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November 15, 2011

Media’s Role

Roy Meachum

As a survivor of more than 50 years in the press wars, I remember very well the Joseph R. McCarthy followers’ criticisms of Herblock. If you swore allegiance to the junior senator from Wisconsin, The Washington Post editorial cartoonist provided ammunition for your complaints; when it came to Post news stories, not so much.


Day after day in my copyboy’s chair, I beheld Murray Marder dragging into the newsroom; Capitol Hill assignments, particularly those chaired by Senator McCarthy left him drained. When I achieved reporter’s status, the once controversial figure converted into a pitiful alcoholic, demanding of strangers: “Do you know who I am?”


No Post crusade brought him down. He did himself in by treating suspects less than human, so much so that an attorney responding to the unfairness of the senator’s questioning of an Army dentist broke out in tears; they poured from Joe Welsh’s eyes when he asked of Joe McCarthy: “Have you no shame?”


I can recall no communists outed by the subcommittee’s efforts, but several thousand homosexuals lost their government jobs. It turned out later, notoriously gay masochist Roy Cohn had run the panel’s efforts. When Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain accused the media of sowing doubts among his supporters, I thought of Mr. Cohn and his “sometime boss.”


Coming out of the print, radio and television newsrooms I worked in, I can recall not a single instance when the “boss” ordered reporters to attack a politician. It never happened. When the Wayne Hays-Elizabeth Ray and Wilber Mills-stripper Fanne Fox sex scandals broke into headlines, they could not be credited to media; likewise a Texas congressman’s abuse of a staffer was given to the press by a woman seeking revenge for his mistreatment. The congressional trio was solidly Democrats, by the way.


There were individual journalists who made no secret of their antipathies: Columnist Shirley Povich’s against Redskins’ owner George Marshall springs quickly to mind. But Washington Post sport stories did not reflect Mr. Povich’s approach to the racial question. Then again, because of my early journalistic experience and my strong personal opinions that all viewpoints must be considered, editor John Ashbury has several times characterized my columns as “center tending to the left.”


Sen. Barry Goldwater ran against President Lyndon Johnson charging “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. [Applause] Let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Voters overwhelmingly rejected his proposition. I find Senator Goldwater strains in the current campaign medley, which I’ve written about before, from a different approach.


Is media bias new? Early news publications sold to like-minded people, which they created by appealing to their readers’ bias. Thomas Jefferson is considered the “saint” of American journalism for propounding early in his White House tenure that uncensored government must be rejected in favor of a free press. By his later years in the Oval Office, his stance toward the early 19th century media was altered considerably. As the 20th century was rolling around, William Randolph Hearst boasted his presses made America go to war against Spain. Financier Eugene “Butch” Meyer bought The Washington Post at an auction in 1933 to give new Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt a single voice in Washington; The Evening Star and all the city’s other publications were “conservative, at least.


The birth of radio marked the nadir of press powers; television sealed their fate. Johnny-come-lately Internet with its instant and continual news from all sources make individual “anti” campaigns almost impossible. Any charge can receive an answer immediately. In the case of Herman Cain, this advantage he turned to great disadvantage. Rocketing “blame” accusations around the campaign, including Texas’ Rick Perry, the Godfather Pizza guy has succeeded principally in smearing his own campaign. For saying what is obvious, commentators have been accused of rabid partisanship; their critics convicted themselves.


This presidential primary campaign started far earlier than I can remember any other; the sheer number of GOP candidates daily blows my mind. A lot of patience and moderation are called for.


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