Now [my wife] Mae would disagree; she says I’m more like Wile E. Coyote. But Bugs always triumphs, right? And they’re always trying to blow him up. And I think I look like him, too.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I never really thought of having a legacy, but Mae and I were joking, and I said, “I’d kind of like a bench named after me in Greg Freeman Park,” and she thought a cot might be more suitable, ’cause I’m a known sleeper.
What will you do with all your energy now?
I’m not going to be one of these guys who drops in on the station, believe me, not once will I do that. I may go back for a guest appearance, but I’m not going to overdo it. And I’m not going to be selling steak knives on Channel 46.
Of all that’s changed or vanished in St. Louis, what do you miss the most?
Well, the Globe-Democrat, of course. And the Admiral, because that’s where our romance blossomed. Mae’s a great dancer, and I never was, and I was never the type of guy who’d be sore if she danced with other guys, ’cause I liked watching her. Oh, and I miss the streetcars. We had three kids before we had a car.
You have a famously good marriage. Is there anything you two are still working on?
Well, one of the most important things a spouse can be is patient and forgiving. I think it would be fair to say we’re both so worn out, being patient comes easily now! And as far as forgiving, we’ve never had any serious problems with each other. We have a lot of laughs. Mae has opinions on every subject on earth, and we have what I call our morning briefing: I’m trying to eat and read my paper, and Mae is telling me the straight dope, even if I’m more informed than she is. She blames a lot of things on the media, collectively, and every once in a while, I’ll say, “You are eating off this media stuff!” It always amuses me when people blame the media collectively.
You were in college when Pearl Harbor occurred, and you went down to the U.S. Navy recruiting station the next day—how’d you wind up a Marine?
I didn’t pass the Navy’s eye test! I went back to the Globe, conscious that the draft board knew my name, and one day an item came across the news desk saying the Marines were looking for men who could type and do shorthand. Man, if there’s anything I can do, it’s type. So they gave me a waiver on the eye test. I went through regular boot camp, though; there was no dispensation. That’s a shocking experience for a mild-mannered guy like me, climbing ropes like a monkey and swimming under fire. I was the Gomer Pyle of our outfit. The drill instructor actually said, “Jesus Christ, Duggan, please get in formation!”
And you were on an early experimental TV show during the war.
I played a Japanese sailor, and my role was to stab a Marine in the back. My captain had found me horsing around one day in this Japanese sailor suit, so he got even with me. I was not the pride of the Corps by any means.
Did boot camp prepare you for Donnybrook?
Yeah, I think so. I like to reflect on unlikely things in my life. Being married to Mae is number one. A nerd who got Mae, who was very popular! Then being a Marine. Doing as well as I did at the Globe, having started by pasting up columns about dogs and stamps. Donnybrook itself was very unlikely. I’ve been extremely fortunate.