British Association for American Studies


Book Review: City of Newsmen: Public Lies and Professional Secrets in Cold War Washington

The University of Chicago Press, $30.


The relationship between the press and government has a unique history within the United States. Since the end of the Second World War, the US government has strengthened their secrecy. The term ‘national security’ became synonymous with the rise of the modern national security state. This had established new government departments on atomic energy and intelligence organisations, such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). These new institutions, alongside the increasing tide of classification, set out under President Harry Truman, had made it challenging for the US press to access information it deems within the public interest.[i] In asserting their role as the fourth estate, the press have often reiterated their constitutional right (First Amendment) to gain access to information without government censorship. Government officials, meanwhile, have attempted to withhold information they argue would compromise the nation’s security if printed. This presents a dilemma, the tension between secrecy and democracy.

Exploring this history requires an in-depth look at the personal attitudes and behaviours of key individuals of the press and government to understand the culture surrounding reporting on foreign policy affairs during the early Cold War period. Kathryn McGarr’s City of Newsman offers a groundbreaking perspective into the struggle’s journalists had experienced when trying to gain access to political information government officials were keen to keep secret. McGarr, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has demonstrated why archival research is so important on the writing of history. She has explored the private memos, letters, and conversations between newspaper reporters, editors, and publishers to argue why the media did not trust their government sources. Whilst she acknowledges members of the press held ‘concern for national security’ when printing their stories, they ‘did not diminish the skepticism of their government or their agonizing and constant reappraisals of their watchdog function.’[ii] In other words, McGarr goes against the common historical narrative that the late-1940s and 1950s was a period of complete harmony between the press and government. It was quite the opposite. The press did not simply toe the government line on foreign policy issues. The Cold War consensus was evident because the personal grievances reporters had with government secrecy was not highlighted within print but rather through private correspondence. As McGarr notes, this separation between public statements and private conversations ‘has had significant repercussions for how we have come to understand the Cold War.’[iii]

If there was so much friction between reporters and officials, why did the Cold War consensus not break down during the 1950s?

The Metropolitan Club in Washington where the elite meetings between reporters and government officials took place.

McGarr provides two answers to this question. Firstly, she examines the spaces where reporters would meet to discuss foreign policy. These were exclusive, white-only, male-dominated spaces such as the Gridiron Club, the Metropolitan Club and the National Press Club that helped to preserve a foreign policy discourse. Inviting only the most prominent white members in politics and journalism, these clubs provided unique opportunities for reporters to meet with government officials ‘off-the-record’ to acquire information.

These clubs had deliberately ridiculed those who were not allowed to attend. So-called ‘stag’ events had excluded women from these male spaces. From the Post editor Eugene Meyer’s celebration of the Marshall Plan to the reporter of the NYT Arthur Krock’s twenty-fifth anniversary working with the paper, stag events had reinforced the male-only rhetoric dominant in these clubs. Women were merely thought of as wives rather than colleagues. It was not until 1972 that women were accepted within the Gridiron Club.[iv] Black reporters also experienced prejudice. Apart from being barred from these clubs, Gridiron members regularly mocked African Americans by performing in blackface during dinner events. These spaces had typified the system of segregation throughout Washington and the US. At newspaper outlets and the White House, racism had persisted. The first Black reporter of the Post in 1951, Simeon Booker, was allocated a separate bathroom and Ethel Payne, a reporter for the nation’s leading Black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, had her press credentials threatened after questioning a segregation ruling on the Interstate Commerce Commission.[v] A white supremacist rhetoric had dominated the Cold War consensus, any dissenting voices from women and African Americans were ignored.

This exclusive fraternity of journalists brought with it a distinct political ideology that formulates McGarr’s second reason why the consensus failed to break down: liberal internationalism. Working across the Atlantic during the Second World War, a close-knit group of reporters including NYT editor James Reston (who was working for US government’s Office of War Information), CBS reporter Eric Sevareid and CBS European correspondent Edward R. Murrow covered the Blitz in London night-after-night. As they moved from one location to the next amidst the air raid sirens, they developed a sense of close brotherhood through fear. Their disdain for Nazi Germany and the war had complimented their shared feelings on the need for strong US leadership in the postwar era. They argued that supporting liberal international policies and institutions such as the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) would help prevent another World War and nuclear annihilation. They had hated the idea of protectionism. Papers such as the Chicago Tribune, headed by the staunch right-wing isolationist, Robert McCormick, and the New York Daily News, a subsidiary of the Tribune led by Joe Patterson, McCormick’s cousin, were seen as unpatriotic and were targeted for their reactionary views in opposing internationalism.[vi]

President Truman speaking with reporters in 1948.

Reporters grappled with the idea of what a US-led postwar order would look like. They asked questions over whether the United States would become an imperial power. As McGarr notes, many journalists realised the hypocrisy of the US becoming an empire whilst promoting anticolonialism.[vii] Again what was said in private is crucial to understanding the reservations reporters had over the prospect of US imperialism. However mainstream journalists had diligently supported the nations of western Europe. Their close relationship with Britain during the war and their continued membership to the exclusive, segregated reporter clubs had led journalists to contend that formulating close ties and protecting western Europe was a priority, particularly over colonial peoples. Voices of dissent were quick to highlight the hypocrisy. Black-owned newspapers and the investigative reporter I. F. ‘Izzy’ Stone called out the Truman administration over contradictions to US foreign policy but their outsider status did little to change the public discourse.

In exploring the conflicts arising from the increase in government secrecy, McGarr notes the interactions between the Eisenhower administration and the press. She describes this period as a turning point where reporters became increasingly furious with the government withholding information and started to voice their opposition in print rather than in private. She compares, but does not explicitly state, that there were comparisons between how the press reacted to statements made by the Dulles brothers. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles for instance received far more criticism from the press in withholding information than his brother, the CIA director, Allen Dulles. With the issues surrounding national security, this is a broader topic that should be explored: the difference between how the press reacted to government and CIA secrecy.

Overall McGarr makes a vital contribution to understanding the relationship and conflict between the government and the press. Her work is part of a new look at foreign affairs which argue that it is now the time for historians to investigate early Cold War journalism and not to merely characterise it when the press simply believed everything the government told them.[viii]



End notes:

[i] See: “Executive Order 10290,” The American Presidency Project. https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/executive-order-10290-prescribing-regulations-establishing-minimum-standards-for-the.

[ii] Kathryn J. McGarr, City of Newsmen: Public Lies and Professional Secrets in Cold War Washington (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022), 8.

[iii] Ibid, 162.

[iv] Ibid, 32.

[v] Ibid, 178-179.

[vi] Ibid, 49; Matthew Pressman, “The New York Daily News and the History of Conservative Media,” Modern American History, 4, no. 3 (2021), 220.

[vii] McGarr, 163.

[viii] See for example: Gregg Herken, The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rival in Cold War Washington (New York: Vintage Books, 2015).

About the Author

Cameron Sparkhall is a PhD student in the School of Art, Media and American Studies Department at the University of East Anglia. His current thesis titled ÔA Culture of SecrecyÕ looks at how the CIA established and utilised secrecy during the Cold War. His research explores historical and cultural critiques to examine how the history of the CIA has been written and situated in relation to U.S. relations with the wider world.