Stephen Bates


On his book An Aristocracy of Critics: Luce, Hutchins, Niebuhr, and the Committee That Redefined Freedom of the Press

Cover Interview of May 26, 2021

A close-up

Part of the backdrop to the Commission on Freedom of the Press is the acrimonious relationship between President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration and the press. I knew a bit about the anti-FDR venom in the right-wing press, especially the Chicago Tribune, which was published by the arch-conservative Colonel Robert R. McCormick, but I had no idea of President Roosevelt’s extensive efforts to get even with McCormick and other critics.

The Roosevelt administration repeatedly investigated the Tribune for criminal prosecution. Shortly before Pearl Harbor, the paper revealed that the government had drawn up secret contingency plans for invading Europe. This was big news, because FDR at the time was insisting that he had no intention of getting involved in the war. Roosevelt’s aide Harold Ickes wanted to prosecute the newspaper for treason, and the FBI conducted an investigation, though nothing came of it.

Then in 1942, after the Battle of Midway, a Tribune article suggested, correctly, that the military had broken the Japanese communications code. FDR talked of sending the Marines to occupy Tribune Tower in Chicago, as though it were enemy headquarters. Senator (later vice-president) Harry Truman wanted Colonel McCormick placed before a firing squad. The President repeatedly instructed the Justice Department to get a grand jury to indict the paper, but the grand jurors refused.

The Justice Department also considered prosecuting the Tribune for sedition based on its news coverage. According to a content analysis conducted at the Library of Congress, some themes in Tribune coverage overlapped with themes in Axis propaganda. Both, for instance, said that FDR was corrupt and that he was bungling the war effort. A Justice Department attorney wanted to seek an indictment. It didn’t matter whether editors were consciously trying to help the Axis, he said; all that mattered was the effect on readers. No prosecution took place, but FDR in a Fireside Chat denounced “bogus patriots who (...) echo the sentiments of the propagandists in Tokyo and Berlin.”

The administration did launch an antitrust action against the Associated Press and its board. FBI agents interrogated McCormick and other board members, which some of them considered strong-arm tactics. The attorney general argued against bringing the case, but the President insisted. Finally, the Justice Department filed a civil enforcement action against the AP, backed by threats to bring criminal prosecutions against board members personally if they didn’t back down. The federal antitrust chief told Colonel McCormick to expect to be indicted. The government won its civil case, and the AP complied. Board members weren’t prosecuted. The antitrust case was justifiable, as the Supreme Court ultimately ruled, but the President’s involvement was indefensible.

In their hatred of the press, Richard Nixon and Donald Trump may have been more outspoken than FDR, but even they didn’t go as far as he did in trying to use the machinery of the federal government to get even with critics.