The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes
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'  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 :
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  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 .
Second, the 1951 testimony of Pat Hurley  at the MacArthur Hearings included a factual assertion  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  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 , but ones Lattimore attributed to the Soviets.
If there ever was a Golden Age of American journalism, the 1950s was not it .
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