We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that network journalists and executives lent or sold themselves to the agencies of anticommunist government propaganda during the early years of the Cold War. This was a generation of patriotic journalists. Their loyalty during the Second World War, as well as their hatred for fanaticism, prepared them for this next crusade.
The threat to peace and security posed by the Soviet Union followed so quickly on the heels of the defeat of the Nazis and the Japanese that nothing more than the turning of a page was involved for journalists to transfer their loyalties to this new circumstance. An edge of resentment was added by the fact that the threat of Soviet expansion and subversion was regarded as the betrayal by a wartime ally of the promise of peace to which so many had been sacrificed.
An inspiring sense of common purpose during World War II thinned the membrane between press and government. In the years following the end of the war, loyalty to country and cooperation with government agencies were habits of the mind that could be readily exploited. There also was an ideological undertone. A strong dislike for Soviet communism was an American journalistic instinct that went back to the reporting on the Soviet revolution and the civil war that followed. For many American journalists, the Cold War became a full-throttle acceleration of anticommunist sentiments that had been idling in the journalistic mind since 1917.
Thoroughly researched and forthright in its conclusions, Nancy E. Bernhard’s book, “U.S. Television News and Cold War Propaganda, 1947-1960,” documents the extent of the collaboration between government and broadcast news organizations during those years. She analyzes these relationships at the level of institutional cooperation where, under the headings of “national security state” and “Cold War consensus,” network bosses and government officials participated in a variety of practices designed to act against the communist threat. Among these practices were the imposition of anticommunist viewpoints on news coverage, the control or suppression of detracting reports, and the invention of programs at home and abroad that played upon the “red scare” and promoted American efforts to counter Communism.
Bernhard’s research justifies sweeping conclusions. “In the mid-twentieth century,” she writes, “the political economy of the mass media was intimately tied up with the articulation of Cold War policies, and objectivity became grounded in fervent anticommunism.” In describing the dwindling belief that in the crusade against Communism truthfulness should be a distinguishing feature of U.S. propaganda, she writes that by 1948, Congress, the Departments of Defense and State, and the three networks agreed that “All information had military implications.” Bernhard goes on to assert that, as a consequence, “The Cold War made propaganda an integral part of American foreign policy and took as its casualty confidence that the United States would triumph in the marketplace of ideas.”
Bernhard proceeds to demonstrate how the same impulse influenced domestic television programming as it, too, spread propaganda and ignored dissent. One of her many examples was a television program called “Battle Report-Washington” that had a sizeable national audience from 1950 to 1953, when the United States was at war against North Korea and China. This program, featuring interviews with government and military leaders, was produced in the White House and broadcast by NBC for the purpose of giving “the people of the United States a firsthand account of what the Federal Government is doing in the worldwide battle against Communism.” Its bellicosity makes Ronald Reagan’s remark about the “evil empire” sound sedate. Bernhard reports that the program’s guiding figure, a White House official named John Steelman, referred to Communist leaders as “the fourteen barbarians,” “power-drunk atheists” and “bloodthirsty barbarians.”
Bernhard does not spare the venerable figures of American journalism. CBS News’s redoubtable Edward R. Murrow enjoys an honest moment or two, but he was a member of a State Department panel on overseas information and is seen at one point playing patty-cake in an interview with Secretary of State Dean Acheson instead of asking probing questions.
Political columnist Walter Lippmann makes a sinister—considering the evidence offered here, perhaps too sinister—appearance as a principal journalistic figure in the investigation of the political murder of CBS correspondent George Polk in Greece in 1948. As he prepared to return to the United States to accept a Nieman Fellowship, Polk was finishing a story that would have embarrassed grafting members of the Greek government. He was shot dead after an interview with a Greek official who had played a large part in obtaining “massive” U.S. aid funds for the royalist government and now was depositing money in a New York bank. Greek Communists were blamed for the killing, but Royalists allied with the United States against Communism are now regarded as the likely culprits.
Lippmann, “one of a distinguished group of American journalists who claimed to represent the rights of a free press…,” chaired a committee formed to investigate the killing. Bernhard shows him conferring closely with former Office of Strategic Services (the CIA’s predecessor) Director William Donovan, whom Lippmann had appointed to conduct the investigation. This, along with lack of aggressive follow-up by the committee, leads Bernhard to infer that Lippmann might have participated in a cover-up in which Communists were blamed for the murder. “How deliberately they [Lippmann and Donovan] conspired to conceal the Royalist motives for the murder remains unknown,” she writes.
A question of continuing importance that Bernhard raises has to do with the actual substance of journalism’s independence from political influence. She finds press independence so negligible that it barely merits mention. This mutable sentiment, which fades fast in the presence of opportunity, appeals to patriotism, cronyism or intimidation, has only one defender in this book, the truly redoubtable I.F. Stone, who attacked Lippmann and others for participating in the Polk “whitewash.”
A less tangible question raised by Bernhard has to do with the pliancy of news in high-pressure situations. She suggests that when apparent crises require compromise with government, news can become an illusion—a sort of calculated wishful thinking disguised as reporting. But it was long before 1947 that the stage was set for this interplay of news and wishfulness in the coverage of Soviet affairs. Lippmann, who was arguably the century’s most influential political journalist, was also a valuable press critic, and early on he saw that coverage of Soviet Communism would strain the integrity of American journalists.
In 1920, the New Republic published Lippmann and Charles Merz’s landmark press criticism revealing deep faults in The New York Times’s reporting on the Bolshevik revolution and the civil war between czarist and revolutionary forces. “From the point of view of professional journalism,” they wrote, “the reporting of the Russian Revolution is nothing short of a disaster…. On the essential questions the net effect was almost always misleading….” Yet there was no government interference that could be blamed for the anti-revolutionary bias found in this reporting and no conspiracy to deceive American readers. Instead, Lippmann and Merz recounted a “boundless credulity, and an untiring readiness to be gulled, and on many occasions…a downright lack of common sense….” The chief censor and chief propagandist, they concluded, “were hope and fear in the minds of reporters and editors” who “wanted to ward off Bolshevism.”
Ten years later H.R. Knickerbocker won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the growing Soviet mobilization for war. Knickerbocker’s series, called “The Red Trade Menace” and published in The Philadelphia Public Ledger and The New York Post, was the outcome of a two-month-long 10,000 mile tour of the Soviet Union. His conclusions were ominous. On November 17, 1930, he reported that the Soviet Union was “a land at war.” He found there “an atmosphere of militant struggle, a nation under arms living figuratively but effectively under martial law…,” ruled by leaders whose fear of attack and isolation “has come to approach a phobia.” Terror, he observed, “has become a permanent institution.”
These perceptions continued through World War II, as American journalists expressed admiration for the sacrifices of Soviet citizens but not for their government. In an incomplete meditation at the end of a chapter halfway through her book, Bernhard tries to understand why so many prominent Americans from different backgrounds uncritically accepted the drastic premise that truth, dissent and liberty had to be subordinated to the requirements of what one writer called “the most titanic struggle in which this nation has ever found itself involved.”
Bernhard writes that “This puzzle lies at the heart of the Cold War consensus…. Even when studying its most self-conscious designers, we find it tricky to separate deliberate manipulation from avowed doctrine from embedded culture. This seamlessness might suggest authentic belief” but, she suggests, in an atmosphere contaminated by propaganda, the assumption that all of these people might actually have believed what they espoused feeds on itself. How, then, did such a strong consensus emerge?
One reply to this question is cynical. For those involved at high levels, whether broadcasters or government officials, the Cold War served as an equal opportunity crusade. Everyone benefited by acting on degrees of anticommunist belief, whether calculated or authentic. To the question of why they all “internalized their own rhetoric”—or seemed actually to believe what they said about the Communist menace—it might be suggested that ideological zeal required it. In the circles Bernhard describes, anticommunism was insistent and intolerant. Those who might have initially wavered became true believers because ambivalence or lurking doubts were not acceptable.
This is a provocative book. It’s tempting to ask whether it offers any lasting lessons. In retrospect, the Cold War seems to have required the coinciding of so many elements that nothing duplicating it can be imagined. But if Soviet anticommunism required systematic propaganda at home and abroad, and if that propaganda was wildly successful, as it was, then it’s fair to assume that controversial global political strategies might require more of the same.
Michael J. Kirkhorn, a 1971 Nieman Fellow, is Director of the Journalism Program at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. He is presently writing a book about press independence in which a chapter, “News as Illusion,” examines the uses of propaganda.