Steven Heller | Essays

What’s Black and White and Re(a)d All Over?

BETTER TIMES, December 1937.

The New York Times, where I proudly worked for over 30 years, has been the bulwark of freedom of speech and expression in this nation. Blitzed by President Donald “fake news” Trump’s bombast, the newspaper of record is holding its own in the battle for the First Amendment. Yet as Gay Talese wrote in his epic history of the paper, The Kingdom and the Power (The World Publishing Company, 1969) “The years 1955 and 1956 were hardly ideal times for young reporters to be getting a start in the newsroom.” The top management of the paper were distracted and disturbed at that time by the “intrusive tactics” of a McCarthy-era-inspired Senate subcommittee that was investigating purported communism in the press “and seemed determined to concentrate on the former Communists who were on the payroll of The New York Times.”

The Times had sidestepped government and political scrutiny before, but “the dynamics of McCarthyism were still pervasive in the land.” Among its news-, composing-, and press-room staffs there had been casual and active members of the Communist party, which was usual in many media businesses (and their unions) during the 1930s and 1940s when the Soviet “Reds” were America’s anti-Axis allies (CBS was particularly vulnerable but stood up to withering pressure). In the late 1930s Communist party members working at the Times published a union printed newspaper, Better Times, which aggressively criticized the paper’s management for various perceived sins and supported white and blue collar union activism.

It was an awkward and embarrassing time for the paper, Talese reported, “one of suspicion and conflict, anger and compassion.” The Times was divided into conservative super-patriots who resented colleagues who had been “exposed as one-time party members.” There were staffers who “privately abhorred McCarthyism...” but were more “cautious and remote in the newsroom” around those who were named before the investigating committee.

The head of the investigation, Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland and colleagues singled out the paper because the Times criticized segregation, challenged Congressional abuse of power, condemned McCarthyism, and stood firm for the Constitutional right of an accused individual to face an accuser. But publisher Arthur Sulzberger, according to Talese, called himself a “prejudiced witness for the capitalist system,” and refused to retain a single Communist on the staff. He insisted that all employees subpoenaed before the committee must attend. Those Times men and women who were short-lived members and admitted their mistake were absolved, while those who took the Fifth Amendment were summarily fired.

In my early days at the Times in the early 1970s I knew staffers on both sides. I worked on the Op-Ed/Editorial page with chief editor John Oakes, who I was told and later read in Talese’s book, was against the Times’s rigid position on the Fifth Amendment and very much an advocate of “civil liberties and Bill of Rights.” It is ironic, that when I was hired for the Op-Ed I was warned that Mr. Oakes was rather conservative regarding the illustration proposed for the page. I had to show him the art almost everyday and indeed we did have a few disagreements over content and direction. But when I learned how he stood up against both Joe McCarthy and the Eastland Committee tactics, my high respect for him tempered the rebellious 24-year-old tone I took when arguing about a drawing. Needless to say, I lost a few battles, but won some too. Mr. Oakes was a gentleman.

When I see the Times today stand up against the purposeful ravings of President Trump, thinking of those difficult days past when the nation and the paper were threatened by suppressive forces, I am both saddened and proud. Talese ends his chapter on this period in The Kingdom and the Power with an editorial statement that showed the Times wisdom authored by editorial board member Charles Merz:
We cannot speak unequivocally for the long future. But we can have faith. And our faith is strong that long after Senator Eastland and his present subcommittee are forgotten, long after segregation has lost its final battle in the South, long after all that was known as McCarthyism is a dim, unwelcome memory, long after the last Congressional committee has learned it cannot tamper successfully with a free press, The New York Times will still be speaking for the men who make it, and only for the men who make it, and speaking, without fear or favor, the truth as it sees it.

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