For the 79th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Ken Ward spoke to author Matt Cecil about how J. Edgar Hoover built and protected a heroic narrative for the FBI by manipulating journalists and information.
Matt Cecil is interim provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Minnesota State University, Mankato. He is the author of Hoover’s FBI and the Fourth Estate: The Campaign to Control the Press and the Bureau’s Image and Branding Hoover’s FBI: How the Boss’s PR Men Sold the Bureau to America.
Matt Cecil: To me, it’s a pretty terrifying start. If—if Hoover was good at this at a time when the government was much smaller, when the ability to influence and persuade was much less sophisticated, it’s a little bit terrifying to think what’s possible today.
Ken Ward: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports media.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. And together, we’re professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available at journalism-history.org/podcast.
The FBI rose to prominence during an era of contrasts in the United States. The 1920s, when J. Edgar Hoover took the helm of what was then called the Bureau of Investigation, have been romanticized as a time of wealth and prosperity in the U.S.
But the excesses of the ‘20s collapsed into the destitution of the 1930s. That was an era when Americans, traditionally skeptical of centralized power, accepted a stronger federal government in return for promises of relief from the Great Depression.
As media historian Matt Cecil explains in his book, Hoover’s FBI and the Fourth Estate, this American distrust of authority was especially pronounced with regard to law enforcement. The task before FBI Director Hoover in the ‘20s and ‘30s, then, was to sell his agency to a distrustful public. His success toward this goal represents one of the most interesting and alarming examples of the power of public relations in the 20th century. Matt joined me to discuss how Hoover used journalists and the media to manufacture a positive image for the FBI.
Matt, welcome to the show. So, J. Edgar Hoover is such an interesting character in American history. Can you begin by helping us understand him and his career a little bit?
Matt Cecil: Sure, I’d be happy to. So, you know, of course, Hoover was a consequential figure in American history in the 20th century. He was an interesting character, a very limited character in many ways. There’s—there’s actually some positive things we can say about him, but a lot of negative, obviously. But he’s a native of Washington, D.C., he was the son of a bureaucrat, he never traveled much. He rarely ever left Washington. His first job was in the Library of Congress, and you can certainly see the influence of that work in his later work with the FBI creating his filing system that, of course, became a historian’s dream later on when the Freedom of Information Act opened—opened those files up. He became director of what was then the Bureau of Investigation in 1924. He was 29 years old at the time. He remained in that job as director of the FBI until his death in 1972 at the age of 77.
So, if you look at kinda his career, he started off you can trace, really, the origins of his worldview and his career back to the Palmer Raids, all the way back then, when he was the architect of the Palmer Raids. We kinda forget that at some times. Uh, after that, he was named director of the FBI, and there was sorta that early period when he was—he did good work. He was fixing what was wrong with a corrupt agency. You know, he incorporated things like fingerprint science, which were new things at the time. The filing system came along, which was a positive thing for—a positive thing for law enforcement, and he removed a lot of political cronies.
But then we get into the various other areas, the outlaw era when they were building the bureau’s image, gunning down or arresting some outlaws like Dillinger and Nelson to the spy area—spy era during World War II when he was developing a lot of the tactics he used during the anti-Communist era, which was, of course, when most of those civil liberties nightmares that we’re all so familiar with occurred, things leading up to COINTELPRO.
And then finally, there was sort of the end of his career when there was a pretty precipitous decline. His control of the organization waned, his health, you know, went south. And, and he had run most of the capable people out of the FBI out of jealousy. So he—you know, he spanned a huge part of American history, multiple presidents. There’s a lot of mythology out there about Hoover but, you know, he was a consequential figure, certainly building the FBI, which is an important law enforcement agency, but at the same time, of course, enforcing sort of a political orthodoxy that he believed in and damaging American civil liberties in the process.
Ken Ward: And one—one key question that I have that just fascinates me about him is the fact that he did manage to run this agency for so long. And I—I wonder if part of that has to do with sort of the myth that he created around himself that I’m sure we’ll, we’ll talk about in the course of this conversation, but how is it that he came to run the FBI for so long?
Matt Cecil: Well, yeah, I mean, he was really it—it started with him sort of bamboozling Harlan Fiske Stone, who was the attorney general. Harlan Fiske Stone was a big opponent of the Palmer Raids and somehow he had Hoover in a room and Hoover convinced him to clean up the problems raised by the Palmer Raids by naming Hoover, the architect of the Palmer Raids to be the director of the FBI. So, he was—he was a very convincing character, I think. He was pretty savvy, as we can talk about later about his work with the press and public relations. And certainly over time, he was very adept at wielding the power that he had created around himself in order to get what he wanted.
Ken Ward: And—and you’ve mentioned the Palmer Raids a couple of times. Just for listeners, can you—can you briefly overview that for folks who may not be familiar? Because it plays such an important role in helping us understand who Hoover is from the very beginning.
Matt Cecil: Sure, absolutely. So, the Palmer Raids were really a reaction to an anarchist movement in America. There were a couple of sort of high profile — I would call them terrorist attacks in the early part of the century, going back all the way to the assassination of the president right after the turn of the century by an anarchist.
So, people were very afraid of this movement, they feared those people, and others used that, as politicians often will, they used fear of that movement to sort of organize power around themselves. And Hoover got caught up in that when he, as an assistant attorney general, was put in charge, under Attorney General Palmer, to lead these raids where, all around the country there were coordinated raids that arrested something like 10,000 quote-unquote anarchists, who really were just mostly immigrants and, and others with some interest in politics, leftist politics, the kind of politics Hoover didn’t care for.
So, they arrested these folks, and, and most of them were eventually released, because the charges were so flimsy. And it became seen as a real massive overreach of government power. It damaged Palmer, A. Mitchell Palmer, who was a favorite to become a presidential candidate. It destroyed his political career when people realized what had happened.
But somehow, Hoover sort of evaded the blame for that, even though he was the one on the phone, he was the one talking to local officials, he was the one signing off on arrest warrants based on literally no evidence to go, essentially, knock people’s doors down and take them away in the dead of night.
Uh, so, it became a real stain on American history but somehow, Hoover has managed to sort of, you know, his involvement in that has sort of been hidden.
Ken Ward: Interesting, and in terms of hiding that involvement, right, hiding, I think, has a lot to do with that, that image that he goes about crafting for the FBI, um, as—as he really takes charge of that agency.
So, one of the things you talk about in your book is, is the development of what you initially call the Collier-Cooper narrative that, that becomes the standard image that the FBI likes to present of itself. Can you explain that image to us, what it entailed and, you know, a little bit of information, maybe, about the people who led to its creation?
Matt Cecil: Sure. In the simplest terms, it really was just a story. It was a way to organize stories about the work that the FBI was doing, and it wasn’t, as I mentioned in the book, it wasn’t a creation of Hoover, it was a couple of—of journalists. Rex Collier from The Washington Post, and then Courtney Ryley Cooper, who was — he was — he was an interesting character in and of himself, but essentially, he was a magazine journalist at the time who wrote a lot of pieces for The American Magazine.
But they—they saw a great story in what Hoover was doing. And essentially, the story was that the FBI was this nameless, faceless team of, of clean-cut law enforcement folks out there protecting us from, you know, whatever the, the enemy of the moment was. To begin with, of course, it was the outlaws of the 1930s, the John Dillingers and such, and they used science to—to do that.
So, science, of course, being something that is it’s not subject to political whims, right? Science is science. So, if you’re using science, science can find someone guilty, it can find someone innocent as well. So, it became this—this way of sort of divorcing what Hoover was doing from politics. And then the—the other key part of this, this sort of narrative that Collier and Cooper started to, to sort of wind out in these pieces that they put out was that the top cop was Hoover. That somehow, this guy was a civil liberties defender you could trust in, with—to wield that kind of power, but using science so that it wasn’t political, to protect us from whatever the enemy of the day was.
And it was a pretty brilliant construct. It also, you know, is just a very straightforward, you know, almost like a very simple American Western kinda story, right? It’s just we’re gonna do the right things, we’re gonna, you know, take care of people, we’re going to use science to do it, and progress—all the things that would appeal to people at the time, taking what can be very dull kinda work, you know, tracking down leads in a criminal case can be very boring and turning it into essentially a detective hero story where J. Edgar Hoover was the main hero.
So, it was a brilliant construct. It was very popular with the public, as you can imagine. Those kinds of stories, at a time when, in—especially during the 1930s, when nothing seems to work for Americans, here’s this agency that seems to be doing everything right, they’re protecting us, they’re using science, they’re doing all this amazing work. And so, people really latched onto that, and it made them feel good about what was possible in America at a time when few other things did.
Ken Ward: Well, and so, I assume that we’re going to run into problems with that image, right? So, like, what—what were the, I mean, what’s the truth behind that message in terms of what the FBI was doing and where do challenges to that narrative start appearing?
Matt Cecil: Sure. Well, I mean, the truth is, there is some science there, and there is some real innovation from the FBI. So, you absolutely have to give credit where credit is due. So, there was some interesting work that was done, I mentioned fingerprint science, but there was a lot of other good stuff with the FBI lab that was—that was real. However, a lot of it really was overblown and it wasn’t what it appeared to be to folks.
And where—where this really goes wrong is when there are a few critics along the way, a few really, journalists who really kinda dived in behind these stories and came to understand what actually happened and reported on it. Uh, that those things started to, to—you know, the myth, essentially, was uncovered, and it was journalists like George Seldes and I. F. Stone, you know, famed journalists like that. But the real — the journalists who figured this out to the most extent and was the most clear in, in providing the real story of the FBI was a guy named Fred J. Cook, who was just a — he was a copywriter or a rewriter, we would call them copy editors today, but he used to rewrite things.
But he wrote an amazing piece in The Nation magazine in 1958 that essentially turned the whole FBI myth on its head and everything you see in that 1958 article in The Nation turned out to be true. And we’ve, as the files opened up, it was clear that Cook had it—had it figured out.
And so, we see a few journalists along the way who were—who were brave enough to jump up and offer that counter narrative. But we typically see, as you often see in these cases, a lot more journalists who are willing to sort of hitch their wagon to Hoover’s star, to be essentially adjunct FBI publicists and use their access to the bureau to enhance their own careers.
So, that’s sort of the conflict of the book. It’s the few critics who are out there in front trying to, you know, clarify the reality of what the FBI is. They weren’t denying the good things, but they were trying to point out that this, this image, this public image that Hoover had, had created for himself and for the bureau wasn’t really based in facts.
And, uh—and, and the conflict is with the other journalists who essentially were part of Hoover’s team.
Ken Ward: And so—so, they weren’t, the concern of those critics was primarily that they just thought that the FBI was kind of overselling itself. It’s not that there were specific things that it was doing that it thought were wrong or—I’m trying to remember, and there were some civil liberties issues as well, right?
Matt Cecil: Oh, absolutely. No, there were — there were critics on the civil liberties front. There were a whole series of situations. There was sort of a second round of Palmer Raids in 1940, for example that Hoover led that became very controversial at the time, just essentially breaking down doors and arresting people. You know, the kinda stuff that, that really scares people when the federal government gets involved in it.
So, there’s absolutely a concern with civil liberties, but at the same time, you know, they’re pointing out that, that there’s this whole other FBI behind the scenes here. We’ve got this public image which is, you know, constructed by these mythologists in the media, and at the same time, you’ve got what—what’s that hiding is kinda the question. And what it is hiding is Hoover’s work to undermine political thought, to undermine political movements. And ultimately, you know, you get into the ‘60s with the Counter Intelligence Program, the COINTELPRO really in an un-American way to, to infiltrate and undermine, you know, lawful political thought.
So, they are, absolutely, they’re — they’re unmasking what’s going on with the creation of the image, but at the same time the concerns really are what’s happening behind that curtain, and they’re trying to pull that back.
Ken Ward: So, how does Hoover respond to these sorts of challenges? You mentioned that he has this sort of network of journalists who cooperate with him or collaborate with him. What are some of the other ways that Hoover and the FBI respond to challenges in the press and elsewhere to the narrative that they have created about the FBI?
Matt Cecil: Yeah, so as you said, the first way is to work with their friends in the media essentially to undermine people. I mean, they—they investigate journalists. The I. F. Stone FBI file is thousands upon thousands of pages, similarly with George Seldes and many, many other journalists, sort of to the left of center. The FBI just investigated these folks like crazy and tried to find, you know different kinds of influences in their pasts. It usually wasn’t, as it is with most people, you know, most people aren’t good or bad, there are little things in people’s pasts that maybe they’re not so proud of or—or things that can be twisted into something that someone might — in the media might pick up and, and create into a scandal.
And the FBI did that very actively. They worked really hard with their friends to provide them with information to undermine various journalists over the years. Seldes and Stone are just the best examples, but they worked really hard against hundreds and hundreds of different journalists across the country.
Working with their friends at the top of the media, you know, the well-known journalists like Fulton Lewis, Jr., the famed broadcaster, all the way down to local editors and reporters in every town in America. It was a comprehensive campaign to sort of find friends and undermine enemies in a way that, that most of us would find pretty appalling as the activities of a law enforcement agency.
So, you know, the book goes into great detail on a lot of these cases, but I can tell you that it only scratches the surface. You know, my other two books deal with the same topic in, in further depth and, and there’s just no end to it. It’s a remarkably comprehensive disinformation campaign against journalists on the left.
Ken Ward: And, and you refer to these in your book, this, this approach to public relations as manufacturing consent, which is, you know, this phrase that we—we hear fairly frequently in a journalistic and PR context.
But, you know, how—how did what the FBI did—one of the most interesting parts about all of this is how Hoover sort of created a PR wing of the FBI from scratch, right? He didn’t have anything there existing when, when he came in, and yet, this is the direction that it went in.
So, can you talk a little bit about the, the act of creating this PR wing within, within the FBI and then how it deviates from standard PR practice, right, how it goes off the rails?
Matt Cecil: Absolutely. So that’s—by the way, this is my second book that covers this. Branding Hoover’s FBI really looks closely at what was called the Crime Records Division in the FBI, which was the public relations arm of the bureau. And it was led early on by some really—really, I would call them pioneers in public relations.
If you just look at their sort of legal work that they were doing, the kinds of things that all of us understand are public relations, they were early practitioners of sort of this comprehensive view of how you influence, and I would say manufacture, consent. You build relationships with key journalists. You manufacture stories that are gonna fit their interests and their readers’ interests. You stay in great contact with them. You make them essentially feel like they are, they identify with you and they identify with your work. I mean, you know, good public relations people in that era were the guys that, that—and they were mostly guys—that you go out to lunch with. And so, you talked to them every day on the phone. It was a relationship kind of situation.
Well, the FBI was great at that, at building that through that Crime Records Division that started in 1935. And keep in mind, if you look at the history of public relations, the term public relations didn’t exist until 1920. So, Hoover’s getting—you know, he’s in at the ground floor, and in a comprehensive way, and in a management-driven way from the top, we know that public relations works best when it is a management function, when public relations is at the table where the decisions are made rather than something you go to after decisions are made.
He had incorporated public relations as really the core of his agency from the very early days of, of the mid-1930s all the way through, and it’s really ahead of its time, and, and I do pitch it as, as an early comprehensive practitioner of true—true public relations in the sense that you’re monitoring your environment, you’re trying to understand the audiences around you, and you’re trying to craft messages to influence segments of that audience and then listening for what happens afterwards and then adapting your message the next time.
That’s public relations, and that’s what the FBI was doing from those early days, and it worked really well from 1935 until about the late 1960s when, you know, Hoover didn’t have the skillful people around him anymore, and things really fell apart.
Ken Ward: So, you—you spoke to the creation of this image and helping convey that to journalists and other people writing on crime stories. What are some of the other ways, the more creative ways that the FBI goes about communicating with its publics, you know, when we’re in PR, they did some really interesting things, some really innovative—well, you were just speaking to innovation, but some really crazy stuff. I’m thinking specifically about things like the TV show on ABC, The FBI, things like that. What were some of those—those creative ways that Hoover reached out?
Matt Cecil: There was no—there was no element of, of media that he avoided. He tried everything. They started with comics for kids. They had—uh, you know, you name it.
They started with comic books, radio shows, movies, and then finally television, which was really the ultimate example of this, and you mentioned The FBI TV series. Hoover tried to — he didn’t want to get into television until he could control it. And ultimately, that FBI television series—there’s a long chapter in the book about that, but it’s very interesting. The FBI essentially wrote the scripts. They certainly edited them. Hoover personally approved them every week. He approved all the actors on, on the show. It was an FBI production. The FBI went to great pains to make it seem like they weren’t directly involved, but it was absolutely theirs. And it’s the—sort of the ultimate expression of, of FBI public relations during that period of time.
And the one last thing I’d say about it, quickly, is—not only is it the ultimate expression, it also shows how their messages hadn’t evolved. So you get into the 1960s and the 1970s and that FBITV series, you know, before long starts to feel pretty stale and like it doesn’t match up with the society that it’s presenting its stories to.
Ken Ward: Hmm. So, what—what is the lasting impact of all this, to start putting a bow on all of this? You know, what—Hoover created this PR apparatus, these efforts to control, work with and control the press. Are we, I assume we’re still feeling some of those effects today. The FBI certainly isn’t a weaker influence in our lives.
What are—what are we still experiencing that has resulted from Hoover’s efforts there?
Matt Cecil: Well, I think they — the FBI showed what government can do to control public opinion. They showed how far government can go. I mean the federal government is a massive agency. Now, it was much smaller in Hoover’s days. It’s much bigger now, and it’s much more sophisticated in the way that it tries to control the narrative, and we’ve allowed our government to control more and more and more of the—of our information that they gather.
So, to me, it’s a pretty terrifying start. If Hoover was good at this at a time when the government was much smaller, when the ability to influence and persuade was much less sophisticated, it’s a little bit terrifying to think what’s possible today in our society and how the government can really control stories and can control the narrative and the agendas out there. It’s pretty terrifying, and it’s — it should be a big concern for everyone on an ongoing basis.
I mean, we know about J. Edgar Hoover because we got into his files. What’s happening now? And I don’t know if we’ll ever get into that. So it’s—to me, it’s a cautionary tale about what government can be, and I don’t think we’ve done anything, really. You know, there were some, some movements in the 1970s after Hoover to try to dial this stuff back, but of course, 9/11 came along and we’ve actually made it easier for governments to keep secrets. So, it’s—it’s a cautionary tale and something that we need to be thinking about right now and certainly, you know, when we’re concerned about, you know, the health of our democracy right now, thinking about the way government can control information should be on our minds.
Ken Ward: Well, and that sounds like a good segue to our last question, which we ask all of our guests, and that is—why does journalism history matter?
Matt Cecil: Yeah, I love that question. It’s a—it’s a really great question and the first temptation, I think, is to overthink it a little bit. But I—as I kinda pondered it, I think it’s a fairly straightforward answer. The arc of journalism history in America mirrors the arc of democracy. And I’m not one that claims that there’s some golden age of anything, you know, institutions ebb and flow. But, certainly, if you look at American history, low points for journalism — certainly low points for government coverage like the McCarthy era — were also low points for democracy. And high points in journalism history that we point to—you know, perhaps Watergate—become inflection points for democracy as well.
But so—I mean, that’s how it should work and that’s how you hope it works, and you hope that, that journalism lives up to that. But, you know, that gets to my fear right now, that overwhelming sort of corporate influence, social media manipulation, and the entertainment focus of journalism might be breaking that link.
Uh, and I think a lot of people have that fear. So, these—you know, these tendencies towards, you know, both-sideism and, and the normalization of outrageous behavior and, frankly, the timidity among much of the media and I’m talking about the news that most, the majority of Americans consume. There are absolutely pockets of outstanding journalism out there, but, you know, future journalism historians might look back and say that connection between journalism and democracy that I think is clear, journalism history and democracy that I think is clear, might be in danger of being broken. And it might be broken right now after, really, a decline over the last 15 or 20 years.
I hope that’s not the case. I hope that we’re able to say at some point that journalism saved us again and that, that it really defended democracy.
But right now, at this moment in history, I’m not super optimistic. I think we need some pretty significant structural changes in order for that to happen.
Ken Ward: Absolutely. Fascinating answer. Well, thank you, Matt, for—for taking the time to talk with us today. I really appreciate it.
Matt Cecil: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.
Ken Ward: That’s it for today’s episode. Again, the book is Hoover’s FBI and the Fourth Estate. Thanks for tuning in, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter, @jhistoryjournal, that’s all one word. Until next time, I’m your host, Ken Ward, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow—good night, and good luck.