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Columnists and Calumny

Columnists and Calumny

Journalists have long sought to fight off outside interference in press liberties. But two books about the history of the free press show there's a longstanding concern about "press-lying."

John Maxwell Hamilton
The Columnist: Leaks, Lies, and Libel in Drew Pearson's Washington
by Donald A. Ritchie (Oxford University Press, 384 pp., $29.55)

In 1922, the newly established American Society of News Editors (ASNE) met for the first time. ASNE was a sign that journalists were seriously thinking about themselves as members of a profession. Its founders’ initial task was to write a code of ethics that called on journalists to avoid conflicts of interest and provide news that was accurate, eschewed bias, and fairly presented “all sides.” The “Canons of Journalism” also carried the message that journalists must fight off any outside interference in press liberties.

A sense of self-confidence prevailed in the coming decades. Newspapers did not have to devote much time or money to research and development. In the second half of the 20th century, they enjoyed annual average returns of more than 12 percent, and some individual papers reaped an incredible 30 percent return. At the annual ASNE meetings I attended in the 1990s and early 2000s, editors conveyed the feeling that everything would be fine, so long as owners gave them more of the proceeds to hire additional reporters and invest in ambitious investigative reporting.

Then—wham!—the 2009 ASNE meeting was cancelled. “Our members,” the ASNE president explained, “really need to be in their newsrooms, leading them through all the challenges they’re facing. They also need to conserve their resources. I think travel expense is difficult.”

The proximate “challenges” to newspapers and journalism generally were posed by the internet. It siphoned off advertising and spawned a proliferation of web-based competitors who don’t seem to know ASNE’s canons existed, let alone follow them. But as two recently published books show us, today’s journalism free-for-all and the debate over what to do about it existed even when the establishment press was riding high.

One part of this story is told in Donald Ritchie’s biography of Drew Pearson, The Columnist. Pearson’s Washington Merry-Go-Round column appeared in 600 newspapers. A Sunday evening radio show, carried on 250 stations, and Pearson’s Parade on television gave him other megaphones to pass along juicy insider gossip, make political predictions and outright guesses, bring down corrupt politicians, and malign others.

In a 1944 survey, the Washington press corps deemed Pearson the columnist with the most influence on public opinion, far ahead of even Walter Lippmann. But Pearson received only two votes out of 165 for “reliability, fairness, ability to analyze the news.”

Another side of the story, related in University of Nevada journalism professor Stephen Bates’ An Aristocracy of Critics, was an effort in the 1940s to reform the press. It was the brainchild of Time-Life titan Henry Luce, who wanted to curb press excesses. This idea was heretical to his fellow publishers, who reflexively bridled at any hint of interference. Arthur Hays Sulzberger of the New York Times objected to a simple study of public attitudes toward the press—which Luce offered to fund through the Columbia University School of Journalism—because Sulzberger thought it would be “dangerous.”

Luce found a willing agent in the brilliant, arrogant Robert M. Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago. Hutchins’ Commission on Freedom of the Press was made up of an eclectic group of intellectuals. The lone member with journalism credentials, Archibald MacLeish, had worked for Luce. But his three Pulitzer Prizes were for verse, and he also had stints as a propagandist in World War II and as Librarian of Congress.

Bates’ outstanding book describes the commissioners’ struggles to operationalize the idea of “freedom of the press.” One of their chief concerns was the decreasing number of the country’s newspapers and the high costs of entry for newcomers, who had to buy expensive presses and hire large staffs. How could expression be called free, the commissioners asked, when so few people had control over the information that the public received? Press freedom for the average person, as MacLeish put it, was “roughly equivalent to freedom to take a rocket to the moon.”

The Hutchins Commission criticized media moguls for publishing frothy entertainment that maximized profits and crowded out important news. The commissioners also echoed public concern that the press was misleading, unfair, and overly negative. Worried that citizens could not adequately sift through the welter of errant information to arrive at sound opinions, they established a subcommittee on “Press-Lying.”

One of the commissioners, clergyman and public philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, asked, “What should be done if freedom accentuates conflict to the point where the fact of freedom cannot be accepted?”

After much discussion, the commissioners concluded that freedom of the press was not simply a negative freedom that prohibited outside interference with the news. Press freedom imposed positive obligations on journalists. They must truthfully report fact and report “the truth about the fact.”

What should be done if the press did not improve? Because of the need to assign radio frequencies to broadcasters, the government had become a regulator of news. It could use this power to cure the “lying press.” But the commission could not reach a consensus on the wisdom of the government sorting the bad from the good.

Pearson was a prime example of both the bad and the good. He started his column in 1932 together with Robert S. Allen, who eventually went his own, less flamboyant way. Pearson was proud, Ritchie tells us, of being “sued for libel more than any other journalist and of having won his cases by proving the accuracy of his accusations.” But it wasn’t quite that simple: His schtick—as much showmanship as newsmanship—blatantly violated ASNE’s canons. He rarely asked victims for their side of the story. Needing to file daily, weekends included, Pearson churned out glib columns that were half-baked, and often flat wrong, and that magnified the trivial—reporting, for instance, that FDR’s favorite song was “Home on the Range” (it wasn’t).

Jack Anderson, who was one of Pearson’s many leg men and inherited the column when Pearson died in 1969, confessed that the two of them sometimes got “knee-deep in things journalists should never do.” Columnists have license to present a point of view, which in Pearson’s case tilted liberal; but his career was a tangle of compromising relationships. At a time when he was getting good tips from J. Edgar Hoover, Pearson offered advice on enhancing the FBI director’s public image and further helped out by calling him “Super-G-Man.” During a Pearson vacation, Hoover actually took over as a guest columnist.

Pearson testified to Congress on issues he cared about. He coached Lyndon B. Johnson when the then-senator made his failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960. When President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to unseat Maryland Senator Millard Tydings, a Democrat who opposed New Deal programs, Pearson quietly managed the opponent’s campaign and boosted him in a special “Merry-Go-Round” column for Maryland newspapers. Pearson claimed on his radio program that Tydings used government workers to build a road and yacht basin on his estate. An FBI investigation exonerated Tydings, who won reelection. Pearson called his inaccurate reporting a “technical error.”

Pearson’s violations of ASNE canons occasionally prompted newspapers to kill a column. But it is equally revealing about the state of journalism that publishers’ motives, like Pearson’s, sometimes were driven by bias. They often did not want to cast doubts on their favored candidates.

For all of his shortcomings, Pearson did more janitorial services in the Aegean stables than any other single individual in the Washington press corps. Although he concealed damaging information about Roosevelt’s health, he wrote embarrassing and accurate stories that prompted FDR to call him a chronic liar. On many occasions that other journalists held back, Pearson did not. During World War II several correspondents witnessed General Geroge S. Patton slap a wounded soldier whom he accused of faking his injury. They did not report it. Pearson, who got wind of the tirade, did.

Ritchie, who is Historian Emeritus of the Senate, has written widely about the interaction of Washington journalism and politics. He devotes a chapter to Pearson’s exposés of legislators who benefited from bribes, kickbacks, and insider trading. Pearson took on the red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy, who grew so agitated that he kneed the columnist in the crotch one night at a Washington social function. McCarthy also encouraged radio advertisers and newspaper publishers to boycott Pearson. Many did.

Pearson dismissed criticism of him as “all part of my profession.” The establishment press, including ASNE’s president, was similarly dismissive of the Hutchins Commission’s report, A Free and Responsible Press. The chief complaint was that the report did not come from journalists. But the passage of time has led to a far more positive assessment. The Hutchins Commission report has become an important benchmark in thinking about the fragility of the profession.

Today, the power of publishers to control the floodgates of information—which so worried the commission—has diminished. Barriers of entry to journalism hardly exist: The equipment needed to publish is as close as the nearest Apple store. Many of the new streams of information that exist contribute, just as the commission would have wished, to healthy discourse. But new problems, which the commission could not foresee, have surfaced with the emergence of Google, Facebook, and others like them. These common carriers make billions by facilitating a surfeit of bogus, hate-driven “journalism.”

As a result, the central question posed by the Hutchins Commission persists: How do we get a press system that serves the public? The oft-breached ASNE cannons were hortatory. Do we now need binding regulations? Should the First Amendment be reconsidered, as some members of the commission proposed and some Supreme Court justices have recently suggested? Or should we trust the marketplace of ideas to police itself better than government would?

None of the apparent solutions is entirely satisfying. In the words of Zechariah Chafee, an eminent legal scholar on the commission, “Democracy is a method of finding proximate solutions for insoluble problems.”

John Maxwell Hamilton is the Hopkins P. Breazeale Professor at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication. He is author of Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda (2020), which won the Goldsmith Prize.

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