BORING WITHIN THE BOURGEOIS PRESS: A POSTSCRIPT
My emergence from the ideological closet after nearly twenty-five years as an undeclared socialist reporter for the capitalist press provoked a rowdy reaction with some ironic twists and turns.
Right-wing media monitors gleefully seized upon my two-part memoir, "Boring From Within the Bourgeois Press," to try to breathe new life into the discredited thesis that the Establishment press is contaminated with leftism. Dow Jones & Company, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, for which I reported ten years, denounced me as an ideologue and questioned my fitness to teach journalism at a respected university. But my old editor at the Journal, now the president of NBC News, vouched for my reporting and stood up for ideological diversity in the newsroom. Meanwhile, my students and my dean vouched for my teaching, attesting that I keep ideology out of the classroom.
Radicals generally praised my endurance, courage, and candor. But The Wall Street Journal's house leftist, columnist Alexander Cockburn, echoed right-wing axe-grinders in criticizing my long stay in the ideological closet as deceptive.
Caught in a confused crossfire, forced to explain and defend myself, and "commodified" as an instant celebrity, I was pursued by reporters in search of a juicy story and by radio talk show hosts in search of lively conversation. More than a dozen daily newspapers and half a dozen magazines, including Time and, of all things, Fame, published articles on my career and the controversy surrounding it. The Columbia Journalism Review ran a condensed and revised version of my Monthly Review memoir. And an academic researcher, Associate Professor Stephen D. Reese of the University of Texas at Austin, delivered a paper at the 1989 convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication on "The News Paradigm and the Limits of Objectivity: A Socialist at The Wall Street Journal."
Unexpected, unwelcome, and unsettling as the brouhaha has been to me personally, it has served a useful purpose in setting off a debate over whether holding unpopular views interferes with a journalist's professional performance or whether, as I contend, my independent, radical perspective made me a better reporter--and benefited the newspapers I worked for. The flap also serves as a case study of the use of flak--one of the five "filters" Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky identify in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media as essential to the media's smooth functioning as a self-censoring propaganda system--to discipline journalists who deviate from the dominant ideology and to pressure news organizations into restricting coverage and analysis to the safely centrist.
The anti-communist Committee for the Free World took the wildest shot at me, calling me "the walking, breathing embodiment of the sorry state of Western journalism." But it was Accuracy in Media that led the flak attack on me and the papers I worked for. This Washington pressure group monitors the news media to make sure they keep to the corporate agenda and a hard-line foreign policy. When AIM detects departures, it publishes a one-sided, nit-picking critique in its twice-monthly newsletter, AIM Report, and fires off a letter charging inaccuracy, imbalance, and bias. Any newspaper that doesn't publish an AIM letter to the editor or quickly recant is likely to find itself the target of a letter-writing campaign by AIM supporters. In addition, AIM officials contribute articles to right-wing newspaper and magazines.
Accuracy in Media's opening shot at me was a column by its founder and chairman, Reed Irvine, in the Washington Times, the daily financed by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's South Korean-based Unification Church. Then came a long article by AIM's director of media analysis, Cliff Kincaid, in the conservative weekly Human Events. This was followed by a six-page issue of AIM Report devoted entirely to my case, and finally by letters to the editors of at least three newspapers and magazines complaining that their stories on me were too kind.
Kincaid's article in Human Events appears pivotal. Not content to charge just one lone radical reporter with having polluted the pages of The Wall Street Journal back in 1961 to 1972, Kincaid linked my case to five other former and current Journal reporters whose stories had occasionally been critical of such Establishment icons as the Central Intelligence Agency. Saying the Journal "has had more than its share of left-wing reporters," Kincaid suggested a pattern of inattentive Journal editors allowing left-leaning reporters to run off on anti-Establishment rampages.
This proved too much for touchy, defensive Dow Jones executives. Whereas a Wall Street Journal spokesman had told the New York Post before the Human Events article appeared that "no one cared" that I had used the Journal to "spread his socialist ideology," a week after its publication Dow Jones issued a statement that "we are offended and outraged that a former Wall Street Journal reporter now claims he tried to pursue a hidden ideological agenda within the pages of Journal." The statement not only accepted AIM's line that I had an ideological agenda (rather than simply seizing occasional opportunities to introduce Journal readers to radical ideas), but smacked of appeasement. As the Columbia Journalism Review later editorialized, "The Journal's own hidden agenda appeared to be covering its own rear, for it knew it would soon be under attack."
Far from beating the heat from the right and putting an end to the matter, however, the Dow Jones statement had a banned-in-Boston effect of calling attention to my Monthly Review memoir and generating more press coverage than it would otherwise have rated. This played into Accuracy in Media's hands. For it needed to make more of my "confession" than it deserved to try to prove its thesis that leftist pollution of the mainstream press is endemic. Never mind, as the Columbia Journalism Review commented, that "It is increasingly difficult to make a serious case for leftism in the American press when, as such commentators as Sydney Schanberg, David Broder, and Mark Hertsgaard have pointed out, the dominant orientation of the press is a bland, cozy, forgiving, and above all forgetful relationship with power."
"To make a mountain out of a molehill, it helps to have a mole," as the St. Petersburg Times put it in chronicling my case. So AIM cast me as a mole, an undercover agent assigned to infiltrate the bourgeois press and slip leftist ideological messages past unwary, perhaps even complicitous editors onto unsuspecting readers. My revelations, AIM's Kincaid warned in Human Events, raise "concern about the ability of Marxist agents to penetrate the mainstream media."
Casting me as an agent acting on someone else's behalf necessitated ignoring some inconvenient passages in my MR memoir. As the son of a newspaperman, it was natural for me to choose a career in journalism. As an independent socialist of the MR school, I owed allegiance to no organization but acted solely on my own. If I had seriously considered myself a mole, I certainly would not have quit The Wall Street Journal just when I was having the most success getting a respectful hearing for radical ideas, in front-page stories on radical historians and economists. And far from infiltrating the Los Angeles Times, I simply accepted that paper's unsolicited job offer. AIM's disregard of these clues bears out Colman McCarthy's comment in a Washington Post column on my case that real ideologues have a habit of "never letting a bothersome fact get in the way of pet theory."
Another AIM claim, that my case "proves that some of the most renowned editors in the country lack either the ability or the will to detect a clever Marxist mole on their staffs," necessitated ignoring a clue in my memoir that my editor at the Los Angeles Times suspected my ideological leanings. The clue was the editor's comment that I could mention Karl Marx, whom he called "your favorite economist," only if I shortened and lightened the treatment.
May editor at The Wall Street Journal also had more than an inkling as to where I stood on the ideological spectrum. "I always assumed his politics were quite liberal," Michael Gartner told a Los Angeles Times reporter covering my case, "but I don't think it affected his reporting one bit. I judge journalists by one thing--whether they are fair, thorough, and accurate." By those standards, MacDougall was an "A-plus reporter."
For this and similarly supportive statements, Gartner, who now heads NBC News, became the target of an AIM letter-writing campaign. A form postcard that AIM supplied its supporters to send on to NBC Chairman Robert C. Wright charged, "It appears that Mr. Gartner was easily deceived or was himself in sympathy with MacDougall's goals. I would like to know if NBC has adequate safeguards against similar abuses by other media moles."
AIM also tried to make a case that the mainstream press was ignoring my story. "His confession is a huge embarrassment," Reed Irvine opined, "and our media don't like to report anything that is embarrassing to them." After an outpouring of press coverage rendered this complaint untenable, Irvine backpedaled to a charge that "most of the media comment on MacDougall has been designed to downplay the significance of his boastful admissions." Still later, after few mainstream journalists criticized me publicly, AIM's successor to Kincaid as director of media analysis, Joseph C. Goulden, was reduced to whinning in a letter to the Columbia Journalism Review that "I find it damnably odd that more press people are not outraged" that a closet radical was able to report for the mainstream press for so long.
Even odder, at least to me, was the defection of a journalist who could have been expected to be a natural ally into my detractors' camp. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Alexander Cockburn derided me as a "Walter Mitty-ish ... closet saboteur." He approvingly quoted a Los Angeles Times editor's contention that "there's no need for subterfuge," and added on his own that "any serious challenge to convention won't come about by stealth."
Be that as it may, the indication is that my career in the mainstream media would have been cut short had I openly declared my radicalism. Fred Taylor, one of the four managing editors I served under at The Wall Street Journal, told the newsletter The Journalist & Financial Reporting that he wouldn't have fired me for being a socialist, but he would have summarily dismissed me had he known that for my first six months at the paper I also wrote under a pen name for the National Guardian and Monthly Review.
My FBI file, obtained last year under the Freedom of Information Act, demonstrates why secrecy was necessary. Running 104 heavily excised pages, with another nineteen pages withheld, the file covers such early threats to national security as writing a letter to the editor of the leftist cultural magazine Mainstream, signing an Independent Socialist Party nominating petition, sending a Christmas card to Morton Sobell in Atlanta Penitentiary, and appearing on the Fair Play for Cuba Committee's mailing list. All these subversive activities were under my own name. In addition, my file notes letters to the Daily Worker and articles in the National Guardian and March of Labor that I wrote under my pen name of Frank Bellamy. (Bellamy's contributions to Monthly Review and the American Socialist escaped notice.)
It took the FBI five years--from 1956 to 1961--to discover Frank Bellamy's true identity. Confirmation came three days after I started work at The Wall Street Journal. An FBI agent phoned my New York apartment. He told the friend visiting me who answered the phone that he was from The New York Times. Thinking the call was a response to a job application I had submitted to the Times a couple of weeks earlier, my friend innocently told the agent I was working at The Wall Street Journal. The agent then phoned me at the Journal, again misidentified himself as a Timesman, and confronted me with information that I was Frank Bellamy. My FBI file refers to the misrepresentation as a "suitable pretext." And it notes the agent's conclusion: "MacDougall does not appear to be the type of person that an important financial newspaper would want as a reporter."
My career in the mainstream press, only five years old at this point, would have ended abruptly had the FBI tipped off the Journal that it had a closet radical on its payroll. That the FBI did not do so may indicate that the federal government was not yet prepared to escalate its repression of radicals into an all-out secret police state campaign against dissent. (Will it be so restrained, and the nation so fortunate, next time?)
I consider it more than coincidence that reporters and columnists who lived through the worst of the repression as socially conscious adults generally wrote more sympathetically about my career than younger journalists who didn't experience the witch hunts and feel the fear and distrust they left behind. Cockburn's implicit call on reporters to publicly declare their private beliefs could open journalists of all persuasions to the ideological scrutiny that ruined so many careers in the 1950s. Requiring employees to divulge their political views would be as much a violation of privacy as requiring them to specify their religion or sexual orientation. And it would discourage the diversity in viewpoints, lifestyles, and interests that enrich open newsrooms.
The Columbia Journalism Review made the strongest statement in support of radical contributions to the mix of views and voices, editorializing that "MacDougall's critics are dead wrong when they imply that only a single set of mainstream values is appropriate to journalists who work for the mainstream press. Indeed, there is strong historical evidence that other perspectives--specifically, socialist perspectives--can contribute not only to robust journalism but to a country's self-knowledge. That evidence is to be found in the work of socialist journalists who, writing for mainstream publications at the turn of the century, produced many of the most effective exposes of the muckraking era.... Socialist muckrakers often seemed able to reach beyong the individual case to show how a social ill was related to the structure of society. As coverage of the homeless has shown, late-twentieth [century] journalists have not done as well."
But can a reporter with strong convictions rise above preconceptions and write an accurate, fair, and balanced story? Can a radical reporter tell it like it is, rather than how the reporter would like it to be? Right-wing media monitors seized upon and selectively quoted two statements in my MR memoir to support their thesis that I slanted stories. One was that "I sought out mainstream authorities to confer recognition and respectability on radical views I sought to popularize." The other was that "I made sure to seek out experts whose opinions I knew in advance would support my thesis." These statements indicated only that I followed the mainstream reporting practice of including one or two experts sympathetic to my working hypothesis among those I quoted.
Washington reporters are particularly prone to shop for political analysts, economists, Sovietologists, and other experts who reflect the reporters' own point of view. Analysts adept at phrasemaking are the most sought after, to the point that some become overexposed. Stephen Hess, an Eisenhower and Nixon White House aide who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, logged 1,126 phone calls from 151 U.S. news organizations in 1988. Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute "was quoted so frequently in the Los Angeles Times that a moratorium was called on Ornsteinisms," according to a May 12, 1989 New York Times report, "In Pursuit of the Clever Quotemaster."
Some of the harshest criticism of my memoir centered on its tone, which detractors variously described as "provocative," "boastful," and "self-glorifying." Tone was rarely an issue in the thousands of stories I wrote for mainstream newspapers, being dictated by the facts and the mainstream convention that reporters keep themselves out of their copy. After a quarter century of never once mentioning myself in print, of repressing my beliefs, of enduring the normal indignities--uncooperative news sources, meddlesome copy editors, increasingly bureaucratized and impersonal newsrooms--that propel the vast majority of newspaper reporters into other lines of work by the age of forty, I burst out of the ideological closet with some emotion. The opening of my first-person narrative was admittedly brash, even over-exuberant, leaving me vulnerable to the charge that I exaggerated and romanticized my role. But the bulk of the 9,000-word memoir was calm, matter-of-fact, and anything but boastful. If it devoted more attention to what I was able to accomplish than to what I wasn't, it was to document my assertion that the limits of the permissible in the bourgeois press are wider than many radicals would suppose.
Even the title was misconstrued. Intended as tongue-in-cheek for radicals with a sense of humor and history, "Boring From Within the Bourgeois Press" struck right-wingers as anything but a quaint play on the cant of the McCarthy period. They took it literally as confirmation of their suspicions of left-wing infiltration of the mainstream press. Even some leftists thought the title infelicitous, which I now concede it was.
My right-wing critics also made much of the fact that my profiles of radical scholars were sympathetic. Given the practical difficulty any reporter faces in getting an extended interview with someone who suspects the reporter is unsympathetic, it is hardly surprisingly that nearly all profiles in the mainstream press are sympathetic to their subjects. My profiles differed only in giving radicals whose views are systematically excluded from the mainstream media a friendly, if fleeting hearing.
John F. Lawrence, my editor for eight of my nearly ten years at the Los Angeles Times, and now a vice president of the New York Stock Exchange, told an interviewer that he would not have permitted me to profile Marxist economists had he realized I was "as strong a proponent" of Marxist analysis as my MR memoir indicates I was. But he also said that ideological bias "was not a major problem" in my stories, and that when "hints of bias" did appear, they were edited out.
Even Dow Jones coupled its denunciation of me with assurance that "we believe our editing process succeeded in making sure that what appeared in print under his byline met Journal standards of accuracy, newsworthiness, and fairness." Nevertheless, Dow Jones ended its statement by saying "we find it bizarre and troubling that any man who brags of having sought to push a personal political agenda on unsuspecting editors and readers should be teaching journalism at a respected university." This insulting questioning of my fitness to teach could have been laughed off were I teaching history, economics, or some other value-laden social science. But the Graduate School of Journalism for which I do teach depends on The Wall Street Journal and other mainstream news organizations to hire its graduates. Prospective employers assume that our students are trained in supposedly value-free mainstream methods. The Dow Jones accusation therefore called for a spirited defense. My dean, Tom Goldstein, issued a statement that "we have no ideological litmus test at this school. Kent MacDougall's personal beliefs are his business, not ours, and he scrupulously keeps ideology out of the classroom."
Keeping ideology out of the classroom seems incongruous for a radical who has just burst out of the ideological closet. What are classrooms for if not to present and discuss ideas? Yet introducing my world view in reporting courses would only divert time and attention from the rigorous training in reporting and writing skills my students need to prepare themselves for jobs in the mainstream media. In contrast to skills courses, media studies courses offer an opportunity to step back and assess media performance in a larger political, economic and social context. I taught such a course, Social Aspects of the Mass Media, for the first time last fall. Using the writings of Michael Parenti, Herman and Chomsky, Herbert J. Gans and other media analysts as a guide, my students critically analyzed the news content of major newspapers and news magazines. Not surprisingly, they found the news generally supportive of corporate-government-elitist assumptions, values, viewpoints, and goals.
My memoir has encouraged a number of left-leaning students and other young people thinking of a career in journalism. "I want to do what you have done--reconcile my somewhat radical political and economic values with reporting for the mass media," a journalism student at Northwestern University wrote. "Your article showed me that was possible." A University of Oregon student wrote, "I want you to know there is a least one journalism student who would like to follow somewhat in your footsteps (though I don't think I'd have the stomach for The Wall Street Journal!)."
A dozen young leftists have sounded me out about the pluses and minuses of a career in the mainstream media. I have explained that working for a mainstream news organization with integrity, high standards, and an adequate news budget opens the opportunity to contribute important stories that have a chance to have some real impact. The downside includes having to spend years doing routine stories that have nothing to do with any social issue at all, having to pull punches in those relatively few that do, and not being able to be fully oneself. These and other strains can lead to frustration, isolation, and loneliness.
"Every so often I can do an interesting piece," a radical reporter for a major West Coast daily told me. "But I spend too much time negotiating story ideas and editing changes, and waiting for completed stories to get in the paper--and not enough time reporting and writing."
An East Coast reporter for United Press International who hesitates to identify himself as a radical but who has "a great deal of trouble with capitalism as it is practiced by the powerful minority in this country" wrote that my career encouraged him. But "it still leaves me wondering exactly how much impact is achieved by a person such as yourself, or ten or a hundred such persons, woven into the army of journalists whose ready willingness to accept police and government dictum on a daily basis makes me constantly wonder why they ever got into the business in the first place."
Good point. Just how many radical journalists are there out there? Ten? A hundred? A thousand? Enough to make a difference? Right-wing media monitors with a vested interest in exaggerating the Marxist menace like to make out that the mainstream news media are crawling with moles. "There are plenty of other Kent MacDougalls in journalism," according to AIM. "He was further to the left than many of his colleagues, but it was only a matter of degree." I only wish AIM knew what it was talking about. But the available anecdotal evidence indicates that socialist journalists in the capitalist press, as distinct from liberal journalists who oppose U.S. government policies and corporate practices but haven't given up on reforming capitalism, are few and far between. Those few who enter mainstream journalism with radical leanings generally shed them as they grow older, start enjoying decent salaries and professional perks, and become steeped in mainstream news values. The biggest and best newspapers may tolerate an open radical or two, but usually only on a non-sensitive reporting beat or the copy desk. As one of my leftist journalist friends puts it, "You can have a dissonant opinion as long as it doesn't count, as long as it's no threat."
My revelations struck some mainstream journalists as threatening because they punctured the pretense that only an ideological eunuch can be an unbiased journalist, and that ideology has no place in the newsroom. In deviating from the myth of value-free reporting, my career stands as a reminder of the extraordinary constriction of acceptable news and views in the U.S. mass media. As Hodding Carter III, The Wall Street Journal's liberal columnist, has noted, "what passes for debate in most U.S. newspapers today ranges the ideological spectrum from N to R."
The Los Angeles Times put the flap over my memoir in proper perspective, observing in its front-page story: "MacDougall's radical political views probably wouldn't arouse much controversy were he a journalist or a professor in Europe or in several other areas of the world where there is a long and legitimate tradition of intellectual Marxist criticism and even the mainstream press is more ideological. But most of the mainstream American press, at least for the past generation or so, have prided themselves on being non-ideological, and the political spectrum in this country has always been far narrower than in many other countries. The Left, as it is known in Europe and elsewhere, barely exists in the United States, and since the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s in particular, anything that even smacks of Marxism arouses suspicion and hostility in many quarters here."
Reporters not only in Western Europe but even in the Soviet Union have considerably more freedom than I ever enjoyed to sum up what the facts they have gathered suggest. According to James E. Shelledy, editor and publisher of the Moscow Idahonian, who toured Soviet newspapers for two weeks in 1988, "a Soviet journalist has a lot more leeway in writing than his American counterpart." The Soviet journalist is "more analytical and adversarial."
A similarly healthy infusion of glasnost is called for in the increasingly concentrated American press. As newspaper chains have gobbled up individually owned dailies and encouraged a more moderate, bland and standardized news product, and as many big-city papers with distinctive personalities that served different social classes have given way to a single daily serving all constituencies, the flow of new ideas has diminished. "As the number of metropolitan papers decreases, their reponsibility to present diverse opinions increases," Frank Wetzel, ombudsman for the Seattle Times, said in a March 12, 1989 column, "Journalism Needs Divergent Points of View." After the Columbia Journalism Review's editorial, this column stands as the best published comment on my case, and I am content to let Wetzel's ending double as my own: "Ideally, the reaction to hearing that a socialist worked for The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times might be: How quaint. How true. How ordinary."
A. Kent MacDougall teaches journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. His two-part "Boring From Within the Bourgeois Press" appeared in the November and December 1988 issues of Monthly Review.
CONFESSIONS OF A MARXIST NEWSMAN
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