Bailouts for journalists?

Jim Powell Senior Fellow, Cato Institute
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Since there have been so many bailouts, Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger suggested in the pages of the Wall Street Journal that print and broadcast media should be bailed out, too.  He calls this “enhanced public funding of journalism.”  He dismisses concerns that government funding might lead to government control, citing “a strong culture of independence.”  A few days after Bollinger’s article appeared, he was named Chairman of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, so he is in a position to promote his ideas on a larger stage.

Government control, it should be noted, isn’t the only concern about bailing out journalism.  Every bit as worrisome is how political power seduces many journalists — especially progressives — to promote ever bigger government.

For example, in 1926 the famous progressive muckraker Ida Tarbell visited Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.  She gushed:

“I saw that he had a most extraordinary smile, and that when he smiled he had a dimple…When Mussolini accompanied me to the door and kissed my hand in the gallant Italian fashion, I understood for the first time an unexpected phase of the man which makes him such a power in Italy.”

Another progressive journalist, Lincoln Steffens, called Mussolini “the divine Dictator.”  Steffens wrote, “The man is as powerful as an elemental force.”  Not to be outdone, the magazine publisher Sam McClure, who published articles by these and other progressive authors, declared that fascism was “a new and dawning civilization,” Mussolini solved “the problem of democracy,” and Italians were “the one free people.”

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin excited progressives even more than Mussolini.  An estimated 20 million citizens of the Soviet Union were killed by their own government, and Stalin was responsible for more those deaths than any other Soviet ruler.   English author H.G. Wells reported that he “never met a man more candid, fair and honest…no one is afraid of him and everybody trusts him.”  The English playwright George Bernard Shaw hailed Soviet prisons where victims “could stay as long as they liked.”  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ambassador to Moscow Joseph E. Davies purred that Stalin’s “eye is exceedingly wise and gentle.”  One of the members of FDR’s “Brain Trust” was Rexford Guy Tugwell who became an admirer of the Soviet Union after his 1927 visit.  He admitted that there was “ruthlessness, a disregard for liberties and rights,” but he insisted it was all worthwhile.  Economist Stuart Chase praised communists for their “burning zeal to create a new heaven and a new earth.”  Chase added, “Why should Russians have all the fun of remaking a world?”

The most famous of Stalin’s shills was New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, the first Western reporter to interview Stalin (1930).  Duranty described Stalin as “a quiet, unobtrusive man who saw much but said little.”  Duranty claimed that Russian peasants welcomed the Soviet seizure of their homes, their fields, their crops and their farm animals.  Duranty soared to awesome heights of duplicity when, during the early 1930s famine that killed some 6 million people in the Ukraine, he reported: “There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation.”  He told a fellow journalist: “The ‘famine’ is mostly bunk.”

Duranty won a Pulitzer Prize for whitewashing Stalin.  Duranty’s coverage probably influenced FDR – Duranty was in the president’s office when he extended diplomatic recognition to Stalin’s regime, and during World War II FDR referred to the Soviet dictator, then a U.S. ally, as “Uncle Joe.”  Perhaps the most damning defense of Duranty came from William Stoneman, a correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.  He wrote that:

“Walter, when Moscow correspondent of the NY Times, was no more cooperative with the local regime than other NY Times men were, during the same period, in Paris, Madrid, Berlin and London, with the authorities in their countries.”

Communist China’s exalted leader Mao Zedong needed a whitewash as much as Stalin did.  According to historian Jean-Louis Margolin:

“it is clear that there were between 6 million and 10 million deaths as a direct result of the [Chinese] Communist actions, including hundreds of thousands of Tibetans.  In addition, tens of millions of ‘counterrevolutionaries’ passed long periods of their lives inside the prison system, with perhaps 20 million dying there.  To that total should be added the staggering number of deaths during the ill-named Great Leap Forward – all victims of a famine caused by the misguided projects of a single man, Mao Zedong.”

The journalist who pioneered the whitewashing of Mao was Edgar Snow.  He wrote articles for the Saturday Evening Post, New York Herald Tribune, Foreign Affairs and other publications.  In 1936, Snow became the first Western correspondent to interview Mao at his hideout in northwest China.  Snow spent four months spinning a heroic tale.  The resulting book, Red Star Over China (1937), became a bestseller.  In the book, he described Mao and his comrades as communists who followed the Soviet ideological line, but soon he figured out that communism wasn’t a catchy idea in America, and he downplayed it.  Snow claimed that peasants embraced Mao because he offered “agrarian democracy.”  Again and again, Snow portrayed Chinese communist leaders in glowing colors.

“Because they achieved everything against great odds,” he wrote, “it seemed natural to the Communist veterans that a whole nation should follow in the same paths with discipline and faith matched by high fortitude, and distant glory as the ultimate reward.”  One would never know that Snow was writing about mass murder.

Snow was the most influential Western journalist writing about Mao and Chinese communism, but he wasn’t alone.  Brooks Atkinson, reporting for the New York Times, claimed that “the Chinese communists are not Communists.  Their system now might be described as agrarian or peasant democracy.”  Theodore H. White, later best-known for his books about presidential elections, was among Time Magazine staffers who viewed communists as “agrarian liberals.”  John J. Fairbank, a Harvard historian of China, declared, “The Maoist revolution is on the whole the best thing that happened to the Chinese people in centuries.”

Then there was Herbert Matthews, another New York Times man, who whitewashed Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.  In December 1956, United Press International reported that Castro had been killed, but Matthews learned that Castro was alive, and he arranged to meet the revolutionary leader in his Sierra Maestra mountain hideout.  There was a long interview that resulted in a succession of New York Times front-page stories.  They convinced people that Castro was a decent fellow and that he headed powerful democratic forces almost certain to overthrow Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.

“Castro’s personality was overpowering,” Matthews wrote.  “It was easy to see that his men adored him and to see why he has caught the imagination of the youth of Cuba.”  According to Matthews, Castro had “no animosity toward the United States or the American people” – which encouraged U.S. policymakers to stop helping Batista.  To a significant degree, Matthews “made” Castro, because he wasn’t the only rebel against Batista, and before the New York Times coverage began, Castro’s forces were neither the largest nor the best-armed.  Castro’s comrade Ernesto “Che” Guevara said that Matthews’ articles were more important than a battlefield victory, in terms of fundraising and recruitment.

When Castro seized power in 1959, did he usher in the era of enlightened social democracy he had promised?  Actually, he ordered executions of his political opponents, shut down dissident publications, postponed elections indefinitely, asserted his control over the economy and the Catholic Church in Cuba.  Nonetheless, Matthews continued portraying Castro as a friend of the people.  In addition to writing articles, Matthews wrote almost all of the New York Times editorials having to do with Latin America from 1949 until 1967 when he resigned because of widespread ridicule for failing to recognize that communism was a totalitarian movement.  He hoped that his fantasies would be vindicated, but since 1959 Castro’s regime imprisoned more than 100,000 people and executed more than 15,000.

Lord Acton’s epic warning applies as much to intellectuals as to the rulers they admire:  “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Jim Powell, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of The Triumph of Liberty, FDR’s Folly, Wilson’s War, Bully Boy, Greatest Emancipations and other books.