For the 127th episode of the Journalism History podcast, Historian Kathryn McGarr takes aim at the conventional view of the Cold War Washington press corps as a group of naïve transcriptionists. In this episode, she details the sense of responsibility driving Washington reporters in the ’40s and ’50s and explains their resulting complicity in passing lies and misinformation to the public.
Kathryn McGarr is assistant professor in journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research centers around twentieth-century U.S. political history, with a focus on gender, foreign policy, and the news media.
Kathryn McGarr: Yes, they do have a certain amount of patriotism, but they also have a lot of cynicism, and they sort of assume the government actually is lying to them throughout this period.
Ken Ward: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine 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.
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 online at journalism-history.org/podcast.
Truth be told, I’ve never been that interested in East Coast journalism in the post-World War II period. The idea of these reporters parroting –
the distortions and outright lies of public officials in this fight against communism just kinda put me off, and so I stayed away from it. Of course, that was a pretty dumb decision. I knew from my own research how bold many journalists had been in questioning it, and in some cases, journalists were even refuting those public officials, but I assumed that what I knew to be true about reporters in say, the Midwest, just wasn’t so in Washington, and that the reporters there really were just cartoonish dupes. And that’s why I’m so thankful that I came across the research of Kathryn McGarr, an assistant professor of journalism and mass comm at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and her book, which is titled City of Newsmen: Public Lies and Professional Secrets in Cold War Washington. In today’s conversation, Kathryn takes a hammer to this simplistic view of Washington journalism in the ‘40s and ‘50s showing that the era’s reporters were keenly aware of what they were doing, which should maybe raise even more red flags for historians –
than that old model for the era.
Kathryn, welcome to the show. So, uh, I get the – I always love research that seems to be, kind of, it turns out, right, like, we’ve been thinking it was this way, but it turns out everybody, we were a little bit off here, and I – I got that sense from your book, right? Um, in particular, you’re kind of pointing out this misconception that we have about what this kind of foreign policy journalism in Washington looked like, and what those journalists were doing. So, why don’t you help us understand, what is the conventional view of this Washington press corps during the period that’s the greatest focus of your book, the ‘40s and the ‘50s?
Kathryn McGarr: Great. Well, I think that the most common view is that this was a press corps that were basically stenographers for the U.S. government, and that they were working hand in glove with the government, and that they really bought into the Cold War as an idea. They were very anti-communist in that they sort of – sort of helped propagate that view throughout the country. Um, and I think that that’s sort of the –
the view that we’ve had of this – of this foreign policy press.
Ken Ward: So, what then do you think, uh, you know, briefly – we’ll get into all of the details, but what did we get wrong, right? So, if they weren’t like, this league of, I don’t know, anti-communist mouthpieces for public officials, like what – what were they?
Kathryn McGarr: They were primarily internationalists. They were supporters of the Atlantic Alliance. They had fought or worked in some way in World War II, and so, you know, we have the story that while World War II changed everything, and World War II made, you know, everyone a patriot, and suddenly, you know, America is always in the right, and I argue that, yes, World War II did change a lot for these men. They’re living in a nuclear world. Um, it’s much more dangerous and – and yes, they do have a certain amount of patriotism, but they also have a lot of cynicism, and they sort of assume the government actually is lying to them, um –
throughout this, throughout this period.
Ken Ward: Well, that’s interesting because, under that conventional view then, we would assume that if they know that they’re – or if they think they’re being lied to, and they’re repeating that, that they – they know that they’re complicit in something. And you’re – you’re saying quite clearly, “No, that’s at least not their intent during this time,” right?
Kathryn McGarr: It’s not their intent, but they – I think that they actually are complicit, and I think the story has been maybe that they were too naïve to really know they were being complicit. They didn’t really know the government was lying to them.
And uh, what I’m trying to say is, no, they’re very complicit, and they see themselves in that way. They see themselves as activist journalists on behalf of an international community and the Atlantic Alliance and, in this period, that primarily means supporting the Marshall Plan for European recovery and supporting NATO. Rearming Western Europe was really important to this core group of foreign policy reporters, and in my book, I talk a lot about the fact that –
all of these reporters were white, and they were male, the ones at least that get included in this foreign policy press corps, and that was by design. They were making sure that anyone who did not share their view of the world was not able to come to these meetings, was not able to get hired into these positions, and so that’s why it seems like there is this Cold War consensus because we do have the same stories coming out in newspapers all across the country. And again, that is by design, and they’re working hard to make sure that sort of their view, this – this, uh, you know, European-centric, sort of white, internationalist view is dominating.
Ken Ward: Okay, sure. Now, in your book, you talk about a lot of institutions and forces that lead this press corps to think similarly on this, especially with issues and sort of the tone towards internationalism. You talk about these socio-professional ties, like these societies in D.C. and other places. How influential were these societies?
What – what societies are we talking about here?
Kathryn McGarr: Yeah. This was some of the most fun I had doing my research, was looking at all of these clubs, and so there’s men’s clubs in Washington like the Metropolitan Club, which aren’t strictly for journalists, but journalists belong, some of the elite journalists belong, and then I also looked a lot at the Gridiron Club, which it still exists, but at the time it was all – all men, all white. It was sort of the 50 most elite Washington journalists, you know, selected by themselves [laughter], and they would meet at the time, twice a year, and put on these skits and song parodies, and it was white tie and tails, and it was a stag event. It was sort of a must-attend event because the president was there and every Supreme Court justice, and all of the important ambassadors, and the whole cabinet so it was a really important event in Washington, and it’s just one of these many spaces that, and then also just, you know, the National Press Club bar on a day-to-day basis.
Overseas writers, which, you know, hasn’t really been written about before.
Ken Ward: Right.
Kathryn McGarr: These – these spaces just create – help journalists create a way to have a private conversation within Washington to figure out what sort of the story will be. What is gonna be the story of the Cold War? And can we all, you know, make jokes about the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan behind closed doors and can we sort of acknowledge these realities of, you know, the fact that our closest allies, France and Britain, are still colonialists, and we supposedly came out for self-determination for all nations from World War II, and yet we really don’t want to abandon France and Britain, sort of acknowledging this hypocrisy, again, in private, and then not acknowledging it outright in writing. Um, and so these spaces just are important because they’re – they’re private spaces, and yet they’re professional spaces.
Ken Ward: Well, what about – you mentioned earlier the shared experience of World War II, and how we may not properly understand exactly, you know, how that impacted the era that you’re talking about, but in your book, you – you mentioned that time, that kinda shared time under fire, especially in places like London during The Blitz, had a significant impact on those shared relationships among journalists as well. Can you talk about that?
Kathryn McGarr: Yeah, so I was tracing a friendship network partially of this – this cohort of reporters who sort of, you know, came of journalism age during the war, and then they were the bulk of that State Department diplomatic press corps in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and some of them were working in government. Some of them were reporting on the war, but all of them were going through these really difficult periods where they were away from their families for a long time. Maybe they were at the front. You mentioned London. That was a very common posting. Um, it’s – it was where, you know, the Allies were running their war effort –
out of London and Washington, so that’s where a lot of these guys ended up. Um, and it was just a time where they were force – just like everyone else participating in the war, they were also forming these very intense friendships, and they were doing it primarily in these homosocial spaces, and they carried that, those – both those really close friendships, and the, you know, sort of normalization of the homosocial spaces back with them to Washington, into their jobs, after the war.
Ken Ward: So, I’m – I’m really interested in that, and just as kind of an aside, I wanna continue with this narrative, but I – in my own research, I really find network analysis interesting and kind of an unused tool. You mentioned that you were researching these friendship networks among these journalists. How did – um, in a practical way, how did you go about doing that type of research, and – and sensing, trying to get a sense of these – these networks of friends?
Kathryn McGarr: So, I, you know, I started in New York, at the New York Public Library with the New York Times’ internal papers, and I was interested in the Washington Bureau –
and I saw all this correspondence with Scotty Reston, who was the Washington Bureau chief and a diplomatic reporter for the period that I look at, and so I decided to follow Reston to his archives at the University of Illinois, and then I see who he is corresponding with. And I go, you know, follow that thread to Turner Catledge’s papers in Mississippi, so I felt like sort of, you know, literally tracing these – these correspondents’ networks and friendship networks, and then also just paying attention when I find out, you know, little connections, like the fact that Reston and another one of the diplomatic reporters I follow, Wally Deuel, they’ve been on the same ocean crossing sort of early on in the war.
Ken Ward: Huh.
Kathryn McGarr: And this had been, you know, a time where they kind of bonded, and just imagining, you know, being for that period of time, like, in that kind of closed space just sort of helped me get a better understanding of – of every –
everything we don’t see in the newspapers.
Ken Ward: Sure.
Kathryn McGarr: Um, all these friendships that we don’t see, and then of course, you know, when Reston rates this book during the war, Artillery of the Press, and Deuel reviews it for the New York Times, and you know, doesn’t disclose, “And by the way, you know, this is one of my friends, and he went to school with my sister in Illinois.”
Ken Ward: [Laughs]
Kathryn McGarr: And none of that and so you know, they’re – they’re just swimming in conflicts of interest, and so they don’t really see them as – as conflicts of interest in the same way. It’s just they are – they are all friends. Um, yes, they are somewhat competitors, but it’s not like there are, you know, national newspapers in the same way that there are today, you know? There’s no national edition of the New York Times so the wire reporters are gonna be in competition with each other, like the AP and the UP guy aren’t gonna share you know, their – their resources.
Ken Ward: Mm-hmm.
Kathryn McGarr: But almost everyone else, they’re not in direct competition, and it sort of allows for a lot of collaboration and – and friendliness.
Ken Ward: Interesting. A minute ago –
you mentioned that, uh, you know, speaking of closed spaces, one of the things you mention in addition to those societies, the professional organizations, the shared time under fire, you also focused on exclusive access as something that kind of put walls around the people, not only the people who knew certain types of information, but also the way that they treated that information when it came to these private, not – not even press conferences, but conversations –
Kathryn McGarr: Mm-hmm.
Ken Ward: – that select journalists would have with leaders and the creation of, you know, what you – what you call the Lindley Rule, things like that.
Kathryn McGarr: Yeah.
Ken Ward: How influential were those in creating this culture and this – this attitude they have?
Kathryn McGarr: I think they were hugely important. I think that this rise of the – the background session culture, which, uh, you know, is still one of the ways that reporting operates today. Of course people want information on background. It’s – it’s the way you can do your job and I realize that that really started in earnest during the war –
and it started because the government and the press were constantly in tension over what could be released to the public and what couldn’t be. Um, and there were certain people in the government that were fighting with the press more than others, and at one point, a group of men got together with Admiral Ernest King who was sort of running the Navy’s war efforts, and had this private, off-the-record dinner with him. And all of a sudden, all of these guys are on King’s side, and they’re willing to, you know, plant stories that sort of play up the – the good feelings between the Army and the Navy because there have been all these stories about how they weren’t getting along, and are our war efforts gonna fail?
Um, and so there are these specific stories where I, you know, you can – you can see, okay, they attended this dinner. They write this story. They don’t say where they got their information. They don’t, you know, say that they had a private dinner with King.
Um, and these dinners became so important that at the end of the war this big group of reporters who’d been sort of cycling in and out, and again, they were only inviting other white men to cycle in and out with them, even though there’s plenty of reporters of color in Washington. There’s plenty of female reporters in Washington.
Ken Ward: Uh-huh.
Kathryn McGarr: Um, and they’re still making sure it’s just them, so they have this big banquet –
Ken Ward: [Laughs]
Kathryn McGarr: – um, at the end of the war, and they – they call it – they call themselves the veterans of the battle of Virginia because that was where they were waging their battle, was these background sessions in –
Ken Ward: [Laughs]
Kathryn McGarr: – in the suburbs of Washington and they just thought they were so cute. Um, and you know –
Ken Ward: [Laughs]
Kathryn McGarr: – sometimes they are. Like, sometimes I do appreciate getting to see, like, the – the cutesy little menus they come up with for these dinners.
Ken Ward: [Laughs] Uh-huh.
Kathryn McGarr: Um, but also, they were very self-congratulatory, and it’s a system that, you know, again, never made it into the public understanding of – of the period.
Ken Ward: Sure. You know, one of these groups that –
I had no idea about before I was reading your book, and I’m still trying to sense if I just – it was a blind spot for me, or if, you know, and I think you mentioned already that there’s just not been a whole lot of research done around them, is the overseas writers.
Kathryn McGarr: Yeah.
Ken Ward: Can you explain to me what those overseas – what – what that group was?
Kathryn McGarr: Yes, and I had never heard of them either before doing this project, so –
Ken Ward: That makes me feel better. Good [laughs].
Kathryn McGarr: Yeah because they don’t write – they didn’t write about themselves at all, and it wasn’t, uh – so the overseas Press Club might be the one people have heard of, the one I had heard of –
Ken Ward: Sure.
Kathryn McGarr: – based in New York. Um, this was, you know, totally off the record, totally background. It was a group of reporters who got together after World War I and said, “We need some sort of organization in Washington for reporters who have reported overseas and then come home, and uh, you know, just a way to sort of – to keep up that network, and we can invite speakers, and have luncheons.” And you know, they had just been reporting in Europe –
for a few years on the war, and they – they sort of saw this as a way to return the hospitality when there were foreign dignitaries visiting or foreign journalists visiting. So, it was sort of a small group. Um, it grew in the ‘30s, and then it just really exploded in the ‘40s because so many reporters were suddenly considered overseas reporters, you know –
Ken Ward: Mm-hmm.
Kathryn McGarr: – even if you just sort of go to Europe once during the war, or go anywhere and you come back, you’re eligible for membership in this overseas writers group, and one of the changes that they make after the war to make this group more useful is they say “We are gonna have, you know, different levels of membership, and you can only be a real member and come to our off-the-record and background lunches with important people if you are an American reporter writing for an American news outlet, and you live in Washington, D.C.” So, you know, you might have a membership if you work in New York and you sometimes, um –
you know, pop down to D.C. You might have a membership if you work for one of the European papers, but they said, “We’re gonna make this a really useful group, and we’re gonna have, you know, we’re gonna have Allen Dulles out of the CIA to talk off the record about the coups that the CIA is planning all around the world.”
Ken Ward: [Laughs]
Kathryn McGarr: And you know, they’re – they’re talking about these things pretty frankly behind the scenes, so frankly, in fact, that some of these notes that reporters were taking from overseas writers meeting end up in CIA files as the CIA’s records of these meetings, and the CIA has, you know, redacted them for their files, even though, you know, 30 journalists just heard exactly what they said.
Ken Ward: Uh-huh.
Kathryn McGarr: And so the – the journalists are – are hearing the real, you know, first draft of history, and then they’re writing something different and they, you know. They acknowledge this. They’re – they’re really just trying to do their jobs and keep their jobs and keep their access.
Um, and one of my favorite letters I came across was from Joseph Harsch, who was a diplomatic reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, and he was also on CBS radio and he writes this famous historian at Columbia, and he says, “If I wrote what I really thought, I wouldn’t have any readers.” He was like, if I –
Ken Ward: Huh.
Kathryn McGarr: He was like, sometimes what the real story is goes against what he called the current of American folklore, and so American folklore being sort of, you know, America is this democracy, and, you know, we’ve got civil rights here, and we promote them abroad, and we’re only out for the good of our people and other people, and that’s the American folklore. And he says, you know, “I can’t – I can’t write that because I would have no readers if I did that,” and so they – they know they’re being hypocritical, and they sort of feel like they have no other option in this period when World War III is looming over them at every moment.
Ken Ward: Well, so that’s a – that’s a perfect –
segue to what I wanted to – to ask you about next, which is, you know, we’ve been talking about kind of what spread the sense of responsibility and – and contained it within these social organizations, the professional ties, but what was that responsibility? They have this overwhelming sense of responsibility. What are the forces behind it? What is driving them to report in the way that they are? What are they afraid of?
Kathryn McGarr: Yeah. I mean, I think they have a valid fear of nuclear war, and if not nuclear war, then World War III. Um, you know, maybe – I think we sometimes forget, or maybe we don’t, because we’re historians, but I think that sometimes [laughter] people forget World War II came so closely on the heels of World War I, and, you know, almost everyone who was alive during World War II had also been alive during World War I. Um, you know, some of these guys were kids, but it – it came very soon after, and so there was an expectation that, well, maybe World War III is gonna come –
just as quickly after World War II. So, they don’t know what’s gonna happen, and so I think they do have, you know, sort of a – a valid – a valid fear of – of nuclear holocaust, and I think it’s not a fear of communism, and they talk very frankly about the fact that, oh, don’t worry. No one in Washington really believes that this is about communism, you know? This is about balance of power.
Um, this is about Russia. We don’t – uh, it would be the same, you know? There’s this one letter where a reporter says, “It’d be the same if it was a – a Russian czar or if it were the communists,” you know? This is really just about keeping – keeping the balance of power in Europe and throughout the world. Um, and so they [tapping noises] – they’ve got these – these really justified fears based on their experience with the 20th century about what could happen next.
Ken Ward: Sure. Uh, you know, what – I can’t remember who it was in your book that, um – that you quoted, but somebody used the term “waging peace” and that seemed to –
really represent kind of the way they – they saw their role in all of this, and what journalism, in at least some cases, ought to be.
Kathryn McGarr: Definitely. I think everyone talked about waging peace, you know? Like, that was sort of the party line. I think our politicians also were talking about waging peace, And so because of that, they were able to say, “Well, maybe we’re still in a kind of war, and so it’s okay, even though we know it’s wrong from a journalism ethics standpoint.
Maybe we’ll try to help out the government a little more.” But the thing is, they do know it’s wrong. Um, one of my favorite incidents is when the Marshall Plan wants Turner Catledge, who’s at the New York Times, in the New York office to come, you know, to be a PR person for them for a little while I think over in the – in the Paris office, and he doesn’t wanna go.
Ken Ward: Uh-huh.
Kathryn McGarr: And the publisher wants him to go so badly –
this is Arthur Hays Sulzberger. Publisher wants him to go so badly, he says, “I will make up the difference in your salary for the period you’re gone. Like, not only will I give you a leave of absence to go do this.”
Ken Ward: Huh.
Kathryn McGarr: “But I will make sure that I make up your salary.” And Turner Catledge says, “No. I really don’t wanna do it. Please make my excuses to Paul Hoffman,” who’s the Marshall Plan guy “and tell him that I can’t do it.”
And so instead of Sulzberger saying, you know, “We need Catledge here,” or – or the truth you know, that – that Catledge didn’t wanna leave the Times, he says, “You know, we really shouldn’t have a New York Times newspaperman be part of a propaganda agency, even though we really do believe in your propaganda. We just think it would not be ethical, you know, from the journalism standpoint to have one of our guys come work for you,” even though he had just been lobbying for Catledge to do just that.
Ken Ward: [Laughs]
Kathryn McGarr: And of course, they got a different reporter to join them. They got someone from the Christian Science Monitor but yeah, yeah. They sort – they sort of knew where the lines were –
and they knew as they were crossing them, and they, you know. They didn’t have some idea that, like, objectivity was – was the end-all, be-all of journalism. Um, they were – they were pretty – more – they were more realistic than that. Um, I think sometimes we condescend to this era of journalists a little bit, and we, you know, somehow think they’re more naïve or stupider than like, all the journalists that came after them, but they weren’t. They knew what was going on.
Ken Ward: Sure. Uh, we can certainly see parts of this culture still in journalism today, but I don’t think you would argue that things are still this way, right? So, what has changed? Like, what led to a breakdown of this era of such close cooperation and toeing the line for – in the ‘40s and ‘50s.
Kathryn McGarr: So, I think the breakdown in the government press relations started in the – in the ‘50s. I think that the Eisenhower administration was particularly tough on reporters.
It was especially hard, because they didn’t trust John Foster Dulles, who was secretary of state, and his brother, Allen Dulles, who was head of the CIA, and they were running as a – you know, as we’ve discussed, like, all these covert operations instead of outright war. It was more common in this period for these – these covert operations and that put reporters in a really tricky spot, and it meant that the government was – was often lying to them, which they knew, and then they would go lie to their readers. Um, and so it was just – there was already – there was already a breakdown in – in the ‘50s, and then there also was sort of, I guess, a breakdown in trust among journalists more in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and this is something that, you know, Michael Schudson writes about, where you’ve got this sort of rise of the critical culture, where we’re suddenly – reporters are critiquing other reporters in public and in print, whereas before, they would’ve been doing it behind the scenes. Um, not early 20th –
early 20th century, you know, there’s plenty of press criticism, but in the period I look at, there’s not a lot of public press criticism. Um, you know, there’s very few people standing out there on their own. Someone like I.F. Stone is one of the exceptions. He’s very willing to criticize the press, and he is, you know, kicked out of the National Press Club, and he’s blackballed from overseas writers, and he, you know, can’t get into these places.
Um, and then – and that changes in the – in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and suddenly we get all these journalism reviews, you know? The Columbia Journalism Review, these all get founded, and – and suddenly there’s a lot more press criticism going on, and I think a little bit of a breakdown of community and trust. And then I also think that this community just became more – more open to women, to reporters of color, and sometimes when these men, who have been trying to keep those other groups out of their clubs for so long, do let them into the clubs, the clubs themselves then become less important spaces.
So, you know, no one thinks the same way of the National Press Club today as they would have in the 1950’s. It’s – it’s not that same, really important social networking space that it used to be, and so some of those places lost their importance, and then there was also just a new generation that came into journalism that had not been a part of World War II, and did not think that World War III was about to happen, and felt like they were safer to air their criticism in print instead of just, you know, complaining – complaining behind the audience’s back, which is what my guys do.
Ken Ward: Sure. Well, we’re running short on time now, but I wanna make sure we have time to – to ask this one last question. It’s something that we ask all of our guests on the show. Kathryn, why does journalism history matter?
Kathryn McGarr: Yes, and I don’t know what I can add, because all your guests have such fantastic answers, and I feel like you’ve covered a lot of the ground [laughter] but it’s important because, you know, journalism is the way –
we learn about the world, and we need to understand, you know, how it happens, and – and how that sausage gets made, and what’s behind the printed word so that we actually understand our present-day and our history.
Ken Ward: Sure. Well, Kathryn, I just wanna say I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you so much for being on the show.
Kathryn McGarr: Thank you so much for inviting me. I really enjoyed it, too.
Ken Ward: Well, that’s it for this episode. Again, the book is City of Newsmen: Public Lies and Professional Secrets in Cold War Washington. 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.”