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CBS’s Don Hollenbeck: An Honest Reporter in the Age of McCarthyism

Loren Ghiglione

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Paper, 352 pages, 23 illus.
ISBN: 978-0-231-14497-1
$25.00 / £17.50

October, 2008
Cloth, 352 pages, 23 illus.
ISBN: 978-0-231-14496-4
$75.00 / £52.00

View this excerpt in pdf format | Copyright information

Excerpt from Chapter 9: "Press Criticism: From Name-Calling to Nuance"

Unlike most press critics before him, Hollenbeck focused on writing style as well as on the substance of what was written. Hutchins, chair of the Hutchins Commission, once told Hollenbeck he was really an academic. "That’s the worst insult I can hurl at you," Hutchins teased. The moniker fit. Hollenbeck closely studied literature, especially the works of James Joyce and other innovative writers who took chances with language. He hated newspaper hacks’ abuse of language.

In a 1949 broadcast Hollenbeck contrasted the convoluted, confusing writing in Herald Tribune, Times, and Daily News articles to the straightforward prose of David MacDougall, [aged] nine, and Billy Weidlich, [aged] ten, editors of the Weekly Block, which reported on the news of their 115 East 89th Street neighborhood. MacDougall, today an ethnographic filmmaker and professor in Australia, and Weidlich, a retired lawyer living in New York, recall that the Block, which began as a free, hand-printed sheet, evolved into a five-cent, hectorgraphed publication with a paid circulation of fifty and penny-for-two-line ads ("Silverstein’s for magazines and jelly beans").

Hollenbeck quoted from a Block article about Keats Speed, executive editor of the New York Sun, who lived near the boys. The article ended: "Mr. Speed asked us if we thought our paper was fun. We said ‘Yes.’ Then he said, ‘It would not be so much fun if we had eleven labor unions to deal with.’." Hollenbeck concluded by complimenting the story’s simple charm—no parentheses within parentheses: "We hope Editors MacDougall and Weidlich never lose that simplicity if they . . . join the staff of a daily newspaper."

Hollenbeck’s favorite language targets in newspapers were:

* Giddy goo. Ruth Brigham, a reporter for the International News Service, wrote that the night of Winthrop Rockefeller’s wedding was so "thick with stars that it seemed the Milky Way must have exploded across the heavens—the ecstatic happiness radiated from Palm Beach to take in practically the whole country." On the birth of a son to Princess Elizabeth, a Times editorialist treacled: "One could hear above the voice of the crowds of London the vast susurrus of the seven seas that wash the shores of what was once the British empire."

* Clichés. A Hollywood shooting, Hollenbeck wrote, "brings out all the overworked, outdated, side-of-the-mouth jargon of the trade. In the News, this: ‘Gangland put the finger on Mickey Cohen, a mobster, who sang, in a burst of gunfire today. . . . The shooting took place in front of Sherry’s, a swank filmland restaurant.’." After quoting similar passages in other papers, Hollenbeck concluded, "Somehow, the purple persists."

* Ten-dollar words. Few things in journalism irked Hollenbeck more than pretentious writing. He chided editorial writers at the Times and Herald Tribune for using such words as aposiopesis and susurrus. He firmly believed shorter, simpler words were more powerful.

* Wordiness. Reporters preferred "a lone bandit" (Times) or "a lone gunman" (Daily News) to a bandit or a gunman. Hollenbeck said: "It reminds us of a story we read once: A solitary horseman shows up on the horizon. Then another one shows up, and pretty soon the place is simply alive with solitary horsemen."

* Stop-sign participials. Times coverage of the perjury trial of Alger Hiss suffered from many sentences that began with participial phrases—"Testifying for the second day" and "Admitting that he knew." Hollenbeck rejected such phrasing as "the survival of the unfittest." The popular form delayed the reader in getting to the subject of the sentence.

* Bloated Leads. To criticize a Times article that had crammed everything into the first sentence, Hollenbeck simply read it aloud: "An empire of apartment holdings, stretching from Brooklyn to Mount Vernon and including choice Manhattan residences, was disclosed yesterday to be controlled by a family whose head was alleged, according to papers on file in Federal Court, to have milked the properties at the expense of bankers, tradesmen and mortgage holders."

Hollenbeck’s criticism had a therapeutic effect on Charles Grutzner, the Times reporter responsible for the fifty-one-word lead. He wrote to Hollenbeck, "I was right proud of that Ansonia Apartments lead when it rolled off the typewriter. But when you read the goddam thing on the radio without pause for breath, I realized I didn’t have to draw the whole picture. I’ve gone back to counting words in leads that look fat, and I’m keeping them as far below twenty-five words as is possible."

Hollenbeck especially enjoyed stories with a trifecta of transgressions. Clichés, inconsistencies, and muddy writing filled stories about a jewel robbery involving a beautiful woman, a penthouse, a fortune in gems, and café-society names. The Mirror said the robber was six feet tall, the Times said five feet seven. The Herald Tribune’s account offered confusing clauses within clauses: ".‘You are a young man,’ Mrs. Hilton, estranged from Conrad N. Hilton, president of the Hilton Hotels Corporation and Miss Hungary of 1936, recalled telling the intruder." Hollenbeck said, "That would make Mr. Hilton Miss Hungary of 1936, which is interesting."


Excerpt from Chapter 16: "The Walking Wounded"

Then there was the death of James Forrestal. In 1949 the former secretary of defense, suffering at Bethesda Naval Hospital from "a severe psychosis," wrote a suicide note that included lines from Sophocles about the warrior Ajax, "worn by the waste of time." Forrestal tied one end of his dressing-gown sash to a radiator just below a sixteenth-floor window and the other end around his neck. He climbed out the window and jumped or hanged himself until the sash broke and he fell to his death.

Forrestal’s mental illness had first been made public by Drew Pearson and Walter Winchell, who inaccurately and maliciously assaulted Forrestal in columns and radio broadcasts. Westbrook Pegler, whose syndicated columns ran in the Hearst papers, charged that Forrestal had been "hounded" by Pearson and Winchell "with dirty aspersions [and] insinuations" until he killed himself.

As a prominent press critic, Hollenbeck was asked about the columnists’ responsibility for Forrestal’s death. "I don’t think Forrestal was hounded to death by the columnists," Hollenbeck said. "Winchell, Pearson and Pegler can dish it out, and if you’re a tough enough character you can take it." Jack O’Brian, the New York Journal-American columnist, would test whether Hollenbeck was a tough enough character in 1954.

O’Brian repeatedly attacked Hollenbeck in the Journal-American as a soft-on-Communism, hard-on-McCarthy propagandist who deserved to be dismissed by CBS. On May 26, 1954, scarcely more than a month after Hollenbeck had been discharged from the hospital a second time, O’Brian wrote, "Don Hollenbeck’s late evening newscast as usual contained the shrewdly selected unflattering film clip of Sen. McCarthy. . . . And right after CBS Board Chairman Bill Paley’s noble speech about objectivity and balance in the selection of news. All the news that fits Hollenbeck’s view. Meaning, all the news that’s left."

On June 7 O’Brian hammered Hollenbeck again: "We’re getting lots of mail wondering how Ch.2’s Don Hollenbeck gets away with his slanted newscasts." A week later O’Brian devoted almost his entire column to criticizing Hollenbeck. O’Brian quoted from the letters of readers, inevitably anonymous readers, who just happened to hold exactly the same views as O’Brian. A college instructor, identified by O’Brian as a middle-of-the-roader who asked to keep his identity secret, attacked what he called the antiracism, prounion, anti-American leanings of Hollenbeck, "a graduate of the Commie-laden newspaper ‘PM.’"

The letter writer said that Hollenbeck, during a West Point graduation newsreel on his show, "tossed in a sly, softly spoken and entirely biased aside on a routine loyalty check of our service school graduates. It was shrewd, slick and oily, just enough to get over a left-handed swipe at the necessarily cautious study we must make these days of any danger point, and any place where a man of privately treasonable conscience might secretly plot against our county under the patriotic guise of a uniform must satisfy our fears with a reasonable investigation. . . . Think of what Benedict Arnold almost did."

O’Brian ended his column by asking readers to send him more letters pillorying the Hollenbecks of broadcast journalism: "Please write about political slanting you catch anywhere in radio and TV. We’ll print as many as we can. It might help."

O’Brian’s attacks troubled Hollenbeck. Murrow told him not to worry. CBS’s strategy was to avoid getting into a shouting match with the likes of O’Brian. Hollenbeck should try to ride out the storm, Murrow suggested.

Hollenbeck had used the same strategy during his days on CBS Views the Press. His standard response then was, "I have only one answer to those who try to brand me with Communism. That is by continuing my course exactly in the way I have been doing." But this turn-the-other-check response made it no easier for Hollenbeck to endure O’Brian’s abuse. Hollenbeck obsessed about the Journal-American columnist. He dreamed of confronting O’Brian in a verbal duel, a high noon of words.

He also worried about being fired. He knew of the fear that gripped CBS. "Everybody was scared," said Fred Friendly, executive producer of CBS Reports and later president of CBS News. "And anybody that wasn’t scared was a liar. Everybody was scared, and all the corporations were more scared than anybody."


COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Published by Columbia University Press and Copyright © 2008 Loren Ghiglione. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. For more information, please e-mail us or visit the permissions page on our Web site.

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About the Author

Loren Ghiglione, a journalism professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, owned and edited New England newspapers for twenty-six years and served as president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors from 1989 to 1990. Following a five-year term as dean of Medill, he was president of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication from 2006 to 2007.

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