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An inside look at how midcentury DC journalists silenced their own skepticism and shaped public perceptions of the Cold War.
Americans’ current trust in journalists is at a dismayingly low ebb, particularly on the subject of national and international politics. For some, it might be tempting to look back to the mid-twentieth century, when the nation’s press corps was a seemingly venerable and monolithic institution that conveyed the official line from Washington with nary a glint of anti-patriotic cynicism. As Kathryn McGarr’s City of Newsmen shows, however, the real story of what Cold War–era journalists did and how they did it wasn’t exactly the one you’d find in the morning papers.
City of Newsmen explores foreign policy journalism in Washington during and after World War II—a time supposedly defined by the press’s blind patriotism and groupthink. McGarr reveals, though, that DC reporters then were deeply cynical about government sources and their motives, but kept their doubts to themselves for professional, social, and ideological reasons. The alliance and rivalries among these reporters constituted a world of debts and loyalties: shared memories of harrowing wartime experiences, shared frustrations with government censorship and information programs, shared antagonisms, and shared mentors. McGarr ventures into the back hallways and private clubs of the 1940s and 1950s to show how white male reporters suppressed their skepticism to build one of the most powerful and enduring constructed realities in recent US history—the Washington Cold War consensus. Though by the 1960s, this set of reporters was seen as unduly complicit with the government—failing to openly critique the decisions and worldviews that led to disasters like the Vietnam War—McGarr shows how self-aware these reporters were as they negotiated for access, prominence, and, yes, the truth—even as they denied those things to their readers.
Kathryn J. McGarr is assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.