Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Housewarming gift

The verdict is in, and the Fair 'n' Balanced Network moves to the front row in the White House briefing room. Let us suggest that not much sleep be lost. (Indeed, Your Editor plans to continue his current research project of rating the IPAs of the Lower Peninsula and lose exactly no sleep at all.) But do let's look briefly to the traditions of the past to see if they hold any lessons for the present.

Here's some spot coverage of one of the great moments in White House press history: FDR's handing an Iron Cross to a radio reporter with instructions that it be passed on to John O'Donnell, Washington bureau chief of the New York Daily News. No, there's no evidence in the story that "correspondents" were "incensed," but if you're accustomed to the way that (ahem) some networks invoke anger and outrage at the drop of a fedora, you won't be surprised to see it in a Tribune hed from December 1942.

O'Donnell's immediate offense is hard to nail down at at this remove. He'd written a snarky column that lampooned either the drinking habits of an ex-colleague now in service or the work habits of correspondents in uniform or conditions of wartime censorship -- or, as he put it, simply offered "fantastically exaggerated pictures of Army life overseas" written by journalists to amuse colleagues. It wasn't all that funny, but if stupidity is a hanging offense, the journalistic gallows are going to be busy.

To his supporters, the spat was a bizarre turn in a long-running political grudge match. O'Donnell "long has been a target of New Deal maligners because, as head of the Washington bureau of the New York News, he opposed this country's participation in the European war before Pearl Harbor" (said the Chicago Tribune, whose publisher was the cousin of O'Donnell's ultimate boss). But O'Donnell did apparently have a habit of making things up when he wanted to go after his political or cultural enemies. The right-wing Time magazine of the era reproved him in 1943 for proclaiming that "
contraceptives and prophylactic equipment were to become Government Issue for the WAACs."

And there's a confounding variable: The Iron Cross incident came shortly before O'Donnell's libel suit against a Philly paper that had called him a "Naziphile"* went to trial. He was awarded $50,000 in damages: a result that "will encourage all true Americans, everywhere in the country, to continue the fight against those who would subject our country to the dominance of foreign nations and alien doctrines of goverment," as the Trib commented in February 1943. That judgment was set aside in May, and stop us if you think you could write the Trib's editorial from home: "This is the kind of justice the people of America may expect if the New Deal ever succeeds in reducing the courts to executive dictation." (The Supreme Court eventually upheld the case, with the award down to $8,000.)

If it all sounds familiar -- the paranoia, the fabrication, the warning call from the last bastion of press freedom -- it should. It isn't new. It's just changed seats in the press briefing room. Thus, it's probably not appropriate to complain about Fox moving up a notch. But it's certainly worth asking around to see what might be an appropriate housewarming gift for a Fox correspondent.

* Specifically: "John O'Donnell is a Naziphile. He makes no secret of it. On numerous occasions, to all friends and bar-flies within hearing, he has broadcast his sympathy with most of Hitler's aims -- such as destruction of the British Empire, suppression of labor unions and liquidation of Jews." We could have a good old discussion about whether the Washburo chief for an isolationist newspaper would be a "public figure" in the post-Sullivan world (that's your cue, John), but otherwise ...

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Blogger John Cowan said...

Hard to say (that's why we have courts and judges) but my guess would be not.

I, by the way, happen to possess an Iron Cross, willed to me by my grandfather Woldemar Schultz, who also gave me my middle name. He served on the Eastern Front in World War I as a translator; he had been born in Russia of German heritage, and emigrated to Germany before the war. I am not martial or nationalistic, and neither was he (he moved to Detroit after his wife died in the H1N1 epidemic), but I'm told he was proud of having done a good job, both then and later.

8:53 AM, August 03, 2010  

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