Two of Washington's most interesting monuments are invisible, at least above ground on the Mall. Stacked in a few hundred bound volumes on the shelves of the Library of Congress, they're the proceedings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (1945-1975) and of the lesser known but equally paranoid Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (1951-77). Both were devoted to rooting out espionage, sabotage and other subversive activities, real and willed: The urge to invent enemies is a national tradition, like marrying myth to memory the moment events of any significance turn 17 or 18 days old. The two committees are reminders of the best and worst of American democracy in action (feel free to wordplay).
The committees were especially active in the 1950s, when anti-communism carried the same whiff of hysteria that anti-terrorism does today. There's no doubt that the committees were onto something. Communists were "infiltrating" the country, and Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the crusade's poster child and lover of lists, was more right than wrong to see red wherever his narrow scope permitted him to look. But the question isn't whether communist infiltrators were around. The question is why a United States so powerful, so sure of itself, so free, so democratic, and so self-evidently the best place to be, was acting like a ninny in the face of a few thousand "infiltrators" peddling the ambitions of a Russia that could barely mend its own socks (if it had any to wear).
Rather than ask that question, government and media stuck with the assumption that a communist anywhere was presumptively guilty of endangering America everywhere. The fear birthed the national security state, reducing the Bill of Rights to an occasional luxury of the few, the pruned, the moneyed. Rather than question America's new plot, the media marketed it. Between government and media it's been a marriage of convenience that endures to this day (fear sells faster than doubt) -- and ridicules claims that the United States enjoys a free, in the sense of responsible and challenging, press. When even the nation's most important newspaper dares not question the assumptions at the root of the day's frenzies (anti-communism then, anti-terrorism now), we shouldn't be surprised when government turns the frenzy's focus on the media, as it did then and as it does now. The press protests eloquently. But by then it's too late.
In December 1955 and January 1956, the Internal Security Subcommittee, chaired by Sen. James Eastland of Mississippi, held an inquiry "into possible Communist infiltration of newspapers, radio, television and other communications media," as The New York Times reported, interviewing dozens of Times employees along the way. Thomas Henning, a Missouri Democrat and committee member, promised that The Times was not being singled out. It was simply part of a committee sweep to show how and where the Communist Party was attempting "to influence or to subvert the American press."
The Times' response in a Jan. 5, 1956, editorial would have been inspiring had it not been hypocritical. First, the inspiring part: "And our faith is strong that long after Senator Eastland and his present subcommittee are forgotten, long after segregation has lost its final battle in the South, long after all that was known as McCarthyism is a dim, unwelcome memory, long after the last Congressional committee has learned that it cannot tamper successfully with a free press, The New York Times will still be speaking for the men who make it, and speaking, without fear or favor, the truth as it sees it." The editorial doesn't mention that the paper had fired an employee for invoking the Fifth Amendment before the Eastland subcommittee. It does admit, with the kind of icy candor that proves how chilled press freedoms were at the time, that it would not "knowingly employ a Communist party member," and the discovery of one such "would lead to his immediate dismissal."
What, exactly, has changed? A New York Times reporter is now in jail for not revealing a source to a federal prosecutor in a case distantly related to the Iraq war. She's the hero to most of us in the business. Her newspaper ought not be: Its reporter is paying the consequences of a news media, The New York Times chief among them (because it claims to be the nation's "trust"), that have marketed almost unchallenged the Bush administration's lies about Iraq and its fearmongering in its so-called global war on terror. Did the press consider itself immune from the demagoguery it would not call by name when it had the chance? Its only answer -- in the jailed reporter's case, in the case of Iraq's follies, in the case of this war on terror going nowhere by the blast -- is eloquence after the fact. That's our fearless press for you.
Pierre Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.