Writing a blurb for this book would be a snap: “Every serious journalist should read this fascinating, superbly researched, thoroughly documented, and invaluable historical account of a frightening, sustained and vicious assault on robust journalism—an assault that has great resonance today,” is what I’d say. On the other hand, summarizing it in a review, as I was asked to do, was surprisingly difficult. That’s because “Dark Days in the Newsroom” tells the stories of dozens of people, each of whom is arguably worth a lengthy article, if not a book, of his or her own.
This book’s pages are densely populated by a real-life cast of cowards, hate-mongers, ideologues, sell-outs, perjurers, scoundrels, hypocrites and opportunists. But there are heroes, too, and others who are weak-kneed, along with the well intentioned gone astray and the belatedly conscience-stricken. Then there are innocent victims, among them reporters who suddenly found themselves out on the street. Janet Scott learned from the front page of the Knickerbocker News that she’d been fired after 27 years at the paper.
Edward Alwood, the author, is a journalism professor at Quinnipiac University and a former CNN correspondent. He dug deeply into dozens of books and archives, conducted wide-ranging interviews, and used the Freedom of Information Act to unearth illuminating nuggets to bring to life the concerted effort by the government in the 1950’s—a.k.a. the (Senator Joseph) McCarthy era—“to compel journalists to name friends and colleagues who were thought to have been members of the Communist Party, although membership was not a crime.”
Those of us who witnessed McCarthy’s ruthless rampage will never forget it. Nor will we fail to remember how long it took for his tactics of fear and intimidation—aimed at members of the press as much as it was at other influential segments of society—to be enfeebled. For those not old enough to have lived through this time in our nation’s history, having the chance this book gives to absorb its valuable lessons is a gift worth sampling.
The government’s primary weapon of intimidation was the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, initially under Wisconsin Republican Joseph McCarthy. Less well remembered, but even more destructive to the press, was his successor, Mississippi Democrat James Eastland. “The Eastland committee,” as it was popularly known, called before it specific reporters and editors to inquire about any involvement they might have had with the Communist Party. Their questioning went much further. As Alwood writes, “The committee asked about their political interests and their personal thoughts and beliefs. Members questioned newspaper editorial policies and hiring practices, areas that were thought to be sacrosanct under the First Amendment.”
Like the predecessor House Committee on Un-American Activities, the McCarthy/Eastland Senate subcommittee had for much of the time the enthusiastic but concealed cooperation of the FBI. Despite the vast resources, surveillance and power to intimidate commanded by the committees and the FBI, they were not able to produce, in Alwood’s devastating summation, “any serious evidence that Red journalists were inserting propaganda in the news or editorial content of mainstream newspapers.” Indeed, Eastland and William Jenner, the subcommittee’s ranking Republican senator, “acknowledged, in 1956, that [it] had been unable to cite a single instance where Communists had influenced editorial content,” writes Alwood.
Then, and now, the gravest and most steadfast threat to the First Amendment came overwhelmingly from the right, not from the left, not from liberals and progressives. Alwood implies, though does not explicitly state, that this threat continues to come from the same direction. During the past seven years, such threats have arrived from the Constitution-gutting Bush administration, the prosecutorial intimidation of journalists, and a well-documented pattern of intentional inattentiveness to the Freedom of Information Act. For even more years, a different kind of threat has been escalating among the growing hordes of know-nothing, talk-show bullies who make despicable, ludicrous and false accusations, including charges of disloyalty and even treason.
“Dark Days” is filled with prescient observations and startling facts. Quotes, unless otherwise attributed, are by the author:
- An “important legacy of the McCarthy era is caution in the newsroom in the face of government intimidation. It is not known how many quietly resigned from newspapers rather than face public humiliation in the 1950’s. Moreover, it is difficult to know the degree to which news stories were molded to conform politically. It is impossible to know how many issues were ignored for fear of triggering backlash from readers and how many stories were shelved to avoid controversy.”
- “That there was a significant Communist presence in the [Newspaper] Guild is unquestioned,” Guild Reporter Editor Andy Zipser wrote in his review of “Dark Days.”
- J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI “fueled the hunt for Reds in the newsrooms” and “played a prominent role in determining who was called to testify.”
- In 1944, an internal FBI report told of a proposed but unexecuted plan “to bug the Milwaukee convention hall where the [Newspaper] Guild was holding its annual convention.”
- After World War II, in 1945, Hoover “fought to continue … surveillance of the Newspaper Guild. FBI agents continued to collect names of people who might be detained during a national emergency, including journalists, although the agency had no statutory authority to do so, especially in peacetime.”
- “Historians have shown that McCarthyism was a collaborative effort that was waged on many fronts … but particularly against organized labor, and this included the labor movement within the newspaper industry.”
- McCarthy’s “favorite tactic was to compare critical newspapers to the Daily Worker.”
- The New York Times opposed segregation. In retaliation, hard-line segregationist Senator Eastland punished Times journalists. Yet “evidence suggests that the committee’s main target was not the Times but the Newspaper Guild for its efforts to unionize newsrooms.”
- “As it did a half-century later, the Supreme Court refused to recognize any First Amendment protection for … journalists. Moreover, in both 1955 and 2005, the newspaper industry stood divided on whether constitutional protection extends beyond the publishers’ offices to include the journalists who gather the news and serve as a check on the government.”
Harvey Matusow was a major Hoover informant. In all, he smeared 244 individuals. He was not a journalist but claimed to have “attended Communist Party meetings, caucuses, in the Newspaper Guild in New York.” When the Sunday section of the Times had a staff of 87, including two copyboys, Matusow said that the section “alone has 126 dues-paying Communists.” Later, he could name only a woman in the ad department and a copyboy.
In 1954, Matusow confided to Methodist Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam that “many of his accusations had been lies, including accusations against party leaders who had been convicted in 1952 under the Smith Act.” Matusow then “filed an affidavit with the federal district court in New York describing his testimony against party leaders as a lie.” In 1955, he announced that he would “right some of the wrongs” in a book he’d written. Its title was apt: “False Witness.” In 1956, Matusow was sentenced to five years for perjury.
Two Times copyeditors, Robert Shelton and Alden Whitman, were among the many journalists in “Dark Days” who, in Alwood’s words, “stood on moral principle and refused to answer questions before investigative committees.” Shelton declared that “because I am a loyal American, I must, as a matter of principle, challenge questions into my political beliefs and associations as a violation of my rights under the [F]irst [A]mendment to the Constitution.”
When he’d finished speaking, subcommittee counsel Julien Sourwine asked, “Do you, sir, consider membership in the Communist Party a matter of political belief?”
Shelton’s response was eloquent:
This subcommittee is nudging the end of my copy pencil, it is peeking over my shoulder as I work. This subcommittee is engendering the fear that soon it will be looking into newsrooms all over the country. If, as a result of my being called here, I am put under mental pressure to change one word or sentence in material that I edit, an abridgment of freedom of the press will have taken place …. Your question acts as a form of ‘prior restraint’ on publishing, telling newspaper executives who would or should not work on their staffs …. It is my understanding that the [F]irst [A]mendment is the door to America’s freedom of conscience …. It can be opened at any time from within; it cannot be forced open with the wedges of a subpoena, with threats of contempt citation, or in any other form.
Whitman acknowledged having worked for the Communist Party in the 1930’s, but he testified that he’d left it in 1948, thre years before joining the Times. He, too, stood firm, refusing to name party colleagues. “My private affairs, my beliefs, my associations, are not, I believe, proper subjects for investigation by this subcommittee,” he said. He made an additional, powerful and correct legal argument: The hearings, he observed, lacked a legislative purpose.
Shelton, Whitman and two other journalists were cited by the committee for contempt, and the Senate approved the citations—unanimously—and sent them to a grand jury for indictment. Twice convicted, they sued to challenge the citations. At a second trial, Senator Eastland took the stand. “In response to dozens of questions,” Alwood writes, “he answered, ‘I don’t remember,’ or ‘I can’t recall.’” It isn’t clear whether Eastland’s memory lapses outnumbered those of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Shelton never gave up, repeatedly appealing his convictions. In September 1963 he won a two-to-one decision in a court of appeals. Sourwine, the opinion held, “had violated Shelton’s rights by breaking the committee’s own rules governing subpoenas.” Shelton’s victory, Alwood writes, “cleared the way for an appeal by Whitman.” Surprisingly, in late 1964 government lawyers filed motions to dismiss the case against Whitman. In the end, the Supreme Court reversed the convictions with a five-to-two decision.
In the meantime, the Times made sure the two men “would have no influence over news content,” Alwood writes. Shelton was reassigned to copyedit entertainment features and reviews. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, after his court cases ended, he left the Times and helped to launch the careers of musicians and singers, including Janis Ian, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Judy Collins, the Mothers of Invention, and Peter, Paul and Mary. Whitman was reassigned to the obit desk. His daughter “found herself ostracized by her friends when a local newspaper reported the news of her father’s testimony on its front page,” Alwood notes. When Whitman’s marriage ended, he blamed the breakup “on the social strains that resulted from his appearance before the Eastland committee.”
Whitman spent nearly 10 of his 14 years at the Times “trying to vindicate himself and remove the stigma attached to his social activism during the 1930’s.” This did not deter the FBI from tracking Whitman, among other journalists, for many years afterward. Just before the 1972 election, Alwood discloses that:
… the FBI alerted the Secret Service to Whitman’s Communist background, although it is difficult to understand how an obituary writer posed a threat to the President or national security. Whitman’s relegation to the obit desk revolutionized newspaper obituary writing as he became the celebrated practitioner of the form, turning the worst job on most newspapers into an art.
“Dark Days” documents, too, the indifference of many newspaper and broadcasting executives, editors and Newspaper Guild leaders to the erosion of First Amendment freedoms. It reveals big-name journalist informers, including CBS correspondent Winston Burdett. Inspiringly, it tells of stand-up guys, including I.F. Stone, who put up bail for indicted Times staffer Seymour Peck; Joseph Rauh, Jr., a founder of the liberal and fiercely anticommunist Americans for Democratic Action, who represented Robert Shelton, and former Antitrust Division chief Thurman Arnold who, while a corporate lawyer, represented Alden Whitman. Simply to list, and describe in few words, each courageous journalist and innocent victim in “Dark Days”—never mind the others—would take far more space than any prudent editor would allow.
Unfortunately, “Dark Days” becomes quite intricate at times and is marred by a few instances of carelessness and writing that is not always felicitous. “In the late 1960’s, Shelton had moved to Britain, where he died in December 1965 at age 69.” Read the sentence literally, and Shelton moved after he died. The Guild is sometimes the “guild.” There are “communists,” then “Communists.” The index omits Louis Lyons, curator of the Nieman Foundation during the McCarthy era, whose is quoted in the book. (I was a Nieman Fellow in Lyons’s final class and have great admiration and affection for him.)
Louis Lyons’s Warning
What Lyons has to say in the book requires some background. McCarthy had hauled up New York Post editor James Wechsler. He, Whitman and Peck, according to Alwood, “had joined the Young Communist League as college students before embarking on careers in journalism.”
Did being a newspaperman, McCarthy asked Wechsler, confer “some special immunity” from being called to testify?
“I ask no special immunity,” the editor replied. “I say only that I believe I am here because I am a newspaperman and because of what I have done as a newspaperman.”
McCarthy tried to keep a transcript of the hearing secret, but reporters covering the story joined Wechsler in a successful effort to make them public. The American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) then appointed a committee to study them. Despite a three-week effort, the 11 members, led by The Washington Post’s J. Russell Wiggins, could not reach a consensus. But a minority—Wiggins plus three others—provided what Alwood calls Wechsler’s “vindication,” and it is memorable: “A press put to the frequent necessity of explaining its news and editorial policies to a United States Senator armed with the full powers of the government of the United States, is not a free press—whether the Senator is a good or a bad Senator.”
Few newspapers defended Wechsler, reflecting the inability of the entire ASNE committee to do so. This disturbed Lyons and led him to offer, in an address he made to the Guild’s 1953 national convention, what Alwood calls “a stern warning”: “They are short-sighted, those editors who took the attitude: This isn’t serious. It didn’t touch us. Do not send [sic] for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for you.”
Alwood contends that “conservative newspapers defended the [Eastland] committee.” Certainly, Justice William O. Douglas would disagree that it was “conservative” to defend this wrecking crew, as he suggested in his concurring opinion in the Supreme Court decision reversing Shelton and Whitman’s convictions. He argued that a strict reading of the Constitution wouldn’t lead to such a defense. Douglas wrote:
Under our system of government, I do not see how it is possible for Congress to pass a law saying whom a newspaper or news agency or magazine shall or shall not employ. I see no justification for the Government investigating the capacities, leanings, ideology, qualifications, prejudices or politics of those who collect or write the news. It was conceded on oral argument that Congress would have no power to establish standards of fitness [or] to prescribe loyalty tests for those who work for the press. Since this [Internal Security Subcommittee] investigation can have no legislative basis as far as the press is concerned, what then is its constitutional foundation?
I’d argue that the true conservatives were Lyons, the ASNE minority, Shelton, Whitman, Wechsler and numerous other protectors of the First Amendment named in Alwood’s remarkable book.
Morton Mintz, a 1964 Nieman Fellow, was a Newspaper Guild member throughout his 42 years on the staffs of the St. Louis Star-Times and St. Louis Globe-Democrat, both long defunct, and then at The Washington Post. In the 1960’s he was a chair of the Guild unit at the Post.