Harry Truman could have taught Barack Obama a thing or two about how to deal with a hostile press — basically, by ignoring it.
The Obama administration's core argument, in support of its war against Fox News, is that the cable channel is biased, unfair and fraudulently branded. In the words of a top Obama aide, Fox is "opinion journalism masquerading as news," and therefore the White House has no choice but to lash out in response.
This is where a little historical perspective might be valuable.
It's absolutely valid to complain that Fox is opinion journalism masquerading as news. But so what if it is? Sixty years ago, the Truman administration was consistently harassed by a faux news operation that was far more dominant in its day than Fox News could ever hope to be.
In the late 1940s, when TV had yet to become a mass medium and print still ruled, the most influential information organ was Time magazine. Time spoke for the American mainstream and shaped mainstream opinion. Most important, Time had branded itself as a "newsmagazine," when in fact it was nothing more than opinion journalism masquerading as news. And in Time's opinion, the Democratic president was a corrupt wimp who was soft on communism.
Time had a unique process. The reporters in the field sent their journalistic dispatches to New York — where the editors rewrote them so that they hewed to the conservative predilections of Time's legendary proprietor, Henry Luce. Nobody in today's fragmented media world, including Fox, wields Luce's kind of clout. He was a high-profile power broker in the Republican Party, which he liked to call "my second church," and he used his magazine to make or break careers.
His top mission, during the Truman era, was to tell Time's readers that the president and Secretary of State Dean Acheson were willfully surrendering China to the communists. The truth was actually quite different. Luce's own reporters in China wrote in their dispatches that the anti-communist army ineptly commanded by Chiang Kai-shek was wasting the weapons and money sent East by Truman and Acheson, and that the communists had far more grassroots support.
That's how Chiang's American military advisers saw the situation. The senior adviser, Gen. David Barr, warned Washington that Chiang was doomed because of "the complete ineptness of his high military leaders and the widespread corruption and dishonesty throughout the armed forces." The journalists on site saw the same ills.
But Luce's editors killed those dispatches, or softened them, to make it appear that Chiang was poised to defeat the communists if only Truman and Acheson had the guts to persevere. Luce's star reporter in China, Theodore H. White, put a sign on his door: "Any resemblance to what is written here and what is printed in Time magazine is purely coincidental."
Luce knew exactly what he was doing. Publicly, he always insisted that Time was the exemplar of objective journalism, but he did say in 1947: "Impartiality is often an impediment to truth. Time will not allow the stuffed dummy of impartiality to stand in the way of telling the truth as it sees fit."
The truth, as Time saw fit, was that Truman deserved to be defeated in 1948. Luce's editors tweaked the coverage at every turn to benefit Republican Thomas Dewey. Even though Time's correspondents reported increasingly sizable crowds at Truman campaign events that autumn, the rewritten stories left the opposite impression ("Nobody seemed really to care or listen"). And after Truman shocked everybody on Election Night, Time's allegedly objective report was that the president had not won on the merits ("Politics is a show. Harry Truman, with his mistakes and his impulses... had often ranted like a demagogue").
More important, the truth, as Time saw fit, was that Truman and Acheson were dupes of the communists and weak on the U.S. military. After China fell to the communists, one of Time's allegedly objective stories about Acheson described him as "a fellow traveler ... a wool-brained sower of 'seeds of jackassery'... an abysmally uncomprehending man... an appeaser."
And when Truman rightfully relieved Gen. Douglas MacArthur of his command in Korea for insubordination, Time's story read like this: "Seldom has a more unpopular man fired a more popular one. Douglas MacArthur was the personification of a big man, with many admirers who look to a great man for leadership.... Harry Truman was almost a professional little man."
Today, the Obama team is publicly warring with Fox News because the network has fanned so many false rumors and given so much airtime to the conservative fringe. But that's chump change compared with what Time did in the late 1940s, when its editor-rewritten stories helped shape and fuel the nationwide red-baiting fervor that soon metastasized into McCarthyism.
There were some dissidents. Former Time executive Ralph Ingersoll said that "the way to tell a successful lie is to include enough truth in it to make it believable, and Time is the most successful liar of our times," and an ex-Time writer named Merle Miller quipped that the ideal Time story contained "just enough innuendo, exactly the correct amount of what, while it could not be proved, read just as well as fact and in many ways better." But they could not compete with Luce.
Harry Truman had the standing to compete. He certainly felt aggrieved; privately, he referred to his right-wing critics as "the animals." And sometimes he'd grumble about press people in general ("not one of them has enough sense to pound sand in a rat hole"). But he sucked it up, did his job and refused to whine about opinion journalism masquerading as news. That seems like sound advice for a successor.