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.
About the Author
Kathryn J. McGarr is assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
"City of Newsmen is a corrective to the tendency . . . to reduce everything in the pre-Vietnam period to an obsession with Communism and a blind faith in American exceptionalism. It wasn't that simple. McGarr is doing what historians should do. She is clarifying the backstory." — Louis Menand
“McGarr creates a riveting account—and an original analysis—of Washington’s midcentury foreign policy press corps, deftly incorporating analyses of gender, race, and religion. She also excavates a wealth of archival sources to document the social bonds within this homogeneous network, the ways that newsmen’s echo chamber influenced American foreign policy, and the tensions between journalists and state officials over government secrecy. McGarr’s skillful portrayals of historical personalities, placed within rich historical contexts, provides a compelling narrative.” — Estelle B. Freedman, author of Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation
“For a very long time, Washington journalists have been congratulating themselves on how much more independent and tough-minded they are than their mid-twentieth-century predecessors. With City of Newsmen, McGarr has given us a vivid, deeply researched account that presents the elite political press corps back then in a much more favorable light, as a highly professional group whose members were also highly constrained by the blindnesses that were pervasive in that time, place, and culture. Are Washington reporters really so different today?” — Nicholas Lemann, staff writer for The New Yorker
“With crisp, fluent prose and an eye for telling detail and quotations, McGarr tells an engrossing story of the Washington press during a critical time in world affairs. She sets up her tale with vivid portraits of the early capital, the evolution of the gentlemen’s club of foreign correspondents, and their close but contentious relations with US officials through the early Cold War. McGarr’s archival work has netted a wealth of revealing vignettes and quotations, smoothly woven together in her crisp writing.” — Robert Weisbrot, coauthor of The Liberal Hour: Washington and the Politics of Change during the 1960s
“A must-read book for anyone interested in the role of journalism in US history, especially those who think they know the whole story—McGarr shows it ain’t so. For Washington-based journalists covering US diplomacy and foreign policy, objectivity was secondary to advancing internationalist values. McGarr brilliantly makes this case and makes it stick with deep archival research, reconstructing the social life and intellectual outlook of Washington reporters in the 1950s.” — Michael Schudson, author of The Rise of the Right to Know: Politics and the Culture of Transparency, 1945-1975
"Throughout the America of the twenty-first century there is a strong sense that the media is biased and purely spreading propaganda in support of one of the two major political parties. . . . Some look to the 'good old days' of allegedly honest and patriotic news of the World War II and Cold War eras. However, students of the history of journalism are well aware that the US press has never been unbiased. As University of Wisconsin historian Kathryn J. McGarr argues. . . the Washington, DC press underwent a radical transformation during the twentieth century from being a 'clubby' and relatively unified group that maintained good relations with the federal government to having an adversarial relationship with the government, especially the presidency, beginning (surprisingly) with the Kennedy Era." — VoegelinView