Hunter as Prey: When a Newsman Becomes a Defendant

By Ginzberg, Ralph | Communications and the Law, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Hunter as Prey: When a Newsman Becomes a Defendant


Ginzberg, Ralph, Communications and the Law


What's it like to be a newsman charged with a crime and suddenly be confronted by a hostile press? It happened to me in 1962 and the aftermath has continued to warp my career to this day.

I had studied journalism at CCNY [City College of New York], was editor-in-chief of its downtown campus newspaper, and on graduation in 1949 began my professional career as a copyboy and cub reporter at the New York Daily Compass, successor to the pioneering PM. Two years later I was drafted into the Army during the Korean War and assigned to Fort Meyer, Virginia, where I edited the post newspaper. At night, I worked full-time as a copy editor for the erstwhile Times-Herald in nearby Washington, D.C. Jackie Lee Bouvier (later Kennedy Onassis) was our inquiring photographer.

Upon discharge from the Army I shifted into broadcasting and magazines (NBC, Reader's Digest, Collier's, LOOK, and other pillars of communications industry respectability), then launched my own magazine, the artistic, cerebral, innovative, and highly acclaimed hardbound quarterly EROS.

Writers and other intellectuals throughout the world celebrated it. Even the U.S. State Department bought copies to exhibit at USIA libraries overseas as exemplars of American periodical publishing.

But bluenoses here at home railed against the publication and one, the New York smut-hunting Catholic priest Morton Hill, persuaded U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to have me indicted (as Father Hill later boasted) for distributing "obscene" literature through the mails, a federal crime. The indictment sought punishment of $280,000 in fines and 280 years in prison.

New York's newspapers gave prominent play to Father Hill's and the Justice Department's attacks against me. They quoted--straight-faced--the remarks of congresswoman Kathryn O'Hay Granahan who declared, on the floor of the House of Representatives, that my publication of EROS was "part of an international Communist plot."

But newspapers ignored my every attempt to defend myself against these moronic allegations. I announced press conferences at various sites around town: at the Benjamin Franklin statue on Newspaper Row, at my magazine's offices, on the steps of the General Post Office.

All were listed in the AP and UPI daybooks but nobody showed up--with one exception: Gay Talese, then a star-reporter for The New York Times, appeared at my post office press conference where I presented an impassioned rebuttal of my attackers' charges and answered his few questions. I distinctly remember that he jotted down not a single word of my remarks. The Times ran no story the next day and Talese went on to become vice president and a director of P.E.N., the international organization dedicated to combating censorship of authors and publishers.

After a brief trial in June, 1963, I was convicted in a U.S. district court in Philadelphia. Why the case was tried in that venue is a whole other dreary story which space does not permit telling here. The U.S. court of appeals, also in Philadelphia, affirmed my conviction and the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its monumental ruling in Ginzburg v. United States on Monday, March 21, 1996, the first day of spring.

The High Court's Salemesque judgment, authored by the oft-lionized-as-a-liberal William J. Brennan, also upheld my conviction, along with its bloodletting fines and prison sentence of five years.

Three days later, on March 24th, The New York Times intoned:

   The Supreme Court has struck the proper balance in a field where there are
   extremely difficult issues of law and public policy ... Mr. Justice Brennan
   and his majority colleagues have shown wisdom and moral courage in the
   subtle and arduous task of upholding the law against obscenity while still
   protecting liberty of expression. … 

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