Booknotes: Witness and the Press

In this weeks reading, I felt there were two really interesting sections that talked about the role of the press in the Hiss Case.  I also thought these were important because we still see the press doing the same thing in today’s world.

The first example occurs very early in this section.  During the August 25th hearing Hiss was able to read ten questions into the record he wanted Chambers to answer.  As Chambers states, “These questions went into my family life, my pseudonyms and addresses, possible crimes, etc.”  These questions used the press against Chambers in two ways.  First, the questions suggested that Chambers shouldn’t be trusted. Second, they made Chambers the focus of the investigation.  Chambers writes:

In effect, not Hiss,but I,henceforth became the defendant in a great public trial, in which, in a manner startlingly reminiscent of the mechanics of the great Soviet public trials, press, radio, public personages, organizations of all kinds and a section of the Government itself were mobilized against the chosen victim while public opinion was enveloped in a smog of smearing whispers that rolled across the nation and far beyond its frontiers. Through almost every medium of communication, the personal assault upon me was kept at a peak of uproar.  Meanwhile, in the course of the whole Hiss Case, not more than five journalists were sent to find out at first hand what I might really be like…This personal assault upon me was the only real defense that Alger Hiss and his supporters ever developed…As a result of Hiss’s questions and the strategy they initiated on August 25, 1948, I was to remain the defendant in that great public trial for almost two years.

It’s hard for me to read this section and not think of the 2008 presidential campaign.  How many of the main stream media sent reports to investigate Barack Obama’s life, his work, his friends, and family?  Yet, how many reporters were sent to Alaska to dig up as much dirt as they could find on Sarah Palin?  With then Senator Obama, there were a number of conservative outlets reporting on troubling aspects of his relationships, personal beliefs, and past actions.  The media simply had to cover it.  Yet they largely ignored it.  But with vice-presidential candidate Palin, the media flew teams of reporters into Alaska.   The story largely became about Palin, though she wasn’t the presidential candidate for either party.

The other section points out just how dim witted the press can be at times.  The committee investigating Chambers claims against Hiss were trying to decide who was lying: Hiss or Chambers.  Hiss had stated he thought Chambers was actually a free lance writer named George Crosley.  In order to verify, or dispute this claim, the committee contacted the Library of Congress to see if anyone under that name had written any actual articles.  The Library of Congress stated that they could only find two references for people with that name.  One of these included the author of a book of poems written in 1905.  At this point in the trial, James Reston, a correspondent of the New York Times, passes a note back to Chambers:

Reston’s note said, as nearly as I can recall it: “Are you the G. Crosley who wrote the book of poems in 1905?” Other than Bert Andrews’ visit, it was practically the press’s first communications with me since the Case began.  I thought that it must be a wry joke.  But a glance at Reston’s face assured me that it was not.  I sent back the note with what seemed to me the obvious answer written on it:  “I was born in 1901.  In 1905, I was four.”  Later, Reston was to accuse me of refusing to answer his question.

I would argue that this exchange is typical of both the intelligence and common sense possessed by the members of large portions of the media.

For Next Week: First, have a great Thanksgiving.  Second, read up to Chapter 13: The Hiss Case II.