Celebrity Journalism

In the 20th Century, significant celebrity reporters and editors dominated the world of journalism and hence, the quality of the news that the People counted on. They included:

Walter Lippmann – “saw the purpose of journalism as “intelligence work”. Within this role, journalists are a link between policymakers and the public. A journalist seeks facts from policymakers which he then transmits to citizens who form a public opinion. In this model, the information may be used to hold policymakers accountable to citizens. This theory was spawned by the industrial era.

Though a journalist himself, he did not assume that news and truth are synonymous. For Lippmann, the “function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them in relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act.” A journalist’s version of the truth is subjective and limited to how he constructs his reality. The news, therefore, is “imperfectly recorded” and too fragile to bear the charge as “an organ of direct democracy.”

To his mind, by the early 20th Century, democratic ideals had deteriorated, voters were largely ignorant about issues and policies, they lacked the competence to participate in public life and cared little for participating in the political process. In Public Opinion (1922), Lippmann noted that the stability the government achieved during the patronage era of the 19th Century was threatened by modern realities. He advocated that a “governing class” must rise to face the new challenges.

The basic problem of democracy, he wrote, was the accuracy of news and protection of sources. He argued that distorted information was inherent in the human mind. People make up their minds before they define the facts, while the ideal would be to gather and analyze the facts before reaching conclusions. By seeing it first, he argued, it is possible to sanitize polluted information.

Lippmann argued that seeing through stereotypes (a term he coined in this specific instance) subjected us to partial truths. Lippmann called the notion of a public (the People) competent to direct public affairs a “false ideal.” He compared the political savvy of an average man to a theater-goer walking into a play in the middle of the third act and leaving before the last curtain. He was enormously influential.

Westbrook Pegler –  Pegler supported President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initially but, after seeing the rise of facism in Europe, he warned against the dangers of dictatorship in America and became one of the Roosevelt administration’s sharpest critics for what he saw as its abuse of power. Thereafter he rarely missed an opportunity to criticize Roosevelt, his wife Eleanor Roosevelt, or Vice President Henry A. Wallace.

Pegler’s views became more conservative in general. He was outraged by the New Deal’s support for labor unions, which he considered morally and politically corrupt. At his peak in the 1930s and 1940s, Pegler was a leading figure in the movement against the New Deal and its allies in the labor movement, such as the National Maritime Union.

He compared union advocates of the closed shop to Hitler’s “goose-steppers”. The National Maritime Union sued Hearst and Associated Press for an article by Pegler, settled out of court for $10, 000. In Pegler’s view, the corrupt labor boss was the greatest threat to the country.

In 1941 Pegler became the first columnist to win a Pulitzer Prize for reporting, for his work in exposing racketeering in Hollywood’s labor unions, focusing on the criminal career of Willie Bioff [yes, that’s his real name] and the link between organized crime and unions. Pegler’s reporting led to the conviction of George Scalise, the president of the Building Service Employees International Union, who had ties to organized crime. Scalise was indicted by New York District Attorney [and future Republican candidate for president in 1948] Thomas E. Dewey, charged with extorting $100,000 from employers for three years. Convicted of labor racketeering, Scalise was sentenced to prison.

By the 1950s he was even more outspoken. His proposal for “smashing” the AFL and CIO was for the state to take them over. ‘Yes, that would be fascism,’ he wrote. ‘But I, who detest fascism, see advantages in such fascism.’

As historian David Witwer has concluded about Pegler, ‘He depicted a world where a conspiracy of criminals, corrupt union officials, Communists, and their political allies in the New Deal threatened the economic freedom of working Americans.’ As an outspoken critic of the leftist New Deal and FDR, Pegler has been vilified as an “enemy” by most academics and journalists ever since. Unfortunately for they of the progressive/liberal/ Democrat persuasion, he was mostly right on target – no pun intended.’” Sound familiar? How prescient he was!

‘The New York Times stated in his obituary that Pegler lamented the failure of would-be assassin, Giuseppe Zangara, who missed FDR and killed the mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak, instead. He “hit the wrong man” when gunning for Franklin Roosevelt. Behold, the politics of personal destruction.’

Pegler’s famous flare finally caught up with him in a famous libel action that the writer Quentin Reynolds, with famed attorney, Louis Nizer as his lawyer, brought successfully against the columnist Pegler. The account of that case in Nizer’s autobiography, My Life in Court, served as the basis of the 1963 Broadway play “A Case of Libel.”

Author Quentin Reynolds wrote a review of a book about liberal journalist Heywood Broun for the New York Herald Tribune book review which was published November 20, 1949. In the book review, Reynolds wrote that in 1939, Pegler had called Broun a liar. Reynolds further wrote that Broun was so distraught over this allegedly false charge that he was unable to sleep or relax, and that as a result, Broun, who was suffering only a cold, died.

The review infuriated Pegler, who regarded the review as a charge of “moral homicide”. Pegler lashed out in a response entitled “On Heywood Broun and Quentin Reynolds” in the Hearst Corporation paper, the New York Journal American. Pegler reiterated his belief that Broun was indeed a “notorious liar” who was a “dirty fighter” that “made his living at controversy”. Pegler also dismissed any suggestion that he had been responsible for Broun’s death.

However, Pegler did not stop at denouncing the late Broun. Pegler went on to personally attack Reynolds, asserting that “Reynolds and his girlfriend of the moment were nuding along the public road”; that “as Reynolds was riding to Heywood’s grave with her, he proposed marriage to the widow”.

Pegler accused Reynolds of being “one of the great individual profiteers of the war” and claimed Reynolds had been involved in fraud involving war contracts. Pegler also accused Reynolds of cowardice, and said he had been exposed by people who had “peeled him of his mangy hide and nailed it to the barn door with the yellow streak glaring for the world to see”.

In response to the article, Reynolds sued both Pegler and his publisher, the Hearst Corporation, for libel. The jury awarded Reynolds $1 in compensatory damages and $175,000 in punitive damages. At the time, it was the largest libel judgment ever.

Walter Winchell was a New York City journalist. By the 1930s, Winchell was ‘an intimate friend of Owney Madden, New York’s No. 1 gang leader of the prohibition era’, but ‘in 1932 Winchell’s intimacy with criminals caused him to fear he would be ‘rubbed out’ for ‘knowing too much.’ He fled to California, and ‘returned weeks later with a new enthusiasm for law, G-men, Uncle Sam [and] Old-Glory. 

His coverage of the 1932 Lindbergh baby kidnapping and subsequent trial received national attention. Within two years, he befriended J. Edgar Hoover, the No. 2 G-man of the prohibition repeal era. He was responsible for turning Louis Buchalter of Murder, Inc. over to Hoover

His newspaper column was syndicated in over 2,000 newspapers worldwide, and he was read by 50 million people a day from the 1920s until the early 1960s. His Sunday-night radio broadcast was heard by another 20 million people from 1930 to the late 1950s.

Winchell, who was Jewish, was one of the first commentators in America to attack Adolf Hitler and American pro-fascist and pro-Nazi organizations such as the German-American Bund. He was a staunch supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt  and the New Deal throughout the Depression era, and frequently served as the Roosevelt Administration’s mouthpiece in favor of interventionism as the European war crisis loomed in the late 1930s.

Early on he denounced American isolationists as favoring appeasement of Hitler, and was explicit in his attacks on such prominent isolationists as Charles Lindbergh, whom he dubbed ‘The Lone Ostrich’, and Gerald L.K. Smith, who he denounced as “Gerald Lucifer KKKodfish Smith”. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Winchell was also an outspoken supporter of civil rights for African Americans, and frequently attacked the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups as supporting un-American, pro-Nazi goals.

During World War II, he attacked the National Maritime Union, the labor organization for the civilian United States Merchant Marine, which he said was run by Communists.   After World War II, Winchell began to denounce Communism as the main threat facing America. In 1948 and 1949 he and the influential leftist  columnist Drew Pearson   inaccurately and maliciously assaulted Secretary of Defense Jamer Forrestal in columns and radio broadcasts’ [perhaps leading to Forrestal’s suicide while in office.]  

Winchell also labeled African-American-French entertainer Josephine Baker as a communist after she took him to task for not questioning the racial-discriminatory policies of the Stork Club in New York. His relentless campaign against Baker prevented her from getting her visa to enter the US renewed. In 1948 Winchell had the top-rated radio show when he surpassed popular comedians Fred Allen and Jack Benny.

During the 1950s, Winchell favored Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, but he became unpopular as the public turned against McCarthy. He also had a weekly radio broadcast which was simulcast on ABC television until he ended that employment because of a dispute with ABC executives in 1955.

The most controversial part of Winchell’s career were his attempts, especially after World War II, to destroy the careers of personal or political enemies. A favorite tactic was to accuse them of being communists or of sexual impropriety. Winchell was not above childish name-calling: An example is his feud with New York radio host Barry Gray whom he described as ‘Borey Pink’ and a ‘disk jerk’. When Winchell heard that Marlen Edwin Pew of the trade journal Editor & Publisher had criticized him as a bad influence on the American press, he thereafter referred to him as “Marlen Pee-you”.

For most of his career his contract with his newspaper and radio employers required them to reimburse him for any damages he had to pay, should he be sued for slander or libel. Whenever friends reproached him for betraying confidences, he responded, ‘I know — I’m just a son of a bitch.’ By the mid-1950s he was widely believed to be arrogant, cruel, and ruthless.

In the 1960s, he narrated the highly-rated television show, The Untouchables, the story of the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover and the Depression era battles with organized crime in Chicago, featuring Elliot Ness.

Thomas Nast – [Although a 19th Century political cartoonist, his significance influenced all who followed.] Scholar and author on art history, Albert Boime argues that: ‘As a political cartoonist, Thomas Nast wielded more influence than any other artist of the 19th century. He not only enthralled a vast audience with boldness and wit, but swayed it time and again to his personal position on the strength of his visual imagination. Both Lincoln and Grant acknowledged his effectiveness in their behalf, and as a crusading civil reformer he helped destroy the corrupt [William M. (Boss)] Tweed Ring that swindled New York City of millions of dollars.’ Indeed, his impact on American public life was formidable enough to profoundly affect the outcome of every presidential election during the period 1864 to 1884.

A recurring theme in Nast’s cartoons is racism and anti-Catholicism. Nast was baptized a Catholic and for a time received Catholic education in New York City.  When Nast converted to Protestantism remains unclear, but his conversion was likely formalized upon his marriage in 1861. (Her family were practicing Episcopalians at St. Peter’s in Morristown, NJ). Nast considered the Roman Catholic Church a threat to American values, and often portrayed the Irish Catholics and Catholic Church leaders in hostile terms.

According to his biographer, Fiona Deans Halloran, Nast was “intensely opposed to the encroachment of Catholic ideas into public education”. In 1871, one of his works, titled “The American River Ganges,” portrayed Catholic bishops as crocodiles waiting to attack American school children.

Nast expressed his racist views of ethnic Irish by depicting them as violent drunks. He used the Irish as a symbol of mob violence, machine politics, and the exploitation of immigrants by political bosses. Nast’s emphasis on Irish violence may have originated in scenes he witnessed in his youth. Nast was physically small and had experienced bullying as a child. In the neighborhood where he grew up, the gangs of New York continually engaged in acts of violence by the Irish gangs, as well as other gangs, against rivals and African Americans. 

In 1863, he witnessed the three-day New York City draft riots in which a mob composed mainly of Irish immigrants burned the Colored Orphan Asylum to the ground [it happened to be in the Irish Ward and no orphans were killed] just part of the destruction which included the mayor’s house and several police stations. His experiences may explain his sympathy for black Americans and his “antipathy to what he perceived as the brutish, uncontrollable Irish thug”.

In general, his political cartoons supported [indigenous] Americans and Chinese-Americans. He advocated the abolition of slavery, opposed racial segregation, and deplored the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. One of his more famous cartoons, entitled “Worse than Slavery,” showed a despondent black family holding their dead child as a school-house is destroyed by arson, as two members of the Ku Klux Klan and White League, paramilitary insurgent groups in the Reconstruction-era South, shake hands in their mutually destructive work against black Americans.

Despite Nast’s championing of minorities, Morton Keller writes that later in his career ‘racist stereotypes of blacks began to appear: comparable to those of the Irish.’

Harper’s Weekly and Nast, played an important role in the election of Ulysses S. Grant in 1868 and 1872; in the latter campaign, Nast’s ridicule of Horace Greeley’s candidacy was especially merciless. After Grant’s victory in 1872,  [Samuel Clemmons] Mark Twain wrote the artist a letter saying: ‘Nast, you more than any other man have won a prodigious victory for Grant – I mean, rather, for Civilization and Progress.’ 

Nast became a close friend of President Grant and the two families shared regular dinners until Grant’s death from cancer in 1885. Nast was for many years a staunch Republican. Nast opposed inflation of the currency, notably with his famous rag-baby cartoons, and he played an important part in securing Rutherford B. Hayes’ presidential election in 1876. Hayes later remarked that Nast was ‘the most powerful, single-handed aid [he] had’, but Nast quickly became disillusioned with President Hayes, whose policy of Southern pacification [and end to Reconstruction] he opposed.

Margaret Bourke-White was a pioneering photo-journalist in the 1930s. Her photo of a TVA dam project would be used as the first cover of Life magazine. Her photos of Depression era families in the Dustbowl are timeless classics. She was the first woman war-photographer, the first woman to fly on a combat mission, as well as the first American to document in pictures the lives and industry of the Soviet Union.

Drew Pearson, during his career had many critics, both inside and outside Washington. His style of combining factual reporting with rumor mongering and innuendo contributed to mixed opinions about his work from others in the press, who often sympathized with his goals when railing against political opponents or corrupt businessmen, but found themselves conflicted over Pearson’s enigmatic choice of villains for his columns, as well as his tactics in collecting and reporting salacious personal information.

Throughout his career, Pearson used details of scandalous sexual liaisons to attack his personal and political opponents. As late as 1967, Pearson was still using allegations of homosexuality to impugn the reputation of then-Governor Ronald Reagan, who was running for the GOP presidential nomination, by claiming that homosexuals in his staff were operating in the governor’s office.

According to his one-time partner, Jack Anderson, Pearson saw journalism as a weapon to be used against those he judged to be working against the public interest. When forced to choose between a story’s accuracy and Pearson’s desire to pursue a person whose views he disliked, Pearson had no qualms about publishing the story anyway.

In relating his disclosures on Washington politicians, news-makers, and the politically connected, Pearson frequently resorted to a pattern of combining factual or corroborated leaked news items together with fabricated or unsubstantiated details, the latter designed to emphasize and sensationalize the basic story. 

Pearson’s method included paying waiters and chauffeurs to eavesdrop on their charges, gleaning information on politicians from political enemies, bribing a Navy clerk to reveal classified data, or even ordering a subordinate to break into the desk of a prominent Washington attorney. A favorite Pearson tactic was to reveal salacious details of a subject’s sexual proclivities for the purpose of embarrassment or intimidation.

During World War II, Pearson’s column not only revealed embarrassing news items, but expanded to criticize the Roosevelt administration’s conduct of the war, in particular U.S. foreign policy regarding Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union. As a supporter of the Soviet Union’s struggle against Nazi Germany, Pearson demanded that the Allied Command create a second front in Europe in 1943 to assist the Soviets. When Pearson’s demands were not met, he began to openly criticize Secretary of State Cordell Hull, James Dunn and other State Department officials, whom Pearson accused of hating Soviet Russia – a charge that probably endeared them to the general pub

After one of Pearson’s more virulent columns accused Secretary of State [Cordell] Hull and his deputies of a conscious policy to “bleed Russia white,” President Roosevelt convened a press conference in which he angrily accused Pearson of printing statements that were a lie ‘from beginning to end’, jeopardizing United Nations unity, and committing an act of bad faith towards his own nation. The President concluded his statement by calling Pearson ‘a chronic liar’ [a theme that would be repeated early in the Donald J. Trump administration].

In 1943 Pearson hired David Karr, a disgraced former employee of the Office of War Information as his chief aide. That year, a U.S. Civil Service Commission hearing had concluded that Karr was both untruthful and unreliable. Karr earned a reputation as an unscrupulous investigative reporter who misrepresented himself to sources. 

In 1944, Karr, a supporter of far left political causes and a former employee of the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker, became active (not surprisingly) in Vice President Henry Wallace‘s effort to remain on the presidential ticket. Karr once obtained a confidential State Department report to President Roosevelt on Joseph Stalin by claiming to be on Vice President Wallace’s staff, and was the subject of two separate FBI espionage and loyalty investigations during the war.

James Reston joined the Associated Press in 1934. He moved to the London bureau of The New York Times in 1939, but returned to New York in 1940. In 1942, he took leave of absence to establish a US Office of War Information in London. Rejoining the Times in 1945, Reston was assigned to Washington, D.C., as national correspondent. In 1948, he was appointed diplomatic correspondent, followed by bureau chief and columnist in 1953.

Reston interviewed many of the world’s leaders and wrote extensively about the leading events and issues of his time. He interviewed President John F. Kennedy immediately after the 1961 Vienna Summit with Nikita Khrushchev on the heels of the Bay of Pigs Invasion fiasco. In Stephen Kinzer’s 2013 book ‘The Brothers’, Reston was reported to be a key contact of the former CIA chief, Allen Dulles, and collaborative in Operation Mockingbird, which involved the planting and manipulation of the reporting of global events to align with the CIA’s worldview.

The Times editor R.W. Apple noted in Reston’s obituary that he ‘was forgiving of the frailties of soldiers, statesmen and party hacks – too forgiving, some of his critics said, because he was too close to them.’ Reston’s intimacy with those in power was seen to cloud his judgment and make him overly beholden to his sources.

Reston had a particularly close relationship with Henry Kissinger and became one of his stalwart supporters in the media. At least eighteen conversations between the two are captured in transcripts released by the Department of State in response to FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests. They document Reston volunteering to approach fellow Times  columnist Anthony Lewis to ask him to moderate his anti-Kissinger texts and offering to plant a question in a press conference for the secretary.

Reston also displayed his affinity for the powerful when Sen. Edward Kennedy drove his car off the bridge at Chappaquiddick Island, MA resulting in the 1969 death of Mary Jo Kopechne. Summering at nearby Martha’s Vineyard, Reston filed the first account of the incident for The New York Times; his opening paragraph began, “Tragedy has again struck the Kennedy family.” When managing editor A.M. Rosenthal saw Reston’s copy, he reportedly replied in disgust, ‘This story isn’t about the Kennedy family; it’s about this girl.’

Jack Anderson, considered one of the fathers of modern investigative journalism. Anderson won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for Nationalfor his investigation on secret American policy decision-making between the United States and Pakistan during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. He discovered a CIA plot to assassinate [Cuban dictator] Fidel Castro and was credited for breaking the Iran-Contra Affair [during Ronald Reagan’s second term], though he has said the scoop was “spiked” because he had become too close to President Reagan.

Anderson’s investigations were a tipping point in the attitude of the public and the press towards J. Edgar Hoover. Prior to Anderson’s exposés, few people of stature had dared to publicly criticize Hoover. After Anderson, many followed suit, and the man who had been the public persona of exemplary law enforcement became exposed for his failures and dubious activities in the areas of organized crime and civil rights, many of which were of questionable legality [in an era when laws were expected to be obeyed].

Anderson also grew close to Joseph McCarthy, and the two exchanged information from sources but when his boss, Drew Pearson, went after McCarthy, Anderson reluctantly followed at first, then actively assisted with the eventual downfall of his one-time friend.

In the mid-1960s, Anderson exposed the corruption of Senator Thomas J. Dodd (D-CT) and unearthed a memo by an ITT [International Telephone & Telegraph] executive admitting the company paid off Richard Nixon’s campaign to stymie an anti-trust prosecution. His reporting on the Nixon-ITT corruption earned him a place on the Master List of Nixon’s political opponents. Nixon had long been angry with Anderson, [not unrealistically] blaming Anderson’s election eve story about a secret loan from Howard Hughes to Nixon’s brother for Nixon’s loss of the 1960 presidential election.

Tom Wolfe ecreated ‘new journalism’ as a style that was carried on in long-form narrative, using scenes rather than straight-out facts. Hunter S. Thompson was also heavily involved in the new journalism movement. He was a proponent of “Gonzo journalism“, in which reporters actually become involved in action of the story, participating in the events, rather than just watching and reporting. [Another new form] saturation reporting, according to communication professor Richard Kallan, ‘entails a more complex set of relationships wherein the journalist becomes an involved, more fully reactive witness, no longer distanced and detached from the people and events reported.’

Wolfe was a supporter of Republican President George W. Bush and said he voted for him for president in 2004 because of what he called Bush’s ‘great decisiveness and willingness to fight.’ [Bush apparently reciprocates the admiration, having read all of Wolfe’s books, according to friends in 2005.] After this fact emerged in a The New York Times interview, Wolfe said that the predictable reaction in the literary world was as if he had said, ‘I forgot to tell you – I’m a child molester.’ Because of this incident, he sometimes wears an  American flag pin on his suit, which he compared to “holding up a cross to werewolves.”

Wolfe’s views and choice of subject material, such as mocking left-wing intellectuals in Radical Chic and glorifying astronauts in The Right Stuff, have sometimes led to his being labeled conservative or reactionary, and his depiction of the Black Panther Party in Radical Chic led to a member of the party calling him [the standard progressive/liberal slander] a racist. 

Wolfe rejected such labels; in a 2004 interview, he said that his ‘idol’ in writing about society and culture is Emile Zola, who, in Wolfe’s words, was ‘a man of the left’ but ‘went out, and found a lot of ambitious, drunk, slothful and mean people out there. Zola simply could not – and was not interested in – telling a lie.’

Asked to comment by the Wall Street Journal on blogs in 2007, to mark the tenth anniversary of their advent, Wolfe wrote that ‘the universe of blogs is a universe of rumors’ and that ‘blogs are an advance guard to the rear.’ He also took the opportunity to criticize Wikipedia, saying that ‘only a primitive would believe a word of it’. He noted a story about him in his Wikipedia entry at the time, which he said had never happened.

Woodward and Bernstein: as the architects of the fall of Richard Nixon because of his participation in the cover-up of the Watergate break-in during the 1972 presidential campaign are well-known for their investigative journalism and for proving that it was still possible for the press to effectively hold the government accountable. However, Woodward has been dogged by several questionable events that he has reported, such as his alleged “deathbed confession by CIA Director William Casey.

Woodward claimed in his book ‘Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987’ that Casey admitted on his deathbed that he had known about the diversion of Iran arms sale money to the Contras. But Casey’s daughter, Bernadette Casey Smith, claimed that Woodward ‘never got the deathbed confession,’ according to the Houston Chronicle. In addition, Kevin Shipp, a member of Casey’s security detail, asserted in a self-published memoir that none of the agents standing guard over Casey allowed Woodward into his hospital room at Georgetown University Hospital, and that in any case the former CIA director was beyond being able to talk at the time Woodward cited.” You be the judge.

Next time:  The Impact of the Media and the 24-hour news cycle.

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