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We’ve been here before

This isn’t the first time U.S. media has played the sycophant

Walter Duranty (right) at a luncheon given in his honor with Kenneth Durant of a Soviet news agency at the Hotel Lombardy in New York in 1936. Associated Press/Photo by John Rooney (file)

We’ve been here before

Many conservatives are depressed about liberalism’s power—but the situation has been much worse at other times. Would you trade, politically, March 2021 for March 1933, when amid the Great Depression Franklin Roosevelt took over and expanded the federal government enormously, with Congress cementing into law his wishes or guesses, without debate or amendment?

Popular support for Franklin Roosevelt during his first term was great. One congressman compared him to Jesus Christ, not unfavorably. A poll among New York schoolchildren showed God running a poor second to him. Rep. John Young Brown of Kentucky said he would “as soon start a mutiny in the face of a foreign foe as start a mutiny today against the program of the President of the United States.” Forty-one popular songs trilled his praises.

The centerpiece for Roosevelt’s great leap forward, which he called “the New Deal,” was the National Recovery Administration (NRA), empowered to set wages and prices for the entire country. Business Week, a magazine that represented the thinking of business leaders, approved of such dictatorship:

“The wolves of depression have to be shot, and without the delay inherent in deliberative procedure.”

Many thought competition was bad and government control of the economy would improve life—as it purportedly improved life in the Soviet Union. Imitation of the Soviets included mass mobilization. The NRA’s symbol was a blue eagle, and 8,000 children stood in formation at a San Francisco baseball park to form an eagle. In Boston, 100,000 children assembled in the city’s major park and recited a pledge: “I promise as a good American citizen to do my part for the NRA. I will buy only where the Blue Eagle flies. I will help President Roosevelt bring back good times.”

NRA chief administrator Hugh Johnson said of his eagle, “May God have mercy on the man or group of men who attempt to trifle with this bird.” Four young ladies had eagles tattooed on their backs. Popular columnist Mark Sullivan said Roosevelt “could recite the Polish alphabet and it would be accepted as an eloquent plea for disarmament.”

Few reporters were willing to talk back. The San Francisco journalist publication Scoop said, regarding press and president, “the nation’s reporters will smile contentedly as long as F.R. sits on the throne.” Joseph Medill Patterson, who published the nation’s most-read newspaper, the New York Daily News, promised in 1933, “Whatever President Roosevelt does or doesn’t do, we're going to be for him.”

Frank Kent, a 56-year-old Baltimore Sun writer and syndicated columnist in 1933, was one of the rare journalists who pushed back. He complained that “a tremendous propaganda emanated from Washington. … Anyone who did not fall in line was regarded as ‘rocking the boat,’ or ‘pulling back on prosperity.’”

Kent muttered in one of his columns about “government propaganda … never has anyone seen anything like it. … The publicity men are so numerous that they stumble over each other. … The making of favorable news is one of the principal Administration activities, and more real efficiency is there shown than in any other department.”

Kent voted for Roosevelt in 1932, only to be appalled by the “fine fake game” the president’s administration played as it flooded the country with puff pieces and articles designed for newspaper publication: “Much of the publicity is so arranged that it has the appearance of entirely spontaneous and wholly untainted news, but it is all thought out and planned with the utmost care.”

Kent voted for Roosevelt in 1932, only to be appalled by the “fine fake game” the president’s administration played as it flooded the country with puff pieces and articles designed for newspaper publication.

When Kent analyzed the NRA legislation in 1933, he saw price-setting as a retreat to medieval guilds with “competition eliminated, prices raised, profits assured.” The NRA created 700 codes based on 11,000 Federal administrative orders and 70 Presidential executive orders. It classified every business transaction from Automobile Manufacturing and Cotton Textiles to Lightning Rod Manufacturing and Corn Cob Pipes. Four hundred codes allowed for the fixing of prices. Business owners learned about “codes, supplemental codes, code amendments, executive orders, administrative orders, office orders, interpretations, rules, regulations—and they could be fined and jailed for getting something wrong.”

Kent protested all this and was willing to offend powerful people. When one senator responded to a Kent attack by saying “Your friends in the Senate regret that,” Kent replied, “Who said I want friends in the Senate?” Government propagandists called Kent and other NRA opponents “corporals of disaster.” Kent in turn was sarcastic about those whose job was to proclaim that the NRA was “succeeding beyond expectation, that everything is lovely and the goose hangs high.”

By 1934 it was apparent that the NRA was not working. Employment was not increasing. Small businesses were in a straitjacket. According to another dissident journalist, John T. Flynn, NRA enforcers “roamed through the garment district like storm troopers. They could enter a man’s factory, send him out, line up his employees, subject them to minute interrogation, and take over his books on the instant.”

With the goal of spreading around employment rather than creating new jobs, the NRA forbade night work. Flynn described investigators sometimes battered down doors with axes, looking for men “committing the crime of sewing together a pair of pants at night.”

By 1935 some small businesses were openly defying the NRA codes. Kent reported the pushback and rejoiced in May 1935 when the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously declared the NRA unconstitutional: The federal government would not be allowed to control every aspect of private enterprise. The movement toward socialism in America stopped.

Internationally, though, the movement toward socialism in the Soviet Union and national socialism in Germany advanced. Numerous books and movies have described the downward spiral of human rights in Nazi Germany, so I’ll emphasize here what was happening in Russia—and I hope you’ll see an excellent 2009 film, Within the Whirlwind, along with the great 2019 film, Mr. Jones.

Since many of our readers complain vociferously (for good reason) about today’s journalism, Mr. Jones reminds us that some reporters were courageous, but others were villainous in what were not good old days. The movie’s villain in chief: Walter Duranty of The New York Times. (I haven’t mentioned him in these pages since 2014, and I have a 7-year itch.)

Duranty, Moscow correspondent for the Times during the 1920s and 1930s, was the father of all those who covered and praised the rise to power of Mao in the 1940s and Castro in the 1950s. Duranty received a Pulitzer Prize—America’s top journalism award—in 1932 for his work’s “scholarship, profundity, impartiality and exceptional clarity, and an example of the best type of foreign correspondence.”

Duranty’s clarity was actually false analogy. He said the Russian people were anti-revolutionary only because they “are in the position of children at school, who personally might sooner be out at play and do not yet realize that they are being taught for their ultimate good.”

He also equated Josef Stalin’s opponents with the Ku Klux Klan, America’s worst racist group, and wrote that “the peasants by and large at last have begun to realize the advantages offered by the new system, just as a plebe at West Point comes later to admire what at first he found so rigorous.”

(Those first-year students at the U.S. military academy were not being murdered, but neither were resisters to Stalin, according to Duranty. Rather, they could redeem themselves by working in Gulag lumber camps, those “communes” where “the labor demand exceeds the supply” and prisoners have the satisfaction of working “for the good of the community.”)

Duranty compared unemployment in the United States to Soviet “full employment”—true in that Stalin enslaved an entire nation. In 1930, discussing Stalin’s Five Year Plan, Duranty acknowledged minor problems, but “what does count is that Russia is being speeded up and fermented—and disciplined—into jumping and making an effort.” He portrayed Stalin as a harsh but kindly teacher, trying to “stir the people up, force new ideas into their heads and make them talk and think and learn despite themselves.”

Duranty equated Stalin’s Five Year Plan with the Biblical Exodus from Egyptian slavery: “Moses and Aaron can become Lenin and Trotsky, Joshua becomes Stalin.”

Duranty equated Stalin’s Five Year Plan with the Biblical Exodus from Egyptian slavery.

In 1932 and 1933, though, the Soviet countryside neared collapse in famine. About 5 million persons probably died in the manner later described by Victor Kravchenko: “Everywhere we found men and women lying prone, their faces and bellies bloated, their eyes utterly expressionless.” (Mr. Jones has a scene of cannibalism.)

Stalin needed Duranty’s help because the Soviets were shipping grain to the West to get cash to buy machinery for the steel industry: Coverage of the famine might have led to protests that could have stopped the big deals. Duranty helped by writing not only that “There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation,” but that reporters who were trying to tell the truth were concocting a “big scare story.”

Such was the prestige of Duranty, and the ideological mood of the times, that honest reporters often had trouble with their editors when they described the reality Fedor Belov captured: “The people were like beasts, ready to devour one another. And no matter what they did, they went on dying, dying, dying.”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn later wrote that “long lines of [peasants] dying of famine trudged toward the railroad stations in the hope of getting to the cities … but were refused tickets and were unable to leave-and lay dying beneath the station fences in a submissive heap of homespun coats and bark shoes.”

Duranty knew what he was doing. Malcolm Muggeridge, then also a Moscow reporter, remembered Duranty acknowledging in conversation the famine but saying “you can’t make omelettes without cracking eggs.” Soviet leaders bribed Duranty with prostitutes and maybe cash, but he had also made an idol of the Soviet Revolution. Duranty’s favorite expression was, “I put my money on Stalin.”

At the end of Duranty’s tour of duty in Moscow, he said it had been a tour of love: “Looking backward over the fourteen years I have spent in Russia, I cannot escape the conclusion that this period has been a heroic chapter in the life of Humanity.” Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize led to other honors, along with a well-fed retirement in Southern California during which he continued to worship capital H “Humanity” rather than capital G “God.” He had a well-attended funeral in 1957.

How bad is press bias and our new regime in Washington? The United States survived Duranty, and Roosevelt’s liberal reforms may have kept the country from moving into a revolutionary situation. Amity Shlaes, though, argues in her excellent The Forgotten Man (2008) that FDR’s expansion of government and constant experimentation prolonged the Depression, and she’s probably right.

So when Joe Biden dons the mantle of Roosevelt and proposes expansion of current federal programs, WORLD will try to remind you of lessons from history. For example: I’ve written some books on poverty-fighting, so I like the Earned Income Tax Credit that creates more incentives to work, but we’re buying trouble if we pay more people not to work. FDR himself acknowledged the danger of welfare programs becoming “a habit with the country.”

Paying people not to work hurts them. In November 1933, Roosevelt said, “When any man or woman goes on a dole something happens to them mentally and the quicker they are taken off the dole the better it is for them the rest of their lives.” Early in 1935 he argued, “We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destitution but also their self-respect, their self-reliance and courage and determination.”

Later that year FDR noted, “In this business of relief we are dealing with properly self-respecting Americans to whom a mere dole outrages every instinct of individual independence. Most Americans want to give something for what they get. That something, in this case honest work, is the saving barrier between them and moral disintegration. We propose to build that barrier high.”

As WORLD has shown before, we should also guard against corporate welfare, and many other expenditures that add to our national debt. Will we build barriers against socialism and Durantyism? Can we help parents bear the costs of raising children in ways that are pro-life, pro-marriage, and pro-work? Stay tuned.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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