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Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Thursday, September 09, 2004
 

The reputation of the American press: a historical conundrum


From the boiler-room at Campaign Desk, a piece of historical perspective.

It links Bush's Convention speech :
In 1946, 18 months after the fall of Berlin to allied forces, a journalist wrote in the New York Times wrote this: "Germany is a land in an acute stage of economic, political and moral crisis. European capitals are frightened. In every military headquarters, one meets alarmed officials doing their utmost to deal with the consequences of the occupation policy that they admit has failed," end quote.

Maybe that same person is still around, writing editorials.

(APPLAUSE)


(Not exactly a tough crowd [1].)

And then goes on to suggest that
For a sitting president to go so directly after the Times -- and, by extension, the mainstream media for which it serves as a standard bearer -- would have been unthinkable in the 1950s and '60s...

And
The dominant magazines of the time, the Saturday Evening Post, Life, and Look, were read by millions, coast to coast, and generally thought to be institutions beyond reproach.

Network news anchors, too.

A number of puzzling points.

Why choose to start the trip down memory lane with the 1950s and 1960s? Presumably, to find a period where the facts fitted the argument.

What about the previous 170 years of the republic - during which the reputation of the press was surely black as sin? What happened to produce this sudden press-public and press-pol lovefest in 1950s?

There is I, from what I can tell, an abundance of dead-tree material on this, to which I do not have access. A pointilliste approach with online fragments is all I can manage.

There's an oral history interview with wire journalist Robert G Nixon, comparing the MO of Charles Ross and Joe Short, Truman's Press Secretaries, with that of Eisenhower's man, James Hagerty.

He says:
Hagerty operated on the basis of making the sun shine 24 hours a day. Jim would go up to Gettysburg with Eisenhower and he would conduct two press conferences a day--one in the morning and one in the afternoon and sometimes more. He made every tiny little thing that the President did sound like it was news of tremendous and terrific importance. I don't like to use the word "fabricated," but he magnified. He made little things look big, and newsmen are always hungry for news. He kept this, what I called the "fiction factory," going day and night.

It made Eisenhower look awfully good in the nation's press. The publishers, all more or less Republican-minded, were so dazzled by a Republican President being in the White House for the first time since 1932, that they would front page anything that had the Eisenhower name on it. It also kept the newsmen busy enough so that they didn't have to go around looking under the rug.


Eisenhower wanted a quiet life, and Hagerty made it stretch. Truman's relations with the press were famously difficult [2].

Covering the period is a thesis, An Industry in Transition: Major Trends in American Daily Newspapers, 1945-1965 by J-prof David Davies. His chapter on Government, the Cold War and Newspapers 1950-53 suggests a combative attitude on the part of the press even in the area of national security in opposing government censorship: in particular, Executive Order 10290 [3].

There's an interesting piece by Philip Hanson on the portrayal of the press in Hollywood movies of the 1930s. Overwhelmingly, it's treated as lower than vermin. Do anything for a buck and a headline.

Now, perhaps in this, producers were going against public sentiment [4]. But probably not. He quotes Time from February 10 1930:
To many a British journalist a U.S. reporter is a creature who chews black cigars, speaks to ladies without removing his hat, and stoops to anything for the sake of a story.

Was there a but coming there?

The genre survived till at least Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole in 1951.

I'm disposed to doubt that, before the 1930s, the general reputation of the press was anything but low. Hanson quotes Theodore Roosevelt as virtually calling William Randolph Hearst a murderer [5].

On the CD hypothesis - that the 50s and 60s were an era of high media reputation - I have nowhere near enough to conclude anything. (Except that, if the Columbia Journalism Review doesn't have the evidence to prove the point, who does?) My hypothesis is that, if their's is true, that makes the period wholly exceptional in US history.

  1. Scarcely reasonable to expect Bush to have heard of the Marshall Plan...

  2. There is a study considering journalistic deference in the press conferences of Eisenhower and those of Reagan. Ike got it easier, surprise, surprise. But the extracts are interesting.

    On the subject of the occupation of Germany, Nixon has this:

    The American soldiers were selling everything on the black market in Germany. The mess sergeants were swiping coffee and the Germans were paying them in marks. Coffee sold for $1,000 a pound. This coffee of course, was swiped from the commissary.
  3. It also has interesting stuff on Joseph McCarthy and his techniques of press manipulation. (But how hard did the hacks struggle?).

    In the chapter on Kennedy and the press, he mentions that Eisenhower's revision to Executive Order 10290 was EO 10501. In case it crops up again.

  4. George Gallup was polling at time. Did he survey the issue? And what about surveys in the 1950s and 1960s?

  5. Claiming President McKinley to be a tool of the trusts, a Hearst paper, The Journal, ran an editorial that remarked, "If bad institutions and bad men can be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done." Five months later, McKinley was assassinated. When he succeeded McKinley to office, referring to Hearst, Theodore Roosevelt angrily characterized McKinley's assassin as one "inflamed by the teachings of professional anarchists, and probably also by the reckless utterances of those who, on the stump and in the public press, appeal to the dark and evil spirits, of malice and greed, envy and sullen hatred"

MORE

The Southern press during the 1950s and 1960s would presumably be something of a special case: mostly hostile both to Eisenhower's quiet life and the gradual adoption of the civil rights cause during Kennedy-Johnson.

Hollywood made a indirect hero of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer in The Phenix City Story (1955) - it dramatised the story for which the paper got a Pulitzer, organised crime in a wide-open town on the other side of the Chattahoochee River from Columbus.

What the Ledger-Enquirer was writing on schools desegregation at the time was, I suspect, less likely to have drawn paeans from producers. Mr Google fails to supply anything on the point. (Ralph McGill's relatively liberal Atlanta Constitution (December 21 2003) was a rarity in the Deep South.)


STILL MORE

Philip Hanson doesn't mention the oft discussed here Mr Smith Goes To Washington which is full of monkey-shines at the Fourth Estate's expense.


YET MORE

Dipping into the David Davies thesis (see above), footnote 48 to Chapter 3 produces some paydirt on press criticism:
Lee Brown writes that American press criticism was muted during World War II but escalated immediately after it. See The Reluctant Reformation: On Criticizing the Press in America (New York: David McKay Co., 1947). Brown's brief book is one of the few secondary works on the history of American press criticism. See also Marion Tuttle Marzolf, Civilizing Voices: American Press Criticism, 1880-1950 (New York: Longman, 1991), especially Chapter 12, pp. 163-176, which deals with the early postwar years.

And, from the text of Chapter 3, this quote:
"It is a fact that newspapers in general have become the national whipping boy," an Editor & Publisher editorial lamented in 1946. "They are the target for every minority group that imagines itself wronged in the public print."


I suspect there will be further references to cover the rest of his period of review.

His stuff also reminds me of the Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press, whose 1947 report does not seem to be available online. (There is this abstract, though, from the Nieman Reports, together with contemporary reaction. Further information on the Commission in a 50th anniversary lecture and this piece on the National News Council proposed in the report.)


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