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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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Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Contemporary testimony on McCarthy Age media

In the light of current controversy over journalism standards (the latest here yesterday, on Dan Okrent's latest blasts), a piece in Elmer Davis' [1] 1954 But We Were Born Free is interesting, if not instructive.

Under the title News and the Whole Truth, Davis cites a good many examples of failures in political journalism, and, in particular, highlights the perils that objectivity leads hacks and their bosses into.

I'll just take a couple with present-day resonance [2]:

First, he notes two interviews with Josef Stalin in 1949 (during the Berlin blockade) and 1952 (Korean War), the latter with James 'Scotty' Reston of the New York Times, and comments:
From both these sets of answers you got the picture of good old benevolent Uncle Joe, who wanted to live in peace with everybody; and you got vast publicity for certain propaganda arguments that Stalin wanted to get before the world. He could have got them before the world by a statement in Pravda, but that would have attracted far less attention than answers to well-known American reporters. Most editorials analyzed the Stalin statements for what they were; but their analyses were read by far fewer people than saw the news stories on the front page.

Stenography and A17 disease [3] alive and well in Grandpa's time: whoda thunkit.

And - amazing to think that, at this particularly icy stage of the Cold War, the Soviets were benefiting from the treatment [4].

Second, the 1951 testimony of Pat Hurley [5] at the MacArthur Hearings included a factual assertion [6] about the organisation of the atomic energy programme at the time that the Rosenbergs were doing their espionage thing: the assertion was clearly flatly incorrect.

Senator McMahon, a member of the committee, absent at the time of Hurley's statement, returned to correct the record.

Davis comments (p162):
Any competent news editor must have known that it was a downright misstatement of facts; yet I doubt if there was a newspaper in the country, printing Hurley's statement before McMahon's correction, that followed it with a bracketed insert, "This is not so." To do that would have been editorializing, interpreting the news, failing in objectivity. You could do it to Stalin and Hitler in their day, but tradition forbids doing it to one of our fellow citizens when he is engaged in controversy.

Third, Davis looks at the practice of red-hunting Congressional committees of cobbling together misleading quotations from different statements and articles - pertinent extracts - with a view to demonstrating Commie sympathies.

Thus (p166), the Internal Security Committee under Senator Pat McCarran of Nevada [7] had Owen Lattimore in its sights. One John Carter Vincent was presented by McCarran with various pertinent extracts from a book, Solution in Asia, written by Lattimore designed to demonstrate the guy's Communist sympathies.

When Vincent got home and got down the book, he found that, read in context, the views complained of were not those of Lattimore [8], but ones Lattimore attributed to the Soviets.

If there ever was a Golden Age of American journalism, the 1950s was not it [9].

  1. A Hoosier radio commentator - bio - for CBS and ABC who got his network start in 1939 filling in for HV Kaltenborn, apparently.

    The first half of the book is a philippic against Joseph McCarthy, of whom Davis was a fierce opponent.

  2. The book was apparently a best-seller: I suspect copies are not hard to come by.

  3. As detailed in Susan's Moeller's study on Iraqi WMD coverage, of course.

  4. I thought - reading Daniel Hallin's Uncensored War, for instance - that conformism to the Cold War ideology was a widespread aggravating factor in the media's failure to deal with the escalation of US military activity in Vietnam under Kennedy and early Johnson.

    And that the Uncle Joe days of Quiet American naivety on the USSR were long gone by 1949 - the year when Truman 'lost' China, of course.

  5. The moron who uttered the immortal words (February 22 2003):
    The only difference between Chinese Communists and Oklahoma Republicans is that Oklahoma Republicans aren't armed.
  6. He said the Atomic Energy Commission was in charge of the programme at the time; in fact, it was the Manhattan Engineering District.

  7. A Democrat - the Dems, from Truman down, have managed largely to get themselves airbrushed out of the popular memory of the Red Scare - it's even called McCarthyism. But the junior senator - in the Senatorial pecking order, somewhere around the Pappy O'Daniel mark! - could have done nothing without the Terror that Harry Built.

  8. Or, at least, could not fairly be read as such.

  9. I've mentioned several times Edwin Bayley's book on McCarthy and the press.

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