When most people think about the late Senator Joseph McCarthy, McCarthyism, and the red scare, they talk about the damage done by McCarthy and his acolyte, the sleazy lawyer Roy Cohn; and the House Un-American Activities Committee, which in 1947 called those who became known as the Hollywood Ten, and eventually led to the Hollywood blacklist.
But those interested in McCarthy and McCarthyism’s impact on journalism and the press should look beyond the Senator himself to assess the damage that he helped cause. Essentially, in addition to J. Edgar Hoover and his Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), there were three congressional investigative committees that exploited and compounded the so-called red scare: these included Senator McCarthy and his Government Operations Subcommittee, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, led by Senator James Eastland. It was the 1955 Eastland hearings that particularly targeted the press.
As Edward Alwood concluded in his book Dark Days in the Newsroom, “The newspaper industry was fragmented and nearly paralyzed by fear of criticism and boycotts by readers and advertisers, if they were accused of being ‘soft’ on communism.”
Between 1952 and 1957, the Eastland committee had compiled a list of more than 500 journalists. More than 100 journalists were subpoenaed and asked questions about suspected ties between the Communist Party USA, and the newspaper industry. They delved into alleged Communist affiliations of some of the United States’ most prominent newspapers. “Committee members saw the daily press as a prime Soviet target for propaganda and infiltration because journalists could often access sensitive information and because they influenced public opinion.”
Consequences varied from institution to institution. At papers owned by a conservative like William Randolph Hearst or the Scripps-Howard chain, they conducted their own purges of suspected subversives. At a powerful establishment paper like The New York Times, reporters were urged to cooperate with congressional investigators, which led the fearless independent journalist, I.F. Stone to criticise the Times for “knuckling under.” John B. Oakes, the editor of The Times editorial page, said in 1953, “McCarthyism has a profound effect on us all – on our writing, our speaking and even thinking.”
A divided press
Talented journalists like Alden Whitman and Seymour Peck, who had belonged to the Communist Party years earlier and were no longer members, were not fired, but were sidelined and not allowed to report on politics. In Whitman’s case, he was put on the obituary beat, which he turned into an art form, and Peck was put in charge of the arts section.
They resented the lack of support from colleagues. But other journalists at other papers were not so lucky. For example, Cedric Belfrage, co-founder of the radical weekly, The National Guardian – originally founded in 1948 to support Henry Wallace’s progressive party run for the presidency – was summoned in 1953 to appear before the HUAC. And two years later, in 1955 under threat of deportation, he returned to his native England. (The paper shortened its name to The Guardian, and after a number of ideological zig-zags, modified its politics and eventually went out of business due to declining circulation and financial difficulties.)
The HUAC started with the Hollywood Ten, including writers like Albert Maltz and Dalton Trumbo, who went to prison when they refused to name names and didn’t invoke their Fifth Amendment protection. It also included writers such as Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett, Arthur Miller, who were eventually called (not to mention actors like Paul Robeson and Charlie Chaplin).
Liberals too went along
One reason the repression succeeded was that even so-called liberals, whom one might have expected to resist, went along. To cite but one example, the liberal, activist historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who often wrote as a journalist, advocated that the government should name the Communist Party “a criminal conspiracy” and that all who were associated with it be subjected to prosecution as co-conspirators.
Of course, not all liberals went along. But those who had the courage to resist, like The Nation’s editor, Carey McWilliams, Schlesinger considered them “fellow travelers.” He conceded that they were not Communists, but rather that they were “Typhoid Marys of the left, bearing the germs of infection even if not suffering obviously from the disease.”
After broadcaster Edward R. Murrow exposed McCarthy and McCarthyism in a documentary that covered his self-destructive attack on the US Army, produced by Fred Friendly, it was generally agreed, as scholar Ellen Schrecker wrote, that McCarthyism had “petered out.”
Maybe so, but the press has yet to fully recover.
As The New York Times wrote in an editorial on 1 December 2019:
“Shepard Smith, a former Fox News anchor, recently told attendees at the annual dinner of the Committee to Protect Journalists, “Intimidation and vilification of the press is now a global phenomenon. We don’t have to look far for evidence of that.”
“The press needs to be scrutinized. Its mistakes should be called out, its biases analyzed and exposed. But Mr. Trump has licensed a far more dangerous approach.
“The rise of the epithet “fake news” as a weapon is occurring at an already perilous moment for the supply of information about the world as it truly is. The financial foundations of an independent press are eroding under the influence of the internet, which has simultaneously become a conduit for malicious falsehoods. It’s harder and harder for anyone to know what stories to believe. A world in which governments and citizens can’t agree on a shared set of facts is one in which only the most powerful thrive.”
The author is former chair of Columbia Journalism Review, former editor of The New York Times Magazine and the longtime editor of The Nation. His books include Kennedy Justice, The Art of Controversy and Naming Names, which won a National Book Award.