Fox News, circa 1950

On this blog several weeks ago, I argued that President Obama's war on Fox News is tactically foolish. In my latest Sunday print column (slightly expanded here), I came at the issue from another angle: 

Harry Truman could’ve taught Barack Obama a thing or two about how to deal with a hostile press - basically, by ignoring it.

Obama's core argument, in support of his newly declared war against Fox News, is that the cable channel is biased, unfair, and fraudulently branded. In the words of a top Obama aide, Fox is "opinion journalism masquerading as news," and therefore the White House has no choice but to lash out in response.

This is where Obama might be wise to heed Harry. This is where a little historical perspective would be valuable, if only to refute the assumption (which is endemic in our amnesiac culture) that the past has nothing to teach us, that current events have no antecedents.

The Obama team is right to describe Fox as opinion journalism masquerading as news (and the public agrees; according to a new Pew Research Center poll, Americans perceive Fox News to be the most ideological TV news channel). But so what if it is? Sixty years ago, Truman was consistently harassed by a faux news operation that was far more dominant in its day than Fox News could ever hope to be - yet he took the hits without complaint, knowing full well that when you scrap with a skunk, you can wind up just as odorous.

In the late 1940s, when TV had yet to become a mass medium and print still ruled, the most influential information organ was Time magazine. Time spoke for the American mainstream and shaped mainstream opinion. Most importantly, Time had branded itself as a "news magazine," when in fact it was nothing more than opinion journalism masquerading as news. And in Time's opinion, the Democratic president was a corrupt wimp who was soft on communism.

Time had a unique process. The reporters in the field sent their journalistic dispatches to New York - where the editors rewrote them so that they hewed to the conservative predilections of Time's legendary proprietor, Henry Luce. Nobody in today's fragmented media world, including Fox, wields Luce's kind of clout. He was a high-profile power broker in the Republican party, which he liked to call "my second church," he would personally fly hither and yon to recruit Republican candidates, and he used his magazine to make or break careers.

Luce's top mission, during the Truman era, was to tell Time magazine's readers that Harry Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson were willfully surrendering China to the communists. The truth was actually quite different. Luce's own reporters, on the ground in China, wrote in their dispatches that the anti-communist army ineptly commanded by Chiang Kai-Shek was wasting all the weapons and money sent East by Truman and Acheson, and that the communists had far more grassroots support.

That's how Chiang's American military advisers saw the situation. The senior advisor, Gen. David Barr, warned Washington that Chiang was doomed because of "the complete ineptness of his high military leaders and the widespread corruption and dishonesty throughout the armed forces." The journalists on site saw the same ills.  

But Luce's editors killed those dispatches, or softened them in the rewriting, to make it appear that Chiang was poised to defeat the communists if only Truman and Acheson had the guts to persevere. Luce's star reporter in China, Theodore H. White put a sign on his door: "Any resemblance to what is written here and what is printed in Time magazine is purely coincidental." (White ultimately quit his job in disgust - just as the legendary Vietnam war correspondent Charlie Mohr would later quit his Time job, because he was similarly fed up with how Luce's editors injected right-wing opinion into his news dispatches, thus distorting his coverage from the field.) 

Luce knew exactly what he was doing. Publicly, he always insisted that Time was the exemplar of objective journalism; only once, it appeared, did he drop the mask. In 1947, he helped finance a nonpartisan commission to study the quality of the American press - only to be embarrassed when the commission spanked him publicly by suggesting that his ostensibly objective news coverage was inappropriately larded with opinion. Luce's response was revealing. Rather than deny the commission's complaint about opinion masking as news, Luce embraced it: "Impartiality is often an impediment to truth. Time will not allow the stuffed dummy of impartiality to stand in the way of telling the truth as it sees fit."

The truth, as Time saw fit, was that Truman deserved to be defeated in 1948. Luce's editors tweaked the coverage at every turn to benefit Republican Thomas Dewey. Even though Times' correspondents reported increasingly sizable crowds at Truman campaign events that autumn, the rewritten stories left the opposite impression ("Nobody seemed really to care or listen"). And after Truman shocked everybody on election night, Time's allegedly objective report was that the president had not won on the merits ("Politics is a show. Harry Truman, with his mistakes and his impulses...had often ranted like a demagogue").

More importantly, the truth, as Time saw fit, was that Truman and Acheson were dupes of the communists and weak on the U.S. military. After China fell to the communists, one of Time's ostensibly objective stories about Acheson described him as "a fellow traveler...a wool-brained sower of 'seeds of jackassery' abysmally uncomprehending appeaser."

And when Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur of his command in Korea (Truman had rightfully judged the hawkish MacArthur to be insubordinate), Time's ostensibly objective story read like this: "Seldom has a more unpopular man fired a more popular one. Douglas MacArthur was the personification of a big man, with many admirers who look to a great man for leadership...Harry Truman was almost a professional little man."

Today, the Obama team is publicly warring with Fox News because the network has fanned so many false rumors ("death panels," FEMA-run internment camps, "birther" BS, Obama-as-Muslim innuendo), and given so much air time to the conservative fringe. But that's chump change compared to what Time did in the late '40s, when its editor-rewritten stories helped shape and fuel the nationwide red-baiting fervor that soon metastasized into McCarthyism.

There were some dissidents back in the day. Former Time executive Ralph Ingersoll said that "the way to tell a successful lie is to include enough truth in it to make it believable, and Time is the most successful liar of our times," and an ex-Time writer named Merle Miller quipped that the ideal Time story contained "just enough innuendo, exactly the correct amount of what, while it could not be proved, read just as well as fact and in many ways better." But they could not compete with Luce's megaphone.

Harry Truman had the standing to compete. He certainly felt aggrieved; privately, he referred to his right-wing critics as "the animals." And sometimes he'd grumble about press people in general ("not one of them has enough sense to pound sand in a rathole"). But he sucked it up, did his job, and refused to whine about opinion journalism masquerading as news. He knew instinctively that he would only wind up inflating Luce look bigger, and diminishing himself. That seems like sound advice for any presidential successor.