Media reaction in times that try journalists' souls

COVERING MCCARTHYISM: HOW THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR HANDLED JOSEPH R. MCCARTHY By Lawrence Strout Greenwood Press 171 pp., $55

Senator Joseph McCarthy has been the subject of dozens of books, some even published before his death in 1957. It is no wonder: Rarely in US history has any elected official spread lies so effectively, ruined reputations of his enemies so easily, all under the guise of alleged public service.

A few of the many books about McCarthy have focused on his relationship with journalists. That is no wonder, either. After all, the way a particular journalist or a particular news organization covered McCarthy's anti-communist crusade became a touchstone of media integrity.

Many journalists and news organizations found themselves used by the senator - they knew they were disseminating lies, but rationalized that anything a newsmaker says is by definition newsworthy. A much smaller number of journalists and news organizations refused to rationalize. If they publicized McCarthy's lies, they placed those lies in context.

The best-known McCarthy media book is "Joe McCarthy and the Press," by Edwin Bayley (University of Wisconsin, 1981). This new book by Lawrence Strout, a journalism professor at Mississippi University for Women, will not supplant the Bayley study. But it does supplement Bayley nicely.

Why would any nonjournalist want to read such a narrowly conceived book? Because it is an excellent cropped picture of recent US history. By bringing the McCarthy-journalism relationship down to a specific case, it benefits from depth what it surrenders in breadth. For readers who know little about McCarthy and the "ism" that has been attached to his name, Strout provides more than adequate background. For readers who know little about the journalism of the 1950s, Strout offers a just-right amount of perspective. Most important, for readers who wonder how journalists ought - and ought not - to balance truth and lies from any significant source, this book is as fresh as today's news. (Think Bill Clinton.)

Given the case-study nature of the book, why does Strout focus on The Christian Science Monitor rather than, say, The New York Times or The Washington Post or Chicago Tribune? Strout never provides a definitive answer to that question. His choice, however, makes sense. When a scholarly book can provide drama, all the better. The Monitor yields plenty of drama, because it turns out to have been one of the gutsiest newspapers in the nation when it came to telling the truth about McCarthy's lies. Furthermore, the Monitor's coverage could be largely embodied in the work of one journalist, Washington correspondent Richard Strout. (The author is a distant relative of Richard Strout, but never knew him personally.)

The book works so well in large part because the author had access to the professional and private papers of Richard Strout. That access yields wonderful glimpses of a journalist trying to be accurate and fair publicly while seething privately. For instance, during the hearings involving McCarthy's allegations of suspicious activity in the US Army, Strout wrote to his family, "I loathe [McCarthy] and yet am fascinated by him. It seems unbelievable to me that he has fooled a portion of the American people. On the other hand I feel that the USA has again shown it is unequaled - certainly he is better raw material for a Fhrer than Hitler or Mussolini. Anything any other country can do, we can do better."

Such insights do not make Richard Strout a hero. But within the context of journalism and McCarthyism, Strout was probably as close to a hero as the press could provide.

LISteve Weinberg is a reviewer in Columbia, Mo., who serves on the National Book Critics Circle board of directors.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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