Academic journal article Journalism History

Black and White and Red All Over?: Reassessing Newspapers' Role in the Red Scare of 1919

Academic journal article Journalism History

Black and White and Red All Over?: Reassessing Newspapers' Role in the Red Scare of 1919

Article excerpt

Most historians writing about America's 1919 Red Scare have claimed that the press, by exaggerating and sensationalizing the threat from radical leftists, helped foment a national hysteria. This article, focusing primarily on New York City's top three morning newspapers, argues that the press in 1919 did not irresponsibly stoke public fear. While most papers supported the government's crackdown on suspected radicals and took management's side in labor disputes, the overall sense they conveyed was that the radicals were ineffectual and the authorities firmly in control. Some newspapers, moreover, such as the New York American (the flagship of William Randolph Hearst's powerful chain), covered strikes fairly and downplayed the unrest roiling the country. Examining the circumstances and pressures under which each newspaper operated, this article explores what shaped their coverage and argues that their greatest impact was not on the public, but on politicians.

In early 1919, as American journalists were coming down from the excitement of covering the Great War, they could hardly have suspected that the next twelve months would equal if not surpass the war years in terms of providing earthshaking news. Diplomats meeting in France attempted to reorder the world system, hoping for the approval of the U.S. Senate. The president suffered an incapacitating stroke. Prohibition became the law of the land. The World Series turned out to have been fixed by gangsters. Perhaps the most complex and troubling story, however, was the labor strife and the apparent threat from radical leftists that would become known as the Red Scare. As with many historical phenomena, the press not only chronicled the Red Scare but also played an active role in shaping it. Nearly a century later, the precise nature ofthat role remains unclear. A common perception among historians holds that newspapers helped to whip the public into a paranoid frenzy by exaggerating and sensationalizing the danger facing America from left-wing radicals. This article will rebut that argument - which was formulated most eloquently in 1955 by Robert K. Murray, and which has not been successfully challenged since - and present a more nuanced picture, examining how newspapers covered the political tumult of 1919-1920 as well as the factors that influenced that coverage.1

The Red Scare commenced with the Seattle general strike of February 1919. Economic activity in that heavily unionized city ground to a halt as employees in many industries walked off the job in solidarity with striking shipyard workers. Federal troops marched toward Seattle to break the strike, and labor leaders called it off within days. More flashpoints followed as 1919 wore on. Package bombs were mailed to dozens of prominent public officiais, and an assassin (apparently an anarchist) nearly succeeded in blowing up Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer in his home; the entire Boston police force went on strike, leaving the city frighteningly vulnerable; industrywide strikes by steelworkers and coal miners, involving hundreds of thousands of workers, lasted for months and occasioned many violent confrontations; and labor activists clashed with authorities and civilians on the streets of many American cities, with deadly results in such places as Cleveland and Centralia, Washington. The Red Scare crested with the so-called Palmer Raids, in January 1920, when the Department of Justice rounded up more than three thousand immigrants suspected of radicalism.

Anyone considering newspaper coverage of the Red Scare from a modern-day perspective will find little to praise. News articles showed a clear bias, usually in favor of employers and public officials. Reporters made little or no effort to verify or disprove the statements and rumors they included in their stories. Editorials often featured inflammatory language and made dubious assertions. However, it is unfair to measure the journalism of 1919 by contemporary standards. …

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