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Journalists and the JFK assassination: A Historical Comparison

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I imagine that most members of the Forum will agree that the official belief that Lee Harvey Oswald was the assassin of John F. Kennedy has been the most significant cases of miscarriages of justice since the war. However, you would not know this by the way that the country’s most significant journalists have treated the case. For example, Walter Lippmann, later admitted he thought that Kennedy had been killed as part of a conspiracy but was unwilling to write about it in his newspaper column.

I thought it might be interesting to compare the way journalists dealt with the most important miscarriage of justice before the war. This was the conviction of Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco in 1920. The men were accused of killing Frederick Parmenter and Alessandro Berardelli during a robbery.

Both men were foreign-born anarchists and this was the time of the Red Scare (a response to the Russian Revolution). In 1920 thousands of immigrants with left-wing views were deported from America. Vanzetti and Sacco had alibis and investigative journalists had even discovered who had really killed Parmenter and Berardelli.

The nation’s leading journalists behaved honourably in this case and demanded their release. This included Heywood Broun, Walter Lippmann (in his liberal period), John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Eugene Lyons, Freda Kirchway, Floyd Dell, etc. Significant figures in Europe also became involved including Bertrand Russell, John Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells and Anatole France.

Over the next few years there were several appeals but Vanzetti and Sacco remained on death-row. In 1927 Governor Alvan T. Fuller appointed a three-member panel of Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, the President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Samuel W. Stratton, and the novelist, Robert Grant to conduct a complete review of the case and determine if the trials were fair. This was a sort of Warren Commission.

The committee reported that no new trial was called for and based on that assessment Governor Fuller refused to delay their executions or grant clemency. Walter Lippmann, who had been one of the main campaigners for Sacco and Vanzetti, argued that Governor Fuller had "sought with every conscious effort to learn the truth" and that it was time to let the matter drop and allow the men to be executed.

Heywood Broun, the most popular columnist in America at the time, refused to let the matter drop. Broun is an interesting case. He held left-wing opinions that were not shared by any of the newspaper owners who ran his syndicated column. However, he was so popular with the public they could not afford not to include his articles.

Broun was employed by the New York World (at $30,000 a year the highest paid journalist in America). On 5th August he wrote in his column: "Alvan T. Fuller never had any intention in all his investigation but to put a new and higher polish upon the proceedings. The justice of the business was not his concern. He hoped to make it respectable. He called old men from high places to stand behind his chair so that he might seem to speak with all the authority of a high priest or a Pilate. What more can these immigrants from Italy expect? It is not every prisoner who has a President of Harvard University throw on the switch for him. And Robert Grant is not only a former Judge but one of the most popular dinner guests in Boston. If this is a lynching, at least the fish peddler and his friend the factory hand may take unction to their souls that they will die at the hands of men in dinner coats or academic gowns, according to the conventionalities required by the hour of execution."

The following day Broun returned to the attack. He argued that Governor Alvan T. Fuller had vindicated Judge Webster Thayer "of prejudice wholly upon the testimony of the record". Broun had pointed out that Fuller had "overlooked entirely the large amount of testimony from reliable witnesses that the Judge spoke bitterly of the prisoners while the trial was on." Broun added: "It is just as important to consider Thayer's mood during the proceedings as to look over the words which he uttered. Since the denial of the last appeal, Thayer has been most reticent, and has declared that it is his practice never to make public statements concerning any judicial matters which come before him. Possibly he never did make public statements, but certainly there is a mass of testimony from unimpeachable persons that he was not so careful in locker rooms and trains and club lounges."

However, it was his comments on Abbott Lawrence Lowell that caused the most controversy: "From now on, I want to know, will the institution of learning in Cambridge which once we called Harvard be known as Hangman's House?" The New York Times complained in an editorial that Broun's "educated sneer at the President of Harvard for having undertaken a great civic duty shows better than an explosion the wild and irresponsible spirit which is abroad".

Ralph Pulitzer, the owner of the New York World, decided to stop Broun writing about the case after a board meeting on 11th August. As Richard O'Connor, the author of Heywood Broun: A Biography (1975) has pointed out: "The editorial board's decision certainly was defensible if one takes into account the climate of the twenties... The country was acutely aware of what some newspapers termed the Red Menace, now that all hope that the Bolshevik dictatorship in Moscow might crumble or be overthrown had vanished."

On 12th August 1927 Pulitzer published a statement in the newspaper: "The New York World has always believed in allowing the fullest possible expression of individual opinion to those of its special writers who write under their own names. Straining its interpretation of this privilege, the New York World allowed Mr. Heywood Brown to write two articles on the Sacco-Vanzetti case, in which he expressed his personal opinion with the utmost extravagance. The New York World then instructed him, now that he had made his own position clear, to select other subjects for his next articles. Mr. Broun, however, continued to write on the Sacco-Vanzetti case. The New York World, thereupon, exercising its right of final decision as to what it will publish in its columns, has omitted all articles submitted by Mr. Broun."

Broun now went on strike and after sales of the New York World fell by over 50,000, it was agreed that he could write whatever he wanted. However, by this time, Vanzetti and Sacco, had been executed.

On 23rd August, 1977, Michael Dukakis, the Governor of Massachusetts, issued a proclamation, effectively absolving the two men of the crime. "Today is the Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti Memorial Day. The atmosphere of their trial and appeals were permeated by prejudice against foreigners and hostility toward unorthodox political views. The conduct of many of the officials involved in the case shed serious doubt on their willingness and ability to conduct the prosecution and trial fairly and impartially. Simple decency and compassion, as well as respect for truth and an enduring commitment to our nation's highest ideals, require that the fate of Sacco and Vanzetti be pondered by all who cherish tolerance, justice and human understanding."

We do not know what Heywood Broun would have said about the JFK assassination because he died of pneumonia on 18th December, 1939. However, it is highly unlikely that a newspaper would have been willing to run his column at the time.

On 22nd August, 1938, Heywood Broun was called before the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He had been accused of being a communist and a member of communist-front pressure groups such as the National Committee to Aid the Victims of German Fascism, the National Committee for Defense of Political Prisoners, the National Tom Mooney Council of Action and the National Scottsboro Committee of Action. Broun denied being a member of the American Communist Party but agreed that he had joined groups campaigning against the conviction of Tom Mooney and the Scottsboro Boys and the imprisonment of the political opponents of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany.

The following year he was sacked by Roy W. Howard, the owner of the New York World-Telegram, because of his support for President Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. As Broun had warned many years previously, once newspapers were owned by a few wealthy individuals, dissent opinion would be squashed.



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Hmmmm. This is very apples and oranges. But that is just what needs comparing at this overripe stage of human progress. The fact is that racism, nativism, and class conflict have always been segmented in analysis, but mixed up in US historical reality, to a degree unlike any other country.

When JFK began writing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it was clear that this obfuscation was threatened. Now one wing of the Democrats-- with still protean and ambiguous backing-- was going to attempt, for the first time since Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, to fight racism where it was most practical for the ruling class: in the payroll. LBJ would eliminate the potential for white and black working class solidarity by beginning Wall Street's desired transition from industrial to finance capitalism. JFK was against that.

Edited by Nathaniel Heidenheimer
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Some of this press support for Sacco & Vanzetti is a pendulum swing against anti-immigrant, anti-labor, anti-left vilification going on in the press at least since the Haymarket "riot" of 1886. By 1920, with the intervening years filled with the Homestead steel strike, the Ludlow massacre, the Matewan (WV) war, and the Boston police strike, plus the influence of four decades of Progressive politics and writing, the time had come for redress in the mainstream press. The rise of a communist government in the USSR may have also modified press opinion about anarchism, giving it political legitimacy despite decades of European political assassination, and homegrown types the like of Alexander Berkman and Leon Czolgosz..

Edited by David Andrews
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One the daging things that happened during the Red Scare was that anyone to the left of J.Edgar Hoover became known as a dangerous radical. Heywood Broun wrote in the New York World (23rd October, 1926): "Free speech is about as good a cause as the world has ever known. But, like the poor, it is always with us and gets shoved aside in favour of things which seem at some given moment more vital." Unfortunately, too many people are only in favour of free speech when they they agree with the speaker.

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World War II required an overarching system of opinion management. This is described in the book Nervous LIberals by Brett Gary.

That system involved a controlled left, that could be used to scramble issues that would otherwise align in logic dangerous to the state. It also involved getting some instruments in the spectrum-symphony to go sotto voce when they should have blaired.

This total systems approach to media management-- in which a managed "left" could end up pulling in the same direction as the right-- was perfected during WWII, and preserved by the Cold War. The partiel liberalization of US culture and media beginning with the 1957 movie The Sweet Smell of Success provided an ambiguity whereby a kind of Prague Spring could blossom between 1959-63. But that totalizing media control had already been perfected. In short Walter Lippmann's critique of the crude nature of WWI propaganda had been taken to heart. The mighty Wurlitzer could now feign left notes but they were played through a colander that found a wealth in division.

The perfection of this propaganda system that took place during WWII explains the main difference between Sacco and Vanzetti v. JFK coverage.

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"The duty of a historian of a battle ... is to prefer that which has been officially recorded and published by public responsible authorities; next to attend to that which proceeds from Official Authority and to pay least attention to the statements of Private Individuals"

- The Duke Of Wellington, 24 Spetember 1842.

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