Ex-Reporter Tells of Radical Ideas : A ‘Closet Socialist’ Stirs Furor Over News Stories
In December, 1971, having told his editor at the Wall Street Journal that he was leaving the paper after a decade as a reporter there, A. Kent MacDougall sent this message to all Journal bureaus over the newspaper’s internal wire network:
“On January 7, after ten years and three months of . . . peonage, I will be free at last, free at last, great gawd almighty, free at last. . . . “
Journal editors were furious with MacDougall over that message, but they’re even angrier at him now for writing another, much longer and more controversial message, this one published in a small socialist magazine.
In a two-part article for Monthly Review, MacDougall, 57--who also worked for the Los Angeles Times for 10 years and is now on sabbatical from his job as a professor of journalism at UC Berkeley--says he has long been a “closet socialist” who used the news pages of “the bourgeois press” to “popularize radical ideas.”
He also says he wrote more than 30 “major articles” under different pseudonyms for various radical publications while at the Passaic, N.J., Herald-News and during his first six months at the Journal.
MacDougall’s 9,000-word Monthly Review story has sparked a contretemps in the mainstream journalistic community--which prides itself on not letting ideology color its news coverage--and has been seized upon by some conservatives as proof that the press has a liberal bias.
Journal officials were so upset by MacDougall’s comments that they issued a statement saying they were “offended and outraged,” and editors at both the Journal and The Times said MacDougall greatly “exaggerated” and “romanticized” his attempts to subvert their publications.
MacDougall’s former editors say his stories for The Times and the Journal met both papers’ professional standards of accuracy and fairness. Their judgment is largely confirmed by a careful, independent reading of all the stories MacDougall cited in Monthly Review.
MacDougall himself now concedes that “99% of what I wrote (for the Journal and The Times) had absolutely no ideological content at all.” When he did write stories in which ideology could have played a role, MacDougall now says, he wrote them according to proper journalistic standards.
“I regret that the somewhat brash language and the tone of the opening of the piece was misconstrued as my bragging about having been a media mole with a secret mission to push Marxist propaganda past my editors, on to unsuspecting readers,” he said. “That was in no way my intent.”
Viewed as Proof
But conservatives who have long complained that “news presentation by the media elite is heavily biased in favor of liberal views and attitudes,” as William Rusher, former publisher of National Review, argued in a book last year, have welcomed MacDougall’s Monthly Review article as proof of their charges.
“With MacDougall’s revelations, it will be harder . . . to dismiss evidence of news bias at the Journal and other publications,” Cliff Kincaid, director of media analysis for Accuracy in Media, wrote in the Dec. 24 issue of Human Events.
Accuracy in Media is a conservative watchdog of the media, and Human Events--like National Review--is a conservative magazine. Monthly Review (circulation 7,000) bills itself as “an independent socialist magazine.” MacDougall--who says in the Monthly Review that “Karl Marx (may be) my all-time favorite journalist"--is clearly upset that he has given journalistic aid and political comfort to those he perceives as the enemy.
He regrets, he said in an interview, that he has embarrassed his Journal and Times editors and that he has “provided some ammunition to humorless right-wing media monitors to try to make the case that the Establishment press is allowing left-leaning reporters to run off on anti-Establishment tirades.”
MacDougall worked for the Journal from 1961 to 1972--spending much of his time writing about the press. He was a business reporter for The Times from 1977 to 1987. Before that, he worked for five years at the Passaic Herald-News.
Gaining academic tenure gave him “the luxury of coming out of the ideological closet at last,” MacDougall said, but he insisted that his Monthly Review story (titled “Boring From Within the Bourgeois Press”) had been “misconstrued.” He said he had been “a journalist first and a radical second throughout my career. . . . I stuck to accepted standards of newsworthiness, accuracy and fairness (in my stories).”
Adhered to Standards
Editors at both The Times and the Journal were quick to agree that MacDougall had, indeed, adhered to their professional standards.
“We have reviewed articles he wrote while at the Journal and we believe our editing process succeeded in making sure that what appeared in print under his byline met Journal standards of accuracy, newsworthiness and fairness,” the Journal said in its official statement.
Michael Gartner, who edited and rewrote many of MacDougall’s articles for the Journal, said: “I always assumed his politics were quite liberal, but I don’t think it affected his reporting one bit.
“I judge journalists by one thing--whether they are fair, thorough and accurate,” said Gartner, former Page 1 editor of the Journal and now president of NBC News. By those standards, Gartner said, MacDougall was an “A+ reporter . . . an outstanding reporter.”
MacDougall’s editors at The Times offered similar appraisals and assurances.
“Anybody who talked to him knew he was on the left side of the spectrum,” said William F. Thomas, editor of The Times from 1971 until retiring Jan. 1. “Nevertheless, he met every journalistic standard. . . . He was a professional.”
MacDougall, who won several journalism awards and whose work was several times entered for a Pulitzer Prize, writes in the Monthly Review that “reconciling radicalism and reporting for the mass media came naturally” to him as the son of Curtis D. MacDougall, a journalist and political activist who ran as the Progressive Party candidate for U.S. senator from Illinois in 1948. The elder MacDougall was also a longtime professor of journalism at Northwestern University, where he taught Thomas, among many others.
Thomas lived with the MacDougall family for six months as an undergraduate but he said he didn’t realize that Kent MacDougall was his former professor’s son until after MacDougall came to work at The Times. He was hired at Thomas’ urging because Thomas had been impressed with his “remarkably sensible and professional voice” in stories for the Journal and elsewhere.
Thomas said MacDougall is now “romanticizing his role . . . hallucinating a little bit” about having tricked his editors into publishing Marxist propaganda.
Paul Steiger, deputy managing editor of the Journal and former business editor of The Times, said MacDougall is “much more a secret agent in his own mind than he was in reality.
“It’s wrong for someone . . . in our profession (to) have as a motive the intent to subvert the process,” Steiger said, “but if you look at what appeared (under MacDougall’s byline) in either paper, for the most part, it was pretty straightforward journalism.”
MacDougall said he “deeply respects” The Times and the Journal and wrote his Monthly Review stories in part “to disabuse radicals of the notion that press lords get together in some hotel room and conspire to keep information embarrassing to the Establishment out of the Establishment press.
“I wanted to demonstrate that a good reporter, who got his facts right and who worked for good papers, could get . . . a lot more stuff into print than radicals would suppose,” he said.
MacDougall now says that in his “over-exuberance at bursting out of the ideological closet” and “to grab the attention of radicals who didn’t know who I was . . . I got kind of carried away,” using an unintentionally “boastful . . . tone” and some “infelicitously worded” phrases.
He says he realizes he was “naive” to have thought his stories in the Monthly Review would be read only by “old lefties.”
In the Monthly Review, MacDougall wrote that as a reporter for The Times and the Journal, he had:
--"Helped popularize radical ideas with lengthy, sympathetic profiles of Marxist economists.
--"Exposed the simplistic, jingoistic editorial policies of such leading retrogressive periodicals as the New York Daily News, Time magazine and the Reader’s Digest.”
--"Made sure to seek out experts whose opinions I knew in advance would support my thesis.”
--"Sought out mainstream authorities to confer recognition and respectability on radical views I sought to popularize.”
In its statement, the Journal said it was “bizarre and troubling that any man who brags of having sought to push a personal political agenda on unsuspecting editors and readers should be teaching journalism at a respected university.”
But Tom Goldstein, dean of the graduate school of journalism at UC Berkeley and himself a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, praised MacDougall as a “fine reporter” and a “splendid teacher.”
“We have no ideological litmus test at this school,” Goldstein said. “Kent MacDougall’s personal beliefs are his, not ours, and he scrupulously keeps ideology out of the classroom.” MacDougall also insisted he doesn’t proselytize his students.
Interviews with a half-dozen students who have taken classes from MacDougall at UC Berkeley tended to confirm this. All praised him as a good, demanding teacher and “tough editor,” and most said his ideology, though apparent, wasn’t forced on them and did not appear to intrude on his teaching.
One student, Brian Doherty, said: “It’s clear that he had strong opinions about certain things in society, but he never tried to drill into our minds that this was . . . the only way to look at things. He was always a great promoter of diversity in thought.”
Editors for whom MacDougall worked at The Times and the Journal also invoked the word “diversity” in explaining his value to their newspapers. A newspaper is supposed to be a marketplace of competing and conflicting ideas, they said, and the more diversity a newspaper staff has, the better it can serve a diverse society.
Frederick Taylor, managing editor of the Journal during MacDougall’s last two years there, said he was “delighted” to publish MacDougall’s stories on radical economists and historians because they were stories that “Journal readers certainly ought to see and know about.”
MacDougall undoubtedly chose to write about some subjects and not others because of his socialist views, but other, more conservative reporters chose other, more conservative subjects for similar reasons, his editors said. As long as all stories pass the same standards of accuracy, fairness and reader interest, the editors said, the public benefits.
Thus, while MacDougall wrote a profile of journalist I. F. Stone on the left, other reporters have profiled George Will and William F. Buckley on the right.
Moreover, editors--not reporters--put stories in the newspaper, and at the Wall Street Journal, in particular, stories are heavily edited. When MacDougall was at the Journal, most Page 1 stories--including many of MacDougall’s--were thoroughly rewritten by a special Page 1 staff, and editors say that any bias would have been eliminated in this process.
MacDougall has always been a much better reporter than writer, and even he admits that one major problem with his Monthly Review article was that “no one edited it.”
When MacDougall was at The Times, his editor was generally John Lawrence, then the paper’s assistant managing editor for economic affairs and now a contributing editor at Fortune magazine. Lawrence says he knew of MacDougall’s political views and “looked at his stories accordingly.”
Lawrence says he wouldn’t have permitted MacDougall to write about a Marxist economist “if I’d known that he was . . . as strong a proponent . . . as he now claims to have been,” but Lawrence also says ideological bias “was not a major problem” in MacDougall’s stories. When “hints of bias” did appear, he says, they were “edited out.”
More Balanced Stories
In fact, in the Monthly Review, MacDougall cited several examples of Times editors eliminating ideologically loaded phrases from his stories, and he also cited instances in which Times editors forced him to present a more balanced story than he had originally written.
When he wrote a series for The Times in 1984 on the widening gap between the rich and the poor, MacDougall said in the Monthly Review, he had a “difficult” time with his editor. He was told to eliminate and change many passages and even after he had “balanced and sanitized the . . . series to what I thought would be my editor’s satisfaction, he still found passages not fit for print.”
In his Monthly Review account of the occasional stories on radical subjects that he wrote for the Journal and The Times, MacDougall neglected to point out that even those stories were not propagandistic.
Although MacDougall boasted in Monthly Review of having “introduced Journal readers to the ideas of . . . the left-wing journalist I. F. Stone,” he didn’t point out that his story on Stone also said that some “respected people” in Washington, liberals and conservatives, said Stone is “simply wrong on most counts,” that he has no impact and that he is the victim of a “manic obsession against the use of power. . . . “
MacDougall has written a shorter version of his Monthly Review story for a forthcoming issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, and in that version, he says, “some of the flamboyant language (of the original) is toned down,” and “I make it clear that I didn’t try to get propaganda past my editors.”
But MacDougall does not recant either his radical views or his conviction that being a radical, “rather than interfering with the professional performance of my job . . . actually helped make me a better reporter.”
MacDougall says he has never been a member of any radical, socialist or communist organization and that his “radical perspective” made him a “true outsider and a skeptic,” a reporter able and willing to “question who benefits from any government policy (or) practice . . . who controls things.”
“I think capitalist newspapers could do themselves--and capitalism--a favor by actively recruiting radical reporters and putting them to work examining the structural causes of poverty, racism, sexism, environmental degradation and other ills,” he wrote in the Monthly Review.
MacDougall’s radical political views probably wouldn’t arouse much controversy were he a journalist or a professor in Europe or in several other areas of the world where there is a long and legitimate tradition of intellectual Marxist criticism and where even the mainstream press is more ideological. But most of the mainstream American press, at least for the past generation or so, have prided themselves on being non-ideological, and the political spectrum in this country has always been far narrower than in many other countries.
The Left, as it is known in Europe and elsewhere, barely exists in the United States, and since the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s in particular, anything that even smacks of Marxism arouses suspicion and hostility in many quarters here.
Although MacDougall’s editors at The Times and the Journal scoff at his claims to have subverted their publications, they are less sanguine about his having written pseudonymously for socialist and radical publications while working for the Journal.
“That’s dishonest as hell, terribly unethical,” says Taylor, the former Journal managing editor.
Taylor, who retired from the Journal in 1986 and now publishes a monthly newspaper in Oregon, says that if he had known about the pseudonymous articles at the time, MacDougall would have been fired.
Ironically, MacDougall writes in his Monthly Review series, he stopped writing for leftist publications within six months of joining the Journal, because he did not have time to do the “original reporting” for them that he deemed necessary once he had “internalized the standards and methodology of the most meticulous member of the capitalist press.”
Having been exposed to the Journal’s “fastidiousness about facts,” MacDougall wrote, he was no longer willing to “do less than my best possible work for the socialist press.”
Taylor, among others, seemed amused by that admission.
“You could make an argument--I won’t make it--but you could make an argument that the Journal made an honest man of him,” Taylor said.