When "Fake News" Was Banned
An America Trump Might Have Loved
By Adam Hochschild
Every month, it seems, brings a new act in the Trump administration's war on the media. In January, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo exploded at National Public Radio reporter Mary Louise Kelly when he didn't like questions she asked -- and then banned a colleague of hers from the plane on which he was leaving for a trip to Europe and Asia. In February, the Trump staff booted a Bloomberg News reporter out of an Iowa election campaign event.
The president has repeatedly called the press an "enemy of the people" -- the very phrase that, in Russian (vrag naroda), was applied by Joseph Stalin's prosecutors to the millions of people they sent to the gulag or to execution chambers. In that context, Trump's term for BuzzFeed, a "failing pile of garbage," sounds comparatively benign. Last year, Axios revealed that some of the president's supporters were trying to raise a fund of more than $2 million to gather damaging information on journalists at the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other media outfits. In 2018, it took a court order to force the White House to restore CNN reporter Jim Acosta's press pass. And the list goes on.
Yet it remains deceptively easy to watch all the furor over the media with the feeling that it's still intact and safely protected. After all, didn't Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan rail against the press in their presidencies? And don't we have the First Amendment? In my copy of Samuel Eliot Morison's 1,150-page Oxford History of the American People, the word "censorship" doesn't even appear in the index; while, in an article on "The History of Publishing," the Encyclopedia Britannica reassures us that, "in the United States, no formal censorship has ever been established."
So, how bad could it get? The answer to that question, given the actual history of this country, is: much worse.
Censoring the News, Big Time
Though few remember it today, exactly 100 years ago, this country's media was laboring under the kind of official censorship that would undoubtedly thrill both Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo. And yet the name of the man who zestfully banned magazines and newspapers of all sorts doesn't even appear in either Morison's history, that Britannica article, or just about anywhere else either.
The story begins in the spring of 1917, when the United States entered the First World War. Despite his reputation as a liberal internationalist, the president at that moment, Woodrow Wilson, cared little for civil liberties. After calling for war, he quickly pushed Congress to pass what became known as the Espionage Act, which, in amended form, is still in effect. Nearly a century later, National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden would be charged under it and in these years he would hardly be alone.
Despite its name, the act was not really motivated by fears of wartime espionage. By 1917, there were few German spies left in the United States. Most of them had been caught two years earlier when their paymaster got off a New York City elevated train leaving behind a briefcase quickly seized by the American agent tailing him.
Rather, the new law allowed the government to define any opposition to the war as criminal. And since many of those who spoke out most strongly against entry into the conflict came from the ranks of the Socialist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World (famously known as the "Wobblies"), or the followers of the charismatic anarchist Emma Goldman, this in effect allowed the government to criminalize much of the Left. (My new book, Rebel Cinderella, follows the career of Rose Pastor Stokes, a famed radical orator who was prosecuted under the Espionage Act.)
Censorship was central to that repressive era. As the Washington Evening Star reported in May 1917, "President Wilson today renewed his efforts to put an enforced newspaper censorship section into the espionage bill." The Act was then being debated in Congress. "I have every confidence," he wrote to the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, "that the great majority of the newspapers of the country will observe a patriotic reticence about everything whose publication could be of injury, but in every country there are some persons in a position to do mischief in this field."
Subject to punishment under the Espionage Act of 1917, among others, would be anyone who "shall willfully utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States."
Who was it who would determine what was "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive"? When it came to anything in print, the Act gave that power to the postmaster general, former Texas Congressman Albert Sidney Burleson. "He has been called the worst postmaster general in American history," writes the historian G. J. Meyer, "but that is unfair; he introduced parcel post and airmail and improved rural service. It is fair to say, however, that he may have been the worst human being ever to serve as postmaster general."
Burleson was the son and grandson of Confederate veterans. When he was born, his family still owned more than 20 slaves. The first Texan to serve in a cabinet, he remained a staunch segregationist. In the Railway Mail Service (where clerks sorted mail on board trains), for instance, he considered it "intolerable" that whites and blacks not only had to work together but use the same toilets and towels. He pushed to segregate Post Office lavatories and lunchrooms.
He saw to it that screens were erected so blacks and whites working in the same space would not have to see each other. "Nearly all Negro clerks of long-standing service have been dropped," the anguished son of a black postal worker wrote to the New Republic, adding , "Every Negro clerk eliminated means a white clerk appointed." Targeted for dismissal from Burleson's Post Office, the writer claimed, was "any Negro clerk in the South who fails to say 'Sir' promptly to any white person."
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