For the 101st episode of the Journalism History podcast, hosted by Teri Finneman, researcher Anna Popkova describes the importance of the immigrant press in the early 1900s to help build and inform communities new to America and how critical they were during times of sweeping discrimination.
Anna Popkova is an associate professor at Western Michigan University School of Communication and an allied faculty member at WMU Global and International Studies program. Most of Dr. Popkova’s work focuses on Russia and Russia-U.S. relations.
Anna Popkova: The history of non-mainstream journalism, such as the immigrant press, matters a great deal because it helps us find those missing pieces of the big puzzle of, you know, capital H history, if there is such a thing.
Teri Finneman: 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. 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.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Teri Finneman: And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History.
Creating false fear over immigrants is nothing new. 100 years ago, the first Red Scare targeting Russian immigrants escalated into what became known as the Palmer Raids. On this episode, Anna Popkova of Western Michigan University describes the importance of the immigrant press in the early 1900s to help build and inform communities new to America and how critical these newspapers were during times of sweeping discrimination. Anna, welcome to the show. Why did you want to study how the Palmer Raids were covered?
Anna Popkova: Well, actually this article and this study in particular has an interesting history. I first wrote it as a course paper back in my graduate school days. I was actually a master’s student, not even yet a PhD student, so it was a while ago. [Laughs] Um, and it was in a class on media and journalism history that I took with the amazing Kathy Forde. Shout out to Kathy.
A lot of people in the journalism and history world know her, of course. So, I was very lucky to be in her seminar as a graduate student when she was teaching at the University of Minnesota. And at that time, I was kind of, you know, a fresh graduate student. I was – I had a lot of ideas. I was searching for what to research, what kind of I’m interested in.
But I already, of course, I was interested in media and journalism and I was interested in history, and I was already interested in experiences of minorities, marginalized voices and people, immigration. And so, kind of, you know, intersections of, of that. And, you know, being myself, I grew up, I was born and raised in Russia and this wasn’t, you know, grad school wasn’t my first experience in the U.S.
But still, you know, no matter how long you are in a different country, a country where you were not born and raised, you always think about, you know, like in my case, what is it like to be a Russian in America? You kind of – it’s your personal experience. And a lot of our research is influenced by our personal experiences, too.
So, I was kind of thinking along those lines, and I was in Kathy’s office once, one day. Just wanted to chat about what I’m thinking in terms of a course paper. And I think she said, “Why don’t you look at the first Red Scare and the Russian immigrant experiences at the time and what the Russian press was doing?”
And I thought it was really interesting, and I started reading more about it. And some of the things that I found is – I was doing some secondary research for this topic – I found them really fascinating once I started digging deeper and noticed that there wasn’t really anything out there on how Palmer Raids in particular, and even just the period of the first Red Scare, how it was perceived by the Russian immigrants themselves, the ones who were all caught up in all that and who, who were the victims of the Palmer Raids primarily.
And I didn’t see anything on how it was presented by, covered by the Russian press, which at the time like any immigrant press in general, at that time, immigrant press was really a big deal for the immigrant communities. Um, I didn’t find anything, and I sort of thought, okay, I’m gonna, I’m gonna look into that. And this is how it started, and I wrote it and you know [laughs] the question of why it’s, I’m publishing it now, as opposed to back then when I wrote it is a story for another day, but it is definitely a very special paper for me because it was one of the first ones I wrote as a grad student.
And it’s kind of funny how later my academic career took some other twists and turns and I’m coming, I come back to this piece a couple of years ago, almost tenured. I am tenured now, just thinking I got, I have to publish this. This is a really, really cool piece of research. So, that’s the history, and this is how I, yeah, this is why I wanted to study how Palmer Raids were covered.
Teri Finneman: So, you mentioned how important the immigrant press was. You know, tell us a little bit more about its significance in the United States in the early 1900s.
Anna Popkova: Yeah, absolutely. So, as I mentioned already, like you said, the immigrant press was a huge part of the immigrants’ life in the U.S. in the early 1900s, because, well, first of all, in the turn of the 20th century, you get that second wave of, second big wave of immigration to the United States of just immigrants from all kinds of places, a lot of them from Europe.
And in terms of what kinds of, what kind of media was available at the time, right, you think early 1900s. Well, the newspapers, that was it. That was really it. And so naturally, immigrants when they came to the United States, they formed communities in the United States and they established their newspapers. And those newspapers played a really big role in their lives because they helped them connect with each other, find each other, you know, form, maintain those communities.
They helped them get news from home. A lot of those immigrants, for example, didn’t know English. And so those newspapers were in their languages. And so, this was how they kept in touch with home, with the communities back home. Um, just knew what was happening around the world.
It helped them also. A lot of those immigrant newspapers, one of the things that they did is they, as some of the scholars of immigrant media put it, they introduced them to the American scene and way of life. So, they really helped them adjust to this new culture, this new country, new way of living, navigate their lives in America.
Um, so these the newspapers really helped was that adjustment process and helped the people connect with each other and maintain those immigrant communities. And another factor a bit later, so closer to actually when the Palmer Raids were happening, the first World War. When the first World War happened and, and was ongoing, a lot of the immigrants in in America, in the United States, were from Europe.
And so, of course, they were hungry for news from home, what was happening there. And a lot of them aligned with their countries of origins, too. So, it was kind of uh, that was also, that also enhanced the demand for more immigrant press in the U S., just wanting to know more about the first World War and more about what was happening with their countries of origin as part, as part of the war.
But that actually also, when the U.S. entered the war in 1917, it started monitoring very closely the immigrant press because of that kind of, you know, some of the immigrant press aligned with their countries of origin and that’s where all the politics and power play came into, into the scene. So, that was another kind of an interesting factor that later on also played out in the first Red Scare and Palmer Raids.
Teri Finneman: So, you’ve mentioned the Palmer Raids. That’s the theme of this show. Why are they called the Palmer Raids? Who was Palmer, and what was his role in all of those?
Anna Popkova: Uh, yeah, so the Palmer Raids were named after the, after Alexander Mitchell Palmer, who was the U.S. attorney general at the time. And he was primarily responsible for the raids and for the major effort to “curb the radicalism” of which the raids were one of the pieces, one of the central pieces. So, in 1919, actually in summer 1919, his own house was bombed by anarchists. And that was kind of the last straw for him. Um, and so he, what, what, what he did was he launched this major campaign for ending radicalism in the United States. And he actually asked for and received $500,000 appropriation from Congress to fund the Justice Department’s anti-radicalism efforts.
And he did a lot of prep work. So, for example, one of the first steps he took was he established this general intelligence division within the Department of Justice Bureau of Investigation. And they over the next few months, the division built this really comprehensive, you know, database basically off more than 200,000 index cards that had detailed information on all known and labeled radical organizations, associations, publications, complete case histories of individuals that were also classified as “dangerous radicals.”
So, they did all this work and all of that was happening. He was overseeing all that. And all of that was happening in this sort of general atmosphere of fear and suspicion that defined the first Red Scare. Um, and so that then ultimately when they were ready, that led to the raids in 1919 and 1920.
Teri Finneman: Let’s talk about what exactly happened with the raid on November 7, 1919.
Anna Popkova: So, on November 7, 1919, the Department of Justice’s agents raided several organizations across, across the country, but mainly they raided the Union of Russian Workers in 11 cities across the United States. And they arrested about 300 officers and members of the organization. The biggest raid affected the Union of Russian Workers’ headquarters that was located in the Russian People’s House in New York City.
Now the Russian People’s House was kind of, it’s almost like a community center that housed multiple different organizations that serve the Russian immigrant community in New York City. And so, the Union of Russian Workers was just one of the organizations that was in the Russian People’s House.
But they came in, the agents, and arrested everybody, about 200 men and women. And it was a very, the arrests were very brutal. They were violent. They were people – one of the people, actually, who was rounded up that night told in his sworn testimony later that for example, you know, he was taking a class, a math class, and the agents just stormed in and ordered everyone downstairs. And as they were walking downstairs, they had to pass a line of men who were, each men hit the Russian immigrants who were coming downstairs with clubs and blackjacks. And so, they were all pretty brutal beaten and taken to the – driven away to Justice Department’s headquarters for questioning.
And after questioning of all these 200 people, they only, the agents only released pretty much everybody except for 39 people that they held for further questioning. But yeah. So that, that was what happened there. And some of the other people who were victims of that raid said that after they were released, their laundry checks, their school cards, their insurance papers were all taken from them.
So this was actually, so this was in November, raids, and then they were followed by very similar raids in January. So, it followed the same pattern, more arrests took place, and arrest warrants were issued. Many of the arrested individuals were held from months before even receiving a hearing. So, those raids definitely raised a lot of questions about constitutional rights.
And in fact the American Civil Liberties Union, right. ACLU was created in 1920 as a direct reaction to and result of the Palmer Raids that started in November and then continued through January.
Teri Finneman: You examined a specific Russian immigrant newspaper in your research. So, talk about how you found out about this newspaper, why it was influential, and then how it covered these raids.
Anna Popkova: Yeah. So, when I decided that I was going to pursue this topic, I started doing some reading of the secondary literature that was available, and I started reading up on Russian immigrant press, and it became clear right away that Novoye Russkoe Slovo, this newspaper was one of the leading, one of the biggest and most influential newspapers. Um, and it was – it was influential at its peak for, for several reasons.
One was that it was actually politically neutral. So, there was a lot of interesting power dynamics and politics happening within the Russian community, too, at the time, which is a whole other topic. But – but this particular newspaper was intentionally nonpartisan. And it was, I think it was one of the reasons it actually survived in 1919 and 1920. It was one of the very few Russian publications that, that were not shut down.
They were not very, very closely monitored because it wasn’t socialist. There were, there were some Russian publications that were socialist. And so, the American government was afraid that they were spreading dangerous ideas and they were closed down, but Novoye Russkoe Slovo was not. And they really positioned themselves as this people’s newspaper.
They were nonpartisan and they were really trying to serve the Russian immigrant community in ways that would help them adjust to the American scene and way of life, in ways that would advocate for their rights in ways that would be, I guess, you know, not threatening to the – to the American government. So, they were really doing a lot of interesting political maneuvering there.
Um, yeah. And they were popular. You look at the circulation numbers and the numbers just speak for themselves. You look at some of those tables of circulation numbers and you just see that, yeah, it was, it was one of the largest, one of the most popular newspapers. People read it.
Teri Finneman: So, how did the newspaper help Russian immigrants make sense of the raids? How did they cover it? You know, how did they make sense of the first Red Scare in general?
Anna Popkova: Yeah. So to, to, to answer this question, it is helpful to know what the newspaper itself looked like.
What was the structure? How, what, what kinds of topic in general it covered? So, the newspaper looked like this: it had this first page that was always devoted to news, and then it was followed by two pages of just advertisements. And after that, there were two more pages of material that was sort of this mix of editorial, feature stories, op eds, just kind of a more freeform material.
And it also had letters from, from the readers and this was a really, really big and interesting piece of what the newspaper was doing and how it was working with those letters from the readers. I’ll talk about that a little, a little later, but in, and, and the way the newspaper presented different events in that first section, the news section, and then that section that I, in my paper I labeled it discussion and interpretation, was very different.
So, that news page contained news, and it was presented in this very in a way that resembled very much the then emerging actually American standard of ideal of objectivity, objective journalism, which now is sort of commonplace. This is how you do news in America, the inverted pyramid of style, the emphasis on facts, neutrality, detachment.
And so, this is how Novoye Russkoe Slovo was presenting news, which especially at the time was actually not at all a Russian way of doing journalism, but they did it and in their news section and, you know, perhaps part of it was their desire to acquaint Russian immigrants with American culture. And, okay, this is how you do news here and we do it the same way.
In terms of Palmer Raids in particular, I think it was especially important for them to cover the Palmer Raids in their news section, which is, again, this is the front page of the newspaper in this very detached manner because of the overall atmosphere of suspicion in the country and the Red Scare and the scare of Russians who were, you know, the word “Russian” was synonymous with Bolshevik and radical and communist. So, the newspaper, even though it was nonpartisan, had to be very, very careful.
So one of the things that, so, yeah, so it presented the Palmer raids in this very detached, facts-only manner, even though generally immigrant newspapers do tend to advocate for their communities and defend them. Um, but it also did a few things in that news section that were really, really helpful for the readers. For example, one of the things that it did is whenever it reported on the raids, specifically where the raids took place, how many people were arrested, the newspaper published lists of names of people who were arrested.
And some of them were taken to Ellis Island. Some of them were deported, but it always had those lists of names, which at the time were was, well, it’s always helpful, right, when your relative or friend is missing and you just don’t know where they are and you can’t find out because it’s 1919. You can’t, you know, there’s no smartphones, you can’t email. [Laughs] Right? There’s just newspapers. Um, and you see their name in the newspaper. This is helpful. This is comforting. You think, okay, at least they’re alive. At least there’s hope.
So, they published those names. What they also did, is they introduced this entire subsection after a few issues of, of the newspaper during the raids called “News from Ellis Island.” And so, this is where they were, yeah, publishing updates from what was happening at the, at the Ellis Island.
They were – those daily reports contain information of how many new individuals arrived at the island, which communities they were sent from, which towns, which cities, how many hearings the authorities had begun and conducted, how many individuals had been released, how many had been sentenced for deportation. So, this was all really, really helpful information, actual, detached, neutral, and yet very helpful information for the immigrants, for their leaders to know.
And then in their section, in the last two pages, well, that’s where all the feelings and that’s where all the emotions and discussions and that’s where all of that happened. And one of the most fascinating findings of my study, one of the most fascinating things that happened in those two last pages was that dialogue between the newspaper’s contributors, journalists, reporters, and the readers.
So, the newspaper curated all of that in in such a way that there was a dialogue. So, for example, that would be publish a letter from the reader who was expressing his disappointment and fear and frustration about what was happening, you know, with the raids and was the first Red Scare in general and the confusion and the sadness about the scapegoating that the Russians were experiencing, this kind of putting the Communist label on every Russian that was out there and so on and so forth.
So, there would be that letter from the reader. And then the next day, there would be, for example, in the editorial, engaging with those themes, maybe not directly, but you could definitely see the dialogue emerging there. And so, that definitely marked the way the Palmer Raids were covered, that kind of engagement, clear engagement with the readers putting the readers’ voices at the center of the discussion and engaging with them.
Um, and, and, and this is how they – this was one of the ways in which they help them make sense of the raids and the first scare in general, first Red Scare in general.
Teri Finneman: Do you happen to know how long that newspaper was around?
Anna Popkova: For yeah, for a long time, it was, I think it just, I think it stopped publishing in 2010.
Teri Finneman: Oh, wow.
Anna Popkova: Yeah. Yeah. I think. I will have to check on that, but I think it was 2010.
Teri Finneman: What do you think that journalists today can take away from this history?
Anna Popkova: Well, I think there are many takeaways here. One of them, to me a very obvious one, I didn’t write, in my paper specifically, I don’t touch a lot on that, although I do mention that a lot and it comes through in, in one of the themes that I discuss, for example –
one of the central themes in the coverage by Novoye Russkoe Slovo was the frustration with the way the mainstream, the American, the U.S. mainstream media covered the raids, and just in general, kind of rallied around the flag. And at that time, you had this massive anti-Communist propaganda in the mainstream media, and Novoye Russkoe Slovo of course was a very different kind of journalism, a very different kind of coverage.
So, I think one of the takeaways here is this juxtaposition, right, this difference between how at times that are often characterized being, well, as threatening the American national security. And it happens not only in America, it happens all over the world, right? National security is in danger. And so, mainstream media does this rallying around the flag. It’s a term, too. There’s a lot of research about that.
The mainstream media tends to rally around the flag, and it is especially strong when foreigners are involved, when the threat is also tied to the foreigners, the aliens as they were called at the time, and are still actually called in legal language, foreigners or nonresidents, noncitizens are termed “aliens.” So that is, I think something that all journalists have to think about whenever they cover so many topics that touch on either national security or immigration or both because both are, as this case study shows, often combined you know, whose, whose voices get forgotten, marginalized, and whose voices get amplified.
How does the way you cover certain events and certain processes, how does it affect the lives of, of individuals? How does that make them feel? Um, how does that affect the way your readers, who you write about, perceive what is going on politically and how do they view those individuals that you write about who are involved in all that?
So, you know, that’s, I think that is one big takeaway. You know, whenever you write, I think about the sort of nonmainstream journalism, for example, immigrant press in this case, you think about that, you know, mainstream coverage versus this kind of coverage. And I think for, for any journalists who do write or work who do storytelling that supports, centers marginalized voices, I think this is just something that says, yeah, keep doing what you’re doing. This is – this is necessary. This is important.
And this then eventually becomes part of history that is important as well.
Teri Finneman: Well, so kind of expanding off of that, our last question of the show is always why does journalism history matter?
Anna Popkova: Yeah. I mean, I think journalism history matters for the same reason history matters in general, right? It helps us better understand the past and understanding the past is critical for making sense of the present and taking actions that will shape the future.
And I think if we look at this question, why does journalism’s history matter from the perspective of my research that looks at descent and marginalized voices, then the answer is that the history of nonmainstream journalism, such as the immigrant press, matters a great deal, because it helps us find those missing pieces of the big puzzle of, you know, capital H history, if there is such a thing. But yeah, it allows developing a broader perspective and a deeper understanding of the historical processes that shape our society and the role that different kinds of journalisms play in these processes.
It helps us see the complexity of history, the power dynamics that shape it, which then hopefully helps us makes sense of the similar processes in the present. I mean, this paper is as much about journalism as it is about immigration. And a lot of the things that happened there was the Red Scare and the Palmer Raids. You read it and you think, wow, really when it comes to immigration and all aspects of it, the way it’s covered, the way it’s handled by the government, it’s all the same.
Um, so, but I think getting a better understanding of the past and all of the ways in which journalism, the role that the journalism played in shaping that past helps us make better sense of what, what we’re dealing with right now. And that’s why it matters.
Teri Finneman: All right. Well, thanks so much for joining us today.
Anna Popkova: Thank you.
Teri Finneman: Thanks for tuning in and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter at JHistoryJournal. Until next time, I’m your host Teri Finneman signing off with the words of Edward R Murrow. Good night and good luck.