You wouldn’t expect someone who has written for Monthly Review, the National Guardian and The Daily Worker to have reported for The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times as well. But I have. Eugene V. Debs may be my all-time favorite American and Karl Marx my all-time favorite journalist. But my employer for a decade was The Wall Street Journal, and for another decade it was the Los Angeles Times.
Altogether, I spent twenty-four years and nine months in the service of one of our country’s major socializing forces—the bourgeois press. I was a well-paid, privileged member of that fast-growing corps of information workers who mass-produce news, disseminate official proclamations, standardize information and ideas, reinforce institutional viewpoints, legitimize dominant values, and help secure the compliance of the populace.
I helped keep the United States a decent place for Fortune 500 corporations by reporting their activities and pronouncements respectfully. My stories helped attract affluent audiences, which my publishers then sold to advertisers. I did my bit to sop up the surplus value generated by productive industry and channel it into the wasteful sales effort, thereby helping capitalism stave off crisis and creak along a while longer.
But that’s not all I did. During my years on the publishing beat at The Wall Street Journal, I exposed the simplistic, jingoistic editorial policies of such leading retrogressive periodicals as the New York Daily News, Time magazine and Reader’s Digest. I introduced Journal readers to the ideas of radical historians, radical economists, and the left-wing journalist I. F. Stone in sympathetic page-one stories. And on the Journal’s notoriously illiberal editorial page, during the height of protests against the Vietnam War, I argued in favor of journalists’ right to be politically active, in an essay that began, “A reporter has as much right to picket the White House as his publisher has to eat lunch there with the President.”
At the Los Angeles Times, I spent more than a year examining complaints by big business of antibusiness bias in the news media, only to conclude in a ten-part series that hostile coverage is rare and more than offset by corporate advocacy and promotional fluff in the guise of news. Another series, on the growing gap between rich and poor, documented that wealth in the United States is even more inequitably distributed today than it was on the eve of the American Revolution.
I helped popularize radical ideas with lengthy, sympathetic profiles of Marxist economists Paul Sweezy and John Gurley. And in a piece on Marxist political scientist Bertell Oilman and his unprofitable effort as a small businessman to market the anti-capitalist board game Class Struggle, I got off one of the best tag lines of my career, quoting Oilman on how “capitalists, too, are victims of the system that carries their name.” The solution? “Do capitalists a favor; do away with capitalism.”
My survival in the capitalist press for a quarter century as a usually covert, occasionally openly antiestablishment reporter indicates that while newspaper owners and editors don’t go out looking for stories that make the capitalist system look bad, the best ones don’t flinch from running such stories if they meet mainstream journalistic standards for accuracy and “objectivity.” What I was—and wasn’t—able to report in two of the nation’s most enlightened dailies indicates the limits within which socially conscious journalists can practice their craft in the mainstream media. My success in getting many uncomfortable truths into print suggests that the limits of the permissible are wider than many radicals would suppose.
The mere presence of a radical in the capitalist press defies standard radical assumptions, of course. True, the New York Tribune, the largest-circulation and most influential daily in the country during its heyday in the 1850s, took on Karl Marx as its London correspondent and printed his weekly dispatches for a decade. But the Tribune, under its famed editor and publisher Horace Greeley, was uniquely progressive, crusading for social reform, workingmen’s and women’s rights, and the abolition of slavery. And besides, that was a long time ago.
In this century, the few radical journalists who have strayed into the mainstream media have typically run afoul of intolerant publishers sooner or later. Alexander Crosby, chief editorial writer for the Staten Island Advance, was fired by owner Samuel Newhouse in 1934 after trying to organize the newsroom for the American Newspaper Guild. Carl Braden got the axe at the Louisville Courier-Journal, for which he was a copy editor, when he was convicted in 1954 of state sedition for helping a black family buy a house in a white neighborhood. Melvin Barnet was fired by The New York Times on the same day in 1955 that he invoked the Fifth Amendment before Senator James Eastland’s Internal Security Subcommittee rather than testify about the possible Communist Party membership of people he had known. Former Communists at other papers, including the New York Daily News, met a similar fate.
Most leftist journalists have found the capitalist press too confining and have gotten out voluntarily after a few years. James Aronson left The New York Times to edit the New York Newspaper Guild’s newspaper Frontpage before co-founding the National Guardian in 1948.
“To my knowledge, in the American mass media you cannot find a single socialist journalist,” Noam Chomsky wrote a decade ago, lamenting the “astonishing degree of ideological uniformity for such a complex country.” Chomsky was on target in noting the lack of a single avowedly socialist journalist openly espousing socialist positions in the mass media. But he overlooked at least one closet socialist boring unobtrusively from within: me.
Reconciling radicalism and reporting for the mass media came naturally to me. I simply followed my father’s lead. Curtis D. MacDougall grew up in a conservative, religious family in Wisconsin and cast his first vote for Calvin Coolidge in 1924. But seeing the world through the eyes of a reporter, then editor, and finally professor of journalism at Northwestern University awakened him to the structural causes of injustice. He moved steadily leftward, voting for Socialist Party candidate Norman Thomas in 1932 and 1936; in 1948 he himself ran for U.S. senator from Illinois on Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party ticket. My father’s three-volume Gideon’s Army remains the definitive history of the Progressive Party movement. His other books include Interpretative Reporting, in its eighth edition upon his death in 1985, Hoaxes, and Superstition and the Press.
As a political activist, civil libertarian, and public commentator, Curtis MacDougall inevitably provoked low-minded people in high places. His FBI file, begun in 1936 after he wrote an editorial for the Evanston (Illinois) Daily News-Index congratulating J. Edgar Hoover for finally capturing a “public enemy” alive, ran 296 pages when obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
While my father’s outspokenness propelled him along the high road of public visibility, I chose the reporter’s quiet low road of not calling attention to myself. Yet it wasn’t long after I had decided on a career in journalism that I, too, ran afoul of small-minded authorities. In my case the authorities were my professors at Columbia University’s Graduate School of journalism. This trade school has long trained reporters and editors for the mainstream media, giving them a smattering not just of the skills they’ll need to survive but also the mind set they’ll need to thrive. In 1955–56, my year at Columbia, the proper mind set included an unshakable conviction that an international Communist conspiracy threatened the “Free World.” I disagreed. For my master’s thesis, the major reporting project required of every student, I chose to reexamine the circumstances under which Britain had subverted democracy in its South American colony of British Guiana, now the independent Guyana. In 1953, London had sent gunboats to British Guiana, suspended the colony’s six-month-old constitution, evicted the legally elected socialist government led by Cheddi Jagan, and put the country under what amounted to martial law. The intervention had been reported as a unilateral action, but I uncovered evidence in reports in British and Guianese newspapers held at the Library of Congress that the U.S. government had prodded, perhaps actually incited, the British government to intervene. Washington’s motives included a determination to maintain an air base it had built in British Guiana during the Second World War, protect U.S. investments there, and assure a continuing flow of bauxite, the strategic mineral from which aluminum is made. When I notified the Columbia School of Journalism that I intended to take a week out and pay my own way to British Guiana to do some firsthand reporting, I was told that my trip would be contrary to the best interests of all concerned. The faculty feared that I would interview the wrong people, starting with the ousted ministers, and compromise the school’s reputation. I made do by interviewing Guianese emigres in New York. I wrote a 14,000-word thesis, got my degree, and a year later I boiled the thesis down to 2,500 words and published it in the American Socialist under my new pen name of Frank Bellamy.
I needed a pen name because by then I was working for a suburban New York daily newspaper that shared the general paranoia of radicals both foreign and domestic. By day I covered police, court, and city hall in Passaic, N.J. for The Herald-News. By night and on weekends, I covered CIA dirty tricks, restrictive immigration laws, rusting railroads, conspicuous consumption, tax loopholes for the rich, and other topics for the left press. Between 1956 and 1962, by which time I had left Passaic, taken a five-month trip around the world, and joined The Wall Street Journal in New York, I contributed a total of thirty major articles to the National Guardian, Monthly Review, American Socialist and The Worker, and several others to the Daily Worker and March of Labor.
My pen name was Frank Bellamy, but I also used Edmund E. Scott and Eugene J. Reade in an attempt to throw off the government gumshoes who somehow got wise to Bellamy and came snooping around the Manhattan apartment house in which I lived, asking questions about me of my neighbors and the building superintendent. One agent even phoned me at The Wall Street Journal. “I have information you are Frank Bellamy and have written for the National Guardian,” he said. “Is that so?
I played dumb. “National Guardian?” I asked innocently. “Who publishes it—the National Guard?”
Undeterred, the agent expressed surprise that such a “super-liberal” as I would be working for The Wall Street Journal, and hung up with the promise, “We’re keeping our eye on you.”
This unsettling call came just three days after I had started work at the Journal. But it wasn’t fear of losing my job that caused me to stop contributing to the left press within six months. Rather, it was dissatisfaction with writing stories that weren’t fully reported and fact-checked. Reporters for all papers are expected to get their facts straight, of course. But the premium on accuracy and clarity at the Journal exceeds standards anywhere else. Journal reporters live in terror of getting even the smallest detail wrong, lest it prompt a reader to make a bad investment and blame it on the Journal’s bad reporting.
Fastidiousness about facts wasn’t possible when freelancing for left periodicals because most of the stories I wrote were based mainly on facts the capitalist press had already reported and that I reinterpreted and repackaged. For instance, for a 1962 piece for the National Guardian on the international runaway shop, I plowed through scores of Wall Street Journal, Business Week, and Dun’s Review reports on American corporations investing in foreign companies and setting up overseas plants. The object in each case was to take advantage of low foreign wages and taxes and reap high profits by turning out autos, appliances, clothing, and other goods for sale both overseas and in the United States. I didn’t have time during the workweek at The Wall Street Journal to obtain the latest and best information available from these corporations, and if I had told them I wanted the information for the anti-corporate Guardian they would have been uncooperative anyway.
My inability to do original reporting weighed on me increasingly as I grew accustomed to the Journal way of doing things. I became dissatisfied with any story, no matter how truthful its conclusions, that wasn’t also fastidious about the facts. I had internalized the standards and methodology of the most meticulous member of the capitalist press, and it made me unfit to do less than my best possible work for the socialist press.
One of the first things I learned at The Wall Street Journal was that editors would support a reporter against charges by a news source, special-interest group, or reader that the reporter’s story was biased or had some other major defect as long as the reporter had gotten all the minor facts right. Two frontpage pieces I wrote during a brief fling at foreign correspondence best illustrate this. The stories were on the Dominican Republic and appeared in 1971. This was six years after President Lyndon Johnson sent in the Marines to crush an uprising aimed at reinstating a reform-minded government that had been overthrown by the Dominican military. The invasion set the stage for the fraud- and violence-pocked election of a government compliant to Washington’s wishes. At the time of my stories, the Dominican government had two campaigns going. One sought to silence opposition by having police-directed gangs of right-wing thugs abduct and murder leftists. The other sought to attract U.S. business investment and tourism.
My stories took a dim view of both developments. The first one began: “The terrorism, corruption, and misery that marked Rafael Trujillo’s thirty-one-year dictatorship of the Dominican Republic are even more widespread today under constitutionally elected President Joaquín Balaguer.” The second story concentrated on tourism, warning Americans thinking of traveling there to expect inadequate accommodations, few tourist attractions, and a long wait to clear immigration and customs at the Santo Domingo airport, to see submachine gun-toting soldiers patrolling the streets, and to be stopped on the road to the beach and searched for arms.
Dominican government officials and Americans doing business in the Dominican Republic reacted indignantly. The president of the Dominican government airline took a full-page advertisement in a Santo Domingo newspaper to accuse me of defaming the nation. The minister of tourism said he was directing “a cabinet of twenty-four lawyers” in New York to sue me and the Journal. Three dozen letter writers lambasted my stories as “ill-founded, argumentative and biased,” “vicious,” “vituperative,” “irresponsible and destructive,” and “heavily charged with political underdog rhetoric.” “It’s people like you that give a country a bad name,” one wrote. Another questioned my “political orientation.” And an American businessman said he was “appalled that a publication that has established such high standards in the editorial world has permitted itself the luxury of having on its staff a reporter of the ilk of A. Kent MacDougall.”
Fortunately, Balaguer himself came to my rescue when he went on television three days after my first story ran. He conceded that political violence had gotten out of hand and admitted for the first time the existence of the main terrorist group, known popularly as La Banda. He removed the police lieutenant who had served as liaison between the national police and La Banda and ordered La Banda disbanded. The reign of terror, which had claimed the lives of several hundred leftists in 1970 and 1971, subsided.
I spent most of a week writing point-by-point rebuttals to specific charges of inaccuracy and one-sidedness raised by the letter writers.1 My long memos to managing editor Fred Taylor convinced him that I had gotten all the facts right, and in replies to the letter writers he defended my interpretations and conclusions as well. Taylor argued that the Balaguer government had only itself to blame for the damage to its image my stories had caused.
Though I emerged unscathed from this experience—the twenty-four lawyers never filed suit—the ruckus raised by my Dominican stories confirmed my long-held conviction that I would never last as a foreign or even a Washington correspondent for the capitalist press. My sympathies for the poor and the vulnerable, the repressed and the radical were too strong. Judging government policies by their effect on the vast majority of any country’s citizens rather than on the country’s elite minority or on U.S. business and strategic interests was bound not only to alienate the official sources whose cooperation I needed to report my stories but, sooner or later, try my own editors’ patience as well, possibly prompting them to gut or spike my stories. Better to stick to safer topics. Better to stick to business.
Business, of course, is The Wall Street Journal’s bread and butter. Monitoring it is the key ingredient in the Journal’s two million circulation, largest among U.S. dailies. Businessmen need unadulterated information they can count on. If the Journal were as unsophisticated and uncritical about business as the business sections of most metropolitan dailies, readers of those papers would have no compelling reason to shell out an additional $119 a year to subscribe to the supplemental Wall Street Journal. Candid, even critical coverage is, therefore, less a matter of high-minded journalism for the Journal than bottom-line practicality.
The Journal can afford to be tougher on business and government than metropolitan dailies because its nationwide distribution frees it from dependency on government officials, businesspeople, and advertisers in any one area. Offend any one advertiser and its pullout will hardly tell at the till. With the New York Daily News cancelling a $40,000 advertising campaign in the Journal in a pique over my profile of it as a blunt blend of crime, sex, scandal, and anti-Communism (“The only good Red is a dead Red”), the Journal took the revenue loss in stride, not even informing me it had taken place.
Tough, unconventional front-page feature articles are only part of the Journal’s editorial package, of course. The inside of the paper is dominated by conventional coverage of corporate news, government actions affecting business, and the stock, bond, commodity, and money markets. Like other Journal reporters, I quickly learned to rewrite corporate press releases, cover annual stockholder meetings, and handle other routine assignments without challenging conventional assumptions. For spot news stories for the inside of the paper, I judged a company’s performance not by how fairly it treated its employees and customers and the communities and countries in which it did business, not on the quality of its products and services, but on whether its profits were rising or falling. I followed the convention of calling profits “earnings” to make them seem more legitimate. And I accepted at face value the profit figures the companies reported publicly, even though I knew that corporations legally keep two sets of books and commonly report altogether different figures to the Internal Revenue Service.
I cranked out several thousand routine spot news stories during my ten years at the Journal. They were the dues I paid for the opportunity to report and write far more demanding and fulfilling feature articles for the front page. I took advantage of the latitude Journal reporters have to pick their own feature story topics and report them in depth. Although I was embarrassed to tell friends I worked for a paper with a virulently anti-Soviet, militaristic, let-the-poor-eat-cake editorial policy, I found that the editorials helped me gain cooperation and candor from corporate executives who assumed—wrongly in most cases—that Journal reporters were as soft on big business as the paper’s editorial writers.
I soon learned how to segment a topic to make it manageable and palatable. Continuing my interest in the international runaway shop, I published front-page stories on Hollywood producers of animated cartoons who farmed out work to foreign studios and on American book, catalog, greeting-card, and other publishers who had printing jobs done overseas. I learned to mine ammunition from seemingly innocuous corporate, government, and legal documents. For a piece on the link between factory speed-up and industrial sabotage, I found in summaries of labor arbitration cases examples of resentful assembly-line workers willfully damaging factory equipment and products. I learned how to disarm sources and extract damaging admissions from them. For a profile of the Reader’s Digest, I lulled it into giving me statistics showing that it no longer merited its name because most of the articles in its U.S. edition were not genuine digests of material from other periodicals, or from books or speeches, but pieces the Digest commissioned and ran as originals or first planted in other periodicals so it could then “reprint” them.
I made sure to seek out experts whose opinions I knew in advance would support my thesis. For instance, in my profile of the New York Daily News, I quoted Guardian editor Jim Aronson calling the News “an obese, malevolent fishwife, screaming journalistic obscenities at more than two million persons a day, exhorting them to go out and kill a Commie for Christ—or even just for fun.” Conversely, I sought out mainstream authorities to confer recognition and respectability on radical views I sought to popularize. In my piece on radical economists, I quoted liberal economist Paul A. Samuelson that radical economists constituted “a serious research movement from which much will be heard in the future,” and libertarian economist Milton Friedman that “radicals are performing a useful function in dispelling the myth that the solution to every problem is to be found in more government spending.”
I encountered surprisingly little opposition within the Journal to my front-page pieces on radical economists, radical historians, and I. F. Stone. The Washington bureau chief tried to have the Stone profile killed on the grounds that the maverick newsletter editor was an uninfluential nobody, but the paper’s New York editors held firm. A columnist argued that my piece on radical economists needed to be balanced by rebuttal from bourgeois economists, but the page-one editor pointed out that radicals were never given an opportunity to rebut the bourgeois economic analysis that permeated the Journal day in and day out.
Part of my success in winning radical analysis a respectful, if fleeting airing in the Bible of Wall Street stemmed from the period, 1971–72, in which my pieces appeared. U.S. troops were still fighting in Vietnam and opposition to the war had led to widespread questioning of establishment institutions and ideology. But just as important was that my stories contained enough significance, controversy, color, and surprise to satisfy commercial journalistic standards for relevance and readability. Their calm, matter-of-fact, non-polemical tone fit the formula. And I took care to inject a few disclaimers to distance the Journal from the radical viewpoints presented; one such disclaimer acknowledged that many readers would find radical proposals for revitalizing the U.S. economy “unwise and unworkable,” “even a prescription for disaster.”
My piece on radical economists was the last story I wrote for The Wall Street Journal. The year was 1972, and it was time to move on. I felt I had gone about as far as I could in pushing against the limits set by the Journal’s standardized news formula. I left with a mixture of affection and resentment. Affection for a paper that never asked me—or any other reporter I heard of—to write a puff piece for an advertiser, take it easy on a news source, or angle a story beyond what the facts warranted. Resentment that in reporting the facts, I usually had to stop far short of the truth. Affection for a publication that used its news columns to describe many of the establishment’s worst abuses. Resentment that the paper’s doctrinaire editorials stubbornly contradicted much of the Journal’s best reporting and news analysis. I was pleased to have been able to practice high-level journalism at least half the time. But I was weary of working for a business that had given me no voice in the product and had let me be only a hired typewriter.
- ↩ One accuser, a professor at the University of Florida at Gainesville who doubled as a consultant to the Dominican government, wrote a 5,000-word letter with fifty-nine footnotes.