What it took to report on Joe McCarthy

A recent book, "Covering McCarthyism: How The Christian Science Monitor Handled Joseph R. McCarthy, 1950-1954," has caused me to look back at that frightening period in our history.

The book, published late last year by Greenwood Publishing, is by Lawrence N. Strout, a distant relative of the Monitor newsman, Richard L. Strout, who did so much to bring to light the Wisconsin senator's unprincipled methods.

Richard Strout, himself, was an intended victim of Senator McCarthy's character assassination. In the senator's own book, "McCarthyism, the Fight for America," published in 1952, he said he had seen Mr. Strout at a congressional hearing shake hands with Communist Daily Worker newspaper reporter Rob Hall. In response, Strout denied he'd ever met Mr. Hall. And the Monitor's editor, Erwin D. Canham, firmly defended Strout, asserting that the incident had never taken place - that Strout was elsewhere on assignment.

But, as Lawrence Strout writes in his carefully researched book, McCarthy intended to impugn the integrity of the Monitor by questioning the motives of its reporter with his guilt-by-association accusation. It was typical of the way McCarthy went after his critics.

Dick Strout, who died in 1993, became one of my best friends in the journalism business - but that came about some years after the McCarthy period and after I was assigned to Washington in the mid-1960s.

Indeed, one little error crept into Lawrence Strout's excellent book when he writes that "Early in 1954, William H. Stringer, Washington bureau chief, and other bureau reporters, such as Mary Handy, Neal Stanford, Mary Hornaday, Godfrey Sperling Jr., and Roland Sawyer, covered the initial rumbling of problems between McCarthy and the Army and the reaction to Edward R. Murrow's famous 'See It Now' television program devoted to profiling McCarthy. Strout was conspicuous by his absence." He was not correct about me. I was in the Chicago Monitor bureau at the time.

But was Strout, because of McCarthy's accusations, taken off the assignment of covering McCarthy for a while? I never heard about it at the time. In later years, I asked him about it and he said, "I don't want to get into that." Yet, according to the author of this book, Strout's letters and the papers of the Monitor's national editor at the time, Saville R. Davis, indicate that this did occur.

But in later years Davis told me that pulling Strout off the McCarthy story was in no way related to any suspicion of Strout's patriotism. The paper, he said, simply thought it wise to put a reporter on the story who wasn't engaged in such a personal disagreement with the person he was covering.

I certainly never felt any Monitor restraints in covering McCarthy back in his Wisconsin political base. Indeed, Davis was continually pushing me to dig up any aspect of McCarthy's background that would help the reader understand who he was and where he was going with his probes.

I often dogged McCarthy's footsteps on his visits to Wisconsin. I witnessed his bully-boy tactics when he would, on entering a room, order his husky sidekicks to push reporters out of the way. And I was in a hotel room once when he threatened to throw a New York Times correspondent out if he didn't leave.

My friendship and admiration for Strout might be said to color what I have to say now. Strout was the best writer-reporter I ever knew.

Mary McGrory, no slouch of a writer herself, often said, "Dick's the best writer in Washington." And as a reporter Strout was the toast of his peers.

My feeling is that Strout, as much as any journalist in America, brought to light McCarthy's tactics of character assassination. Was Strout restrained for a short time? It seems so. But he still got the job done.

And then there's Lawrence Strout's final judgment of the Monitor's coverage of McCarthy:

"Overall, during the McCarthy era, the Monitor's columns and news stories did not seem muted. The Monitor consistently criticized McCarthy's methods while reiterating the newspaper's belief that the communists-in-government issue was serious and needed to be dealt with in a fair manner."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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