Winter 1999 - Spring 2000

1950: The Captive Press

How a Senator Can Monopolize the Loudspeaker

By Douglass Cater

Sen. Joseph McCarthy with reporters. Photo courtesy of UPI/Corbis-Bettmann.

[This article originally appeared in the July 1950 issue of Nieman Reports.]

"I've never seen the press corps quite so frustrated," a Washington reporter told me the day of the second Lattimore hearing. "It's The problem begins with what the press puts on its amplifier—basically, with what news is.as if we lacked words to describe what's going on. But it's not the words; it's the frozen patterns of journalism that inhibit us."

Perhaps "frozen patterns" is as good a phrase as any to describe what prevents the press from giving an accurate picture of the McCarthy affair. It is not simply that some newspapers make a practice of exploiting this sort of thing that the Scripps Howard chain, for example, acted as if it had been ordered by Roy Howard to play the McCarthy story for all it was worth, or that the Chicago Tribune Washington man, Willard Edwards, supplied McCarthy's speech writer with the material for the Lincoln Day address at Wheeling, West Virginia, that precipitated the whole investigation. All that was part of the everyday fortune of a certain section of the American press.

What can the responsible press do in handling the McCarthy story? The reporter, the wire service man, the managing editor give various answers. When it deals with politics, the press network of the United States is a system of loudspeakers that transmits and amplifies the words uttered in the public arena. The trouble is that an increasingly large number of people know how to capture that instrument and scream all they want into it. In Washington, its chief originating point, Senator McCarthy, who has an acute sense of copy deadlines, talks to newspapermen. Forty-five minutes later his words are being read in Des Moines, Iowa. Technically, the system is very efficient, but, like most modern contrivances, it is not yet immune from abuses.

The problem begins with what the press puts on its amplifier basically, with what news is. Recently, a Washington managing editor undertook to define it for me: "What happens in the world and what people say, do and think about it." This definition is so broad that it doesn't help much in the day-to-day making up of a newspaper. Which statement, actions and thoughts should be run; which left out? Most important of all, which are worth putting on the front page?

To this last question, newspapermen have no pat answer. The layman suspects that often the amplifier is monopolized by the men with the loudest voices and the least scruples.

Students of the press attribute this to the competitive drive for circulation, which is, after all, the daily bread of the newspaper. But the motivations are not always so easily explainable. Take the case of the Montgomery (Alabama) Advertiser, a morning paper in a one-publisher city. When McCarthy commenced his rampage, that paper played the story down, giving the Senator's charges a brief story near the center fold. All through February, the story stayed at the center of page one with a single-column head, but in March it moved inexorably upward. For 16 days of that month, it rated a top-of-page one, three-column head, holding the upper right-hand position for 11 days. The Advertiser was not fooled by McCarthy: it took an editorial stand supporting Acheson. Nor was it engaged in a circulation drive. It clearly had succumbed to the contagious excitement of the radio stations, the wire services, and the out-of-town press. By its treatment, and that of similar papers all over the country, the circle was completed, bringing the excitement back to the Congressman on Capitol Hill.

Headlines, of course, represent the maximum output of the amplifier system. McCarthy hasn't been the first to discover that the hurled charge no matter how outlandish is heat for the headline writer, whose job is made easier by the vocabulary of accusation"puts the finger on," "spy," "pinko," "bared secrets," and the rest. "McCarthy Names Lattimore Top Russian Agent" is Faced with a phenomenon as complex as McCarthyism, the ‘straight’ reporter has become a sort of straitjacketed reporter.controversial and unexpected (a headline rating of two). "Lattimore Asserts McCarthy Liar" is controversial and expected (a headline rating of one). If Lattimore had said McCarthy was telling the truth that would have had a bigger headline rating and, consequently, a bigger headline.

Senator Tydings decided that it was the time factor which put the defendant at a disadvantage in the battle of the headlines and tried to do something about it. By hearing the accuser and the accused on alternate days, he hoped that the reply would catch up with the charge before irrevocable damage was done. But the Senator's attempt to keep pace with the rhythms of the press backfired. A denial never has the newsworthiness of an accusation. Besides, relieved of the necessity of stating his entire case before the rebuttal began, McCarthy has manufactured new charges each time the old ones begin to wear thin. For more than three months now, the victory of the headlines has been incontestably that of the Senator from Wisconsin.

One of the frozen patterns that have hampered press coverage of the McCarthy charges is the distinction between the "straight" reporting of the ordinary reporters and wire service men, and the "interpretive" or "evaluative" reporting of the privileged few. A wire service editor defined "straight" reporting for me. "The job of the straight reporter," he said, "is to take the place of the spectator who is unable to be present. Like the spectator, he does not delve into motives or other side issues except as they become a part of the public record." Unfortunately, the spectator is a casual witness, usually excited and bewildered by any unexpected event. A professional callousness can free the "straight" reporter from excitement, but not from bewilderment if he is only a spectator and not, as in the old days of reporting, an investigator.

Faced with a phenomenon as complex as McCarthyism, the "straight" reporter has become a sort of straitjacketed reporter. His initiative is hog-tied so that he cannot fulfill his first duty, which is to bring clearer understanding to his reader. It results in a distortion of reality. Some examples:

The "straight" reporters did not see fit to point out that Willard Edwards of the Chicago Tribune furnished the material for McCarthy's original speech a fact probably known to nine-tenths of them.

The "straight" reporters could not say one word about the Nationalist China Lobby, which was feeding McCarthy with material, until Lattimore mentioned it in open hearing. Even then "straight" reporters were limited to quoting Lattimore, giving the reader no basis for judging the credibility of his accusation.

"Straight" reporters did not investigate the sources of the abundant financial aid which McCarthy is receiving, or the expert assistance provided by men like Kent Hunter of the Hearst newspapers. On the other hand, it could and did publicize the fact that Tyding's committee got $25,000 for operating expenses. It thus gave the impression, deliberately created by McCarthy, that he is a lonely crusader fighting against powerful odds.

"Straight" reporting does not attempt to "play" the witnesses according to their credibility. For example, it recorded the happenings of May 1 in this order: Headline and lead went to Freda Utley, an ex-Communist who described Lattimore as a "Judas cow." The middle of the story brought out the fact that Demaree Bess, an associate editor of the Saturday Evening Post, had testified that he knew Lattimore in Moscow in 1936, and he never saw the "slightest evidence that he was becoming even the mildest form of fellow traveler." In the breakover (inside page) was the fact that Representative Frank Karsten (Democrat, Missouri) had announced that McCarthy's 81 cases were among the 108 investigated more than two years ago by Republican-controlled committees. "Straight" reporting gave leading emphasis to the witness with the most spectacular and sensational, not necessarily the most reliable, testimony.

Eighty percent of the nation's dailies depend exclusively on the "straight" reporting of the wire services out of Washington. Unless they depend upon the syndicated columnists, their editors presumably have no means of making a balanced assessment of McCarthyism.

A wire service reporter parries with this argument: "We have respect for the American people," he says. "We believe they are capable of making up their own minds without our help." The problem is that when the reader is given facts selected only for their headline value, how can he have anything but a crooked vision of the case?

The American Society of Newspaper Editors has in its Ethical Rules a section Eighty percent of the nation’s dailies depend exclusively on the ‘straight’ reporting of the wire services out of Washington. Unless they depend upon the syndicated columnists, their editors presumably have no means of making a balanced assessment of McCarthyism.entitled "Fair Play": "A newspaper should not publish unofficial charges affecting reputation or moral character without opportunity given to the accused to be heard; right practice demands the giving of such opportunity in all cases of serious accusations outside judicial proceedings."

Responsible newspapers try hard to live up to this creed, failing only when the accused, like Lattimore, turns out to be in the wilds of Afghanistan. In practice, it works as follows: Late one afternoon Senator McCarthy may name a person: Dorothy Kenyon, Haldore Hansen, or Donald Duck. All through the evening the victim's telephone rings. He is told briefly the nature of the charge made against him and asked for a brief reply. Next morning, the papers describe in detail the McCarthy charges. Usually in the subhead and somewhere in the tail of the story, note is made of the fact that the accused person disagrees.

Some excellent interpretive reporting on McCarthyism has been filed from Washington. On February 23, three days after McCarthy first brought his case to the floor of the Senate, the Providence Bulletin carried a story by its Washington correspondent, Harold Graves, Jr., disclosing Willard Edwards's position behind McCarthy. Graves also pointed out that the 81 cases mentioned by McCarthy were those the State Department discussed with the House Appropriations Subcommittee in February 1948a fact which Senator Tydings used over two months later to persuade Truman to release the loyalty files. On March 31, Graves filed a story describing the influence of the National China Lobby upon McCarthy one week before Lattimore testified to the same thing. On April 6, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch carried a story by Ed Harris giving more details of the silken hand of the China Lobby. The Post-Dispatch was able to point to an exposé of Chiang Kai-shek's insidious operations in Washington, which it had carried early last fall.

Early in March, Richard L. Strout of The Christian Science Monitor and Carroll Kilpatrick of the San Francisco Chronicle, by taking the trouble to check a transcription made by a radio station in Wheeling, West Virginia, pointed out McCarthy's lie in denying to Senator Lucas that he had said in his Lincoln Day speech: "I have here in my hand a list of 205 that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy in the State Department." A group of Democratic senators used this same transcription two months later to corner McCarthy in a battle on the Senate floor.

But these and a few other instances of good "interpretive" reporting (which, after all, only followed the tradition of plain reporting, without adjectives) had little effect. Washington correspondents, who don't hesitate to quote each other's conversation in the press club bar as "usually well-informed sources," fail to read each other's dispatches. Besides, "interpretive reporting" has an "exclusive" quality. Once it is used, other "interpretive" reporters regard it as the writer's private property and shy away from it even though it may be valuable in throwing light on a situation.

Busy as he is catching the news of the day, the newspaperman rarely can refresh his mind on what happened yesterday. This type of reporting has little chance of getting across to many unless it is done by columnists, who have little time for digging. As a result, the columnist frequently dishes up as "news" the stale trash of a previous period. Not even The New York Times adequately tied in McCarthyism with the past campaign of vilification the China Lobby waged against the Institute of Pacific Relations. Not one newspaper or magazine seemed willing or courageous enough to do a research job of its own comparable to that done by Lattimore's assistants in Amid the short-
comings of the press, the fist of McCarthy continued to wave defiantly from the headlines. The brave efforts of many newspapers to retaliate by shaking the mild, well-mannered finger of the editorial seem puny in comparison. Something more than the inside editorial is needed to counteract the front-page headline.
preparing his rebuttal. Yet most publications have morgues and staffs quite sufficient to cover such a contingency.

The McCarthy affair has elicited some unexplainably bad reporting from the two deans of the Washington corps. Arthur Krock of The New York Times was not present when Louis Budenz appeared before the Senate Subcommittee. His column the following Sunday justifiably contained no mention of Budenz's evidence or the lack of it. Quite unjustifiably, however, it was based on a quotation from Senator Ralph Flanders who, though also absent from the hearing, handed down "the general verdict of the political community." Said Senator Flanders: "I find it disturbing." Krock continued: "Many fair-minded persons have been hostile to the manner in which McCarthy has presented his charges and up to now have been persuaded by his inaccurate arraignment of the State Department which he repeatedly was obliged to revise downward that the Senator had little basis for it. Yet there is evidence that these persons are beginning to lose confidence in their appraisal."

Mr. Krock, failing to weigh Budenz's charges and appealing vaguely to a non-existent "general verdict of the political community," might just as well have written his column from an editorial armchair in New York. There, he might have realized that the words of Arthur Krock have a far more disturbing effect on public opinion than anything Louis Budenz might say.

Even more surprising has been the attitude of Bert Andrews, chief correspondent of the New York Herald Tribune in Washington. In 1947, Andrews wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of columns for the Herald Tribune on the witch-hunting aspects of the State Department's loyalty program. The blame fell largely on a man named Dean Acheson who, as Under Secretary of State at the time, bore administrative responsibility. Later, Andrews revamped the articles into a book entitled "Washington Witch Hunt."

In 1950, the voice of Bert Andrews had strangely changed its key. The uninitiated might even think he had joined the ranks of the hunters. On April 4, the Herald Tribune carried a story under his byline reporting that during a secret session of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee, J. Edgar Hoover had refused to absolve one man. Since Andrews didn't say which man, suspicion fell on all whom McCarthy had accused. On April 9, Andrews came up with a story that was headed: "Hickenlooper May Quit Part in Red Inquiry." In newspaper parlance, this type of story is known as a "plant." Hickenlooper, a Senator hard-pressed for reelection, wished to let other Subcommittee members know that if he didn't get his way, he would pick up his marbles and go home. The story failed to mention whether or not the other members, including Republican Senator Lodge, were satisfied with the Subcommittee's progress.

On May 4, Andrews came up with a story headed: "State Dept. To Let Service See 'Secret' Papers Senate Couldn't." The lead announced: "The State Department is declassifying certain restricted and confidential documents to make them available to counsel preparing the defense of John Stewart Service, who will soon appear before a department loyalty board." On May 7, the Herald Tribune carried a letter from Conrad Snow, Chairman of the loyalty board: "Mr. Service has not been given and will not be given access to the loyalty or personnel files which were gathered by the F.B.I. and other investigatory bodies and which were refused by the President to the Senate Committee. Mr. Service is entitled, however, as a matter of elementary fairness, to see and put in evidence any reports or other papers in the files of the State Department which were prepared by him or in connection with the missions on which he served, which may be material to his defense."

Amid the shortcomings of the press, the fist of McCarthy continued to wave defiantly from the headlines. The brave efforts of many newspapers to retaliate by shaking the mild, well-mannered finger of the editorial seem puny in comparison. Something more than the inside editorial is needed to counteract the front-page headline.

Herbert Elliston, Editor of The Washington Post, is aware of the newspapers' shortcomings. He suggests that the objective presentation of the "straight" reporter must be supplemented by more and better interpretation. "Honest interpretation," he says, "looms much bigger than spot news as a newspaper function in these responsible days of the American democracy." To handle the complexities of McCarthyism, Elliston believes that the newspapers should assign "second" reporters as soon as the situation is fairly well seen. The second man's function would be to fill that narrow but deep crevasse between the "straight" reporter and the editorial writer. He should do the background work, the sleuthing for motives, the "atmosphere" creation. By reading this reporter's accounts run side by side with the "straight" story, the reader would have a much better opportunity to reach an honest conclusion. For the small daily wholly at the mercy of the wire service, the problem would remain unsolved. There is no reason, however, why the larger paper's "interpretative" reporting should not be syndicated to smaller papers, just as many feature stories are now syndicated.

The press of America has long constituted itself a merry Fourth Estate, largely immune from criticism. Today, the advent of McCarthyism has thrown real fear into the hearts of some fear of what a demagogue can do to America while the press helplessly gives its sometimes unwilling cooperation. Perhaps Joseph McCarthy, Senator from Wisconsin, is not a demagogue. But who knows? One greater than McCarthy may come.

Douglass Cater joined the Washington press corps just as McCarthyism seemed to be taking over the whole organism of public opinion making in America. The qualities that made him the strongest man in his Harvard class four years ago stood him in good stead as he refused to be terrified by the Terror and insisted on understanding the failure of the press to cope with it. This is his first piece as Washington correspondent of The Reporter.

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