Today, conservative critics condemn the so-called “liberal media” for being in cahoots with policymakers and politicians—but there was a time when that was a formal, accepted way of doing business. In her new book, City of Newsmen: Public Lies and Professional Secrets in Cold War Washington (University of Chicago Press, 2022), University of Wisconsin historian Kathryn J. McGarr takes us into that world: one in which journalists agreed, as McGarr explains in this episode, to publish government lies—but not lie for the government; to work to prevent World War III by serving as informal advisors to the powerful, and in return, filtering news to keep the United States safe from nuclear holocaust.

Program notes:

  • The clip of James Reston discussing Eisenhower and the U-2 overflight is originally from C-SPAN’s American History TV, June 2, 1995. You can see the whole interview here and learn more about Reston here.
  • For a lively history of The New York Times that inadvertently highlights its culture of white masculinity, see Gay Talese, The Kingdom and the Power: Behind the Scenes at The New York Times: The Institution That Influences the World (Random House, 1966).
  • Last week, the errant Chinese weather balloon that entered United States airspace sparked an account of the U-2 incident in The New York Times. Francis Gary Powers’ account of the U-2 incident is in Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident (Potomac Books, 2003). 
  • What are the advantages and pitfalls for journalists to learn things “on background?” You can learn more from Tom Jones at the Poynter Institute (November 11, 2021).
  • What did liberal internationalism mean after World War II? You might want to dig into Elizabeth Spalding’s The First Cold Warrior: Harry Truman, Containment, and the Remaking of Liberal Internationalism (University Press of Kentucky, 2006).
  • To learn more about how female and Black journalists experienced gender and racial segregation in political journalism, take a look at Nan Robertson, The Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men, and the New York (Random House, 1992), and Wallace Terry, Missing Pages: Black Journalists of Modern America: An Oral History (Basic Books, 2007). Terry’s book includes an interview with Ethel Payne, who Kathryn discusses.
  • Kathyrn also mentions Walter Lippmann, a towering figure in journalism of the period. If you are interested in Lippmann’s views, you can read his Public Opinion: How People Decide; The Role of News, Propaganda and Manufactured Consent in Modern Democracy and Political Elections (1922).
  • Claire and Kathryn discuss the Cuban Missile Crisis, a tense standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union in October 1962. There is a new international account of this nuclear confrontation by Serhii Plokhy, Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis (W. W. Norton, 2022).

Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).