[This article originally appeared in the April 1952 issue of Nieman Reports.] Thomas Jefferson, in a famous letter to Edward Carrington, wrote his much-quoted line, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Yet few of the Fourth of July orators and self-styled champions of press freedom will recall that Jefferson also wrote another letter some seven years later, this time to James Madison, in which he said: “I have never seen a Philadelphia paper since I left it till those you enclosed me; and I feel myself so thoroughly weaned from the interest I took in the proceedings there, while there, that I have never had a wish to see one, and believe that I shall never take another newspaper of any sort.”
It was regrettable that so truly a believer in the great potentiality of the press in the United States should have been brought to such a conclusion. But the unrelenting calumny of the opposition press soured Mr. Jefferson on the practical workability of the press as a rational tool of democracy.
If Jefferson were to come back to his America today, I think he would find much in the press that would encourage him to regain new high hopes for it. On the other hand, he would find some of the corrosive evils of his own time tied up in a new package, speeded and magnified by the miracle of modern day communications, but nevertheless evil to the republic and the press alike.
Jefferson would be pleased by what we call “objective” reporting, at least he would be the first few hours of his visit. But the thing that would disturb Jefferson, I believe, is what I term the cult of incredibility which has permeated the American press, exploiting its honest aim of objective reporting, and just as deadly in its effect of character assassination as the vilest mudslinging of Jefferson’s time.
Here is the way the cult of incredibility operates. A figure of potential national prominence makes a speech or holds a press conference; or utilizing congressional immunity if he is a member of that body, he levels a shotgun blast at his latest target. This figure may be a virtual unknown on the national scene until his first such blast, but it catches the attention of the press in such a way that he is soon a mighty newsworthy figure. The press may unwittingly create a Frankenstein’s monster and has on more than one occasion. But once they have built up this figure he is the master of the press and not its servant, because he is a creator of news in himself. And after that, whether the press likes it or not, they have to listen and report what he says. Some listen and report because they like what the demagogue says, because in their intense partisanship they welcome the aid of any man who will discredit their “foes.” But these are in the minority, and most members of the press soon feel distaste for the demagogue and are intensely dubious of his motives. Yet they must continue to cover his every utterance lest their competitor give the public the coverage. And this large majority of sincere members of the press can always rationalize their continued coverage of the demagogue by the familiar label of “objective” reporting.
The tool of the demagogue is to use language in a way that suggests that the target of his remarks has committed the most perfidious of acts. He knows that the newspapers which will cover his speeches, press conferences or obiter dicta (and he always calculates when his remarks will get maximum coverage), can write their stories in many different ways. He is aware that credibility and incredibility can be one and the same thing if you can razzle-dazzle enough smear words, rumors, conjectures into print often enough and in large enough type.
On February 11, 1952, the Associated Press dispatched a story from Washington on its national wire which illustrates the cult of incredibility operating at full power. The lead of the story said that Leon H. Keyserling states that a story by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin is “utter nonsense” and “entirely false.” After identifying Leon Keyserling as Chairman of President Truman’s Council of Economic Advisers, the story has a paragraph which I quote in full, so well does it illustrate how the “objective’’ reporter of the Associated Press has presented conjectures, half-facts and innuendoes in the same “objective” way that he would report the price of wheat on the Chicago grain exchange.
“At Wheeling, W. Va., Senator McCarthy told a Republican Women’s Club that secret and previously undisclosed congressional testimony by an unidentified witness showed Mr. Keyserling had once talked with a Communist Party organizer. Senator McCarthy quoted the witness as saying they discussed Communist philosophy but Mr. Keyserling was not asked to join because he did not agree with all its principles.”
Let’s break down one part of this paragraph, and let x equal fact, y equal irrelevancies, and z equal unsubstantiated, unproved allegations.
The facts would read: Senator McCarthy told that Mr. Keyserling had talked.
With irrelevancies added: Senator McCarthy told a Republican Women’s Club (at Wheeling, W. Va.) that Mr. Keyserling had talked.
Had the above statement been written as follows it would have been factual as the AP version: “At Alibozo, N. Da., Senator McCarthy told a Republican Kennel Club that vociferous and unknown ecclesiastical heresy by an egotistical onlooker showed Mr. Keyserling had once talked with an imaginary pink elephant which had Communist printed on its tail.”
In fairness to the Associated Press story, 85 percent of the story is devoted to a rebuttal of Senator McCarthy’s speech by Mr. Keyserling. Yet what is there to refute? McCarthy has not called Keyserling a Communist, but merely strung together a series of conjectures which if true would make Keyserling appear a sinister figure. It makes no difference to McCarthy if Keyserling protests with vigor, because each time Keyserling does this, the newspaper with its “objective” reporting will have to recapitulate what McCarthy said originally. Perhaps some people who didn’t hear the speech or read about it in the paper the first day will now read it. And if the target of McCarthy’s blast has the temerity to protest his innocence and proceeds plausibly to do so, McCarthy has his ace in the hole rejoinder, which goes along these lines: “Oh yes, my enemies scoffed at me when I pointed out that Alger Hiss was a Communist, too.” (The fact that McCarthy had nothing to do with the conviction of Alger Hiss is conveniently forgotten.) Ergo, anybody who doubts what McCarthy says about Keyserling or Philip Jessup or Dean Acheson or General Marshall should remember that Alger Hiss protested his innocence, too.
There is no appeal to logic in stopping the pattern of incredibility, for it is patently and calculatedly an enemy of logic. Jefferson knew at first hand that there was no easy solution to this problem. Goaded beyond even his patient endurance when the Federalist press circulated the libel that he (Jefferson) had paid James Callender for calling Washington a traitor, a robber and a perjurer, Jefferson brought one of the small fry Federalist editors to trial and saw him convicted. Yet even this conviction of Harry Croswell brought no practical relief of any consequence to Mr. Jefferson, and what it cost him in peace of mind history does not record. But it is an ironic footnote to the story of freedom of the press in America that its great champion should have been convinced that a trial for seditious libel would correct a campaign of vilification.
Today, with the news function of the press carefully divorced from the editorial page, the demagogue knows that he is safe in pursuing his techniques. He knows that if the American press were to hold a general meeting and decide that they would not give space to any more of his speeches they would be establishing a dangerous precedent. He knows inherently that the American press will not initiate any action to punish his flagrant misuses of “objective” reporting, because the precedent is a dangerous one. And yet as Mr. Justice Holmes pointed out in his famous decision in Schenck vs. United States, “The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.” To which we might amend, or that an aroused American public opinion has a right to prevent.
The facts are clear that the American press in its attempt to report “objectively” Senator McCarthy or any other public figure who makes “news” becomes an unwitting or unwilling accomplice in the cult of incredibility. To prove what I am saying I asked the Minnesota Poll of Public Opinion, which is maintained by the Minneapolis Tribune as a public service, to poll the people of that state on the following question:
One of the men on this list is a leading Communist in the United States. Which one is he? John Foster Dulles, William Z. Foster, Philip C. Jessup, Owen Lattimore, George Sokolsky.
The results of the poll showed that Jessup and Lattimore received more votes as a leading Communist than William Z. Foster, who is actually Chairman of the Communist Party in the United States and was indicted on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government. A socioeconomic breakdown of the poll showed that respondents with college education named Jessup as often as they did William Z. Foster, so the technique of incredibility works with the well educated as well as those with less formal training. Less than one in five respondents knew that William Z. Foster was the only man on the list who might factually and legitimately be called a Communist. The demagogue might indeed be proud of his work….
The job of the American press is to inform; not to create an atmosphere in which prejudice, half-truths and misinformation bloom with a noisome stench. The few attempts that have been made by the American press to debunk the cult of incredibility, as practiced by Senator McCarthy, have met with strong opposition from him. His appeal to advertisers to boycott Time magazine and now the Milwaukee Journal in turn has drawn fire in the editorial columns of the leading newspapers and even Editor & Publisher. Although I have not read all of these editorials I am sure that one of them must have pointed out the following syllogism:
Vishinsky, Malik and Co. have consistently smeared the “decadent, capitalistic” American press, using as their main argument that it is controlled by advertisers.
Senator McCarthy asks American advertisers to boycott publications which disagree or dare to contradict his point of view.
Therefore, Senator McCarthy is asking the advertisers of America to prove what Vishinsky, Malik and Co. have charged all these years.
That the American press is becoming increasingly aware that there is a calculated pattern utilized by the practitioners of incredibility is a positive sign. Out of the alerted press will come, it is fervently hoped, the method by which this type of communications cancer can be checked.
David Manning White is research professor of journalism at Boston University.