The Chambers-Hiss case

"The Chambers-Hiss case" Continued...

Issue: "NextGen worship," July 26, 2008

Despite the evidence, Hiss could not be tried for the espionage in which he had apparently been engaged a decade earlier: The statute of limitations for espionage was five years. Instead, Hiss was tried twice for perjury: The first trial, in June 1949, ended with the jury deadlocked 8 to 4 for conviction. The second trial ended in January 1950 with Hiss found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison.

Oddly, as the trials wore on, The Washington Post ignored the evidence and returned to its early tone, with headlines like "Hiss Counsel Calls Accuser Mental Case" and "Chambers Admits He Lied to Congress." Reporters added their own critical descriptions of Chambers, such as "customary air of complete emotionless detachment" or "supercilious expression." A Post editorialist in July 1949 pooh-poohed the evidence that had seemed so strong a half year before and instead emphasized "mysteries" of the Hiss trial and Chambers' "complex and enigmatic motives."

The Post increasingly seemed to be reporting a different story than other newspapers saw. For example, the testimony of Whittaker Chambers' wife Esther became crucial to Chambers' contention, denied by Hiss, that Chambers and Hiss had been close friends during the 1930s. The Los Angeles Times, under the headline, "Wife Gives Ringing Chambers Defense," began its story, "Subjected to a stinging and sarcastic cross-examination at the Alger Hiss perjury trial, Mrs. Whittaker Chambers finally cried out in defense of her husband today as 'a decent citizen and a great man.'"

The New York Times also portrayed Esther Chambers as heroic in a headline, "Chambers' Wife, Defiant, Testifies He Is 'Great Man,'" and a story about how "the 110-pound Maryland housewife pitted her resources against those of the veteran trial lawyer throughout the day." But the Post transformed one faltering moment-Esther Chambers could not remember whether she had seen the Hisses 12 years earlier at an anniversary party or a New Year's Eve party-into a front-page headline: "Chambers' Wife Alters Testimony."

The New York Times stuck with the facts when it examined the jury's guilty verdict, stating in an editorial "that the examination of the charges brought against Mr. Hiss has been full and fair." The Times emphasized "the fact that the incriminating documents were typed on the Hiss typewriter. The fact that four of the incriminating papers were in Hiss' handwriting." The Post seemed to redouble its pro-Hiss efforts as his innocence became increasingly doubtful. Hiss, a Post editorial opined, "had the misfortune of being tempted to betray his country in an era of widespread illusions about communism." (Only a "misfortune"? Only temptation, or actual betrayal?)

Why did the Post and the Times differ? The answer must be speculative-principal editors did not leave their reminiscences on this question, and all of them are now dead-but we may have a twist here in the old practice of "boosterism" (newspaper reporting designed to aid community economic interests). The term boosterism, for the most part, has been used in reference to promotion of private-sector business, industry, and tourism. Boosterism in Washington, D.C., though, means support of the federal bureaucracy, Washington's biggest industry-and in 1948-1950, that meant support for Hiss.

Examination of the Post's history supports such a theory. Publishers Eugene Meyer and Philip Graham defeated two competing newspapers from the New Deal through the New Frontier by making the Post the voice of the rapidly growing executive branch. The Post in recent decades has also been pro-Washington-growth in the same way Detroit newspapers were traditionally pro-auto: It's just business. The New York Times, meanwhile, has been ideologically tilted over the years but removed from such direct booster pressures-and that contributed to greater honesty in coverage of the Chambers-Hiss affair.

Comparing the stories of the Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post provides additional evidence. The Tribune constantly used the Chambers-Hiss affair as a platform from which to argue for a shrinking federal bureaucracy. Washington agencies, according to the Tribune, were "honeycombed" with officials whose loyalties were "pledged to an alien ideology." The most efficient way to deal with the problem, according to the Tribune, was to reduce the government to its pre-New Deal size. The Post fought such an onslaught and complained that accusations against Hiss were undermining the morale of federal employees.

Curiously, though, both the Tribune and the Los Angeles Times became less supportive of Chambers in 1949 and 1950 as he was winning his case-perhaps because Chambers kept saying that he was a Christian and a "man of the right," not a conservative. By this Chambers meant that he saw U.S. materialism as no answer to Soviet materialism: He saw both sharing the modern "vision of man, once more the central figure of the Creation, not because God made man in His image, but because man's mind makes him the most intelligent of the animals."


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