Dark Days in the Newsroom: McCarthyism and the Press
By Edward Allwood
Temple University Press, 2007
Liberals today express as much eagerness to jump on the McCarthy-as-fascist gravy train as anticommunists were on the Red Scare one in the fifties. The competition in today's cottage industry of "witch hunt" books isn't exhibited in who can portray the period at its darkest, but in who can add members of their particular profession to the list of scapegoats.
Dark Days in the Newsroom strains at every level in adding journalists. But the reader instead leaves the work with head shaking at how much paper was wasted. Allwood concentrates on the 1955-56 Eastland investigation of the New York Times, when McCarthy was already a spent force, humiliated by Joe Welch and shunned by such former allies as Richard Nixon.
Allwood laments the firing of journalists who were or had been Party members, and to bolster reader sympathy, implies that these reporters shelved their party attitudes when at the typewriter. In his defense, Allwood does factor in Venona, which named 18 journalists as targets of Soviet recruitment. But he highlights this number to show how much investigative energy was wasted on the journalistic profession.
But consider the potential national security dangers then of 18 journalists enlisting in the recruitment effort. Journalists were privy to government documents, deep throats, off-the-record comments and military installations. It was after all, the Communist-staffed Ameriasia magazine that was found to house top secret State Department data in a 1945 FBI raid. And one still doesn't know what was discussed or leaked during leftist I.F Stone's lunches with a Soviet official. On the other side, the Chicago Tribune damaged FDR's war effort by publishing his top secret plans. And whatever one's view of the Scooter Libby case, it wasn't Iranian intelligence or Al Qaeda who broke the story of Valerie Plame's once-covert work for the CIA, but an American reporter. It's no coincidence that the second most popular cover for Soviet agents was that of journalist. The KGB conduit to JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis was a reporter and Whittaker Chambers' favorite pose while spying for the Soviets was as freelance journalist.
Allwood tries to attach the same atmosphere of repression to the newsroom as others have to the movie industry. But, as with the latter, Cold War critiques didn't cease with the blacklistings. I.F Stone continued unmolested in his weekly defenses of Henry Wallace's candidacy and the greatness of Stalin; the Nation Magazine was allowed to champion the innocence of Alger Hiss and the villainy of Nixon; the Daily Worker was never banned and regularly, all rationalizations and defenses of Stalin intact, appeared on the newstands; Drew Pearson's readership saw every rumor and hearsay about McCarthy's sexual habits in print (the only retribution for this was a knee in his groin, not from a secret police, but McCarthy himself).
McCarthyism flourished no doubt from a grassroots angry at New Deal denial about Soviet penetrations, but also from journalists, with no ideological axe to grind, printing every one of the Senator's fantastic charges. Reporters back then loved this ism; Willard Sheen of the Chicago Tribune stated that “McCarthy was a dream story. I wasn't off page one for four years." And only one reporter at McCarthy's press conference shortly after flashing the list demanded the Senator name names. AP reporters in small towns would run his charges without verification.
By focusing on this era and the profession, Allwood inadvertently reminds readers, however, of how partisan reporters have become since. Nowhere in his index is mentioned Bert Andrews, who exhibited enough objectivity to condemn both HUAC's hearings of the movie industry and the behavior of Alger Hiss.
Today, reporters scarcely retract what they print, such as the Soviets seemingly exoneration of Hiss and their subsequent clarification that they were misunderstood and pressured unduly by the Hiss people. The first story appeared on page one; the retraction, if run at all, on page 7. Or they display their partisanship by, at President Clinton's request, absenting themselves from the government raid on Elian Gonzales' house. If one network hadn't stayed behind, we would have no images of the black-suited government official pointing a machine gun at an unarmed relative.
Works such as Allwood's, painting an era of conservatives enforcing fascism on the profession, only encourage further such selective reporting. Even in the fifties, readers didn't need an alternative media; today, without it, so much of the copy, dumped down the memory hole, would go unread or unheard.