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A City That Worked | The Nation

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A City That Worked

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The New York of 1945 was the victorious city of the New Deal and World War II, one that can barely be glimpsed today beneath postmodern towers and billboards for dot-com enterprises. New York was a metropolis with a strong manufacturing base that gave it economic muscle and a seaport that gave it a gritty yet cosmopolitan air. Its people were largely immigrants and the children of immigrants. Their sensibility, "savvy, opinionated, democratic," in the words of historian Joshua B. Freeman, "helped set the tone of the nation in the postwar years" through labor leaders such as Michael Quill of the Transport Workers' Union and David Dubinsky of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

About the Author

Robert W. Snyder
Robert W. Snyder, director of the journalism and media studies program at Rutgers University, Newark, and author of...

Also by the Author

Soon after the surrender of Nazi Germany, the reporter Martha Gellhorn
made her way to Dachau. There she interviewed a recently liberated
doctor who told her how the Germans immersed inmates in icy water for
hours at a time to determine the human body's ability to withstand
extreme temperatures.

"Didn't they scream or cry out?" asked Gellhorn. The doctor smiled.
"There was no use in this place for a man to scream or cry out. It was
no use for any man ever."

For Fred Inglis, professor of cultural studies and author of People's
Witness: The Journalist in Modern Politics
, the exchange and the
article that surrounds it are great examples of what journalism should
be. It bears witness, it is "truthful" and "faithful to the facts," and
it matches a story with "adequate feelings and moral judgment." Gellhorn
is the first of a long procession of journalists who march through this
book over the course of the twentieth century. The best of them, in
Inglis's view, fight the good fight for democracy, decency and
international solidarity. The worst bow to the pressures of the market
or fawn before the powerful. Together, their lives teach lessons about
the purposes of journalism and its place in the history of what the
historian Eric Hobsbawm has popularized as the short twentieth century,
the period stretching from the beginning of World War I in 1914 to the
fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Inglis insists that the purpose of journalism is about more than
providing objective information. He conducts a respectful but pointed
debate with Phillip Knightley, author of The First Casualty: From the
Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth
Maker.
Where Knightley criticizes generations of war correspondents
for partiality, errors and becoming little more than government
propagandists, Inglis treats objectivity as an impossibility. Truthful
reporting is possible, Inglis argues, but the search for the facts and
their presentation can't be separated from values and beliefs. "The
moral view is always somebody's, located somewhere," Inglis writes,
adding later that "the best journalists square their human allegiance
with their feeling for truth."

In showing how journalists responded to war, revolution, the Depression
and the cold war, Inglis charts a ragged story that identifies the
reciprocal relationship between journalists and their time. Themes that
structure other histories of journalism--the quickening speed of
communications, the growth of freedom of expression, professionalization
of the press--receive less attention. More important for Inglis is how a
journalist in a particular time and place balanced ideals and
expedience, and helped to move the world toward more cruelty or less.

His method is to present a series of biographies, grouped according to
events or themes. With a few exceptions (such as the Italian journalist
and political theorist Antonio Gramsci) those chronicled here are
British or American. Gellhorn's story illuminates the moral lessons of
covering the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Walter Lippmann's life
suggests the challenges of retaining intellectual integrity amid the
American rise to globalism and Lippmann's own proximity to the heights
of power. Harry Evans's career at the Times of London shows what
happens when an intelligent and crusading editor meets with the purse
and politics of a Rupert Murdoch.

The length of the biographies varies, from more than two dozen pages for
the broadcaster Edward R. Murrow to a few sentences for the murdered
Irish reporter Veronica Guerin. The longer biographies in People's
Witness
provide rewarding lessons, but the short ones can be too
brief to be satisfying.

The sources for People's Witness are generally published
biographies, memoirs and collected articles. (The book contains some
unfortunate errors. James "Scotty" Reston is rendered as "Sonny." Arthur
O. Sulzberger of the New York Times is presented as "Sulzbeyer."
And Ben Bagdikian is identified as Ben "Bagdikim.") Fresh material for
the volume comes from the author's interviews and own analytical
insight. Some of the book's most memorable lines are in its summary
passages, as when Inglis describes Alistair Cooke as "tranquilly
reactionary," and Norman Mailer, on the eve of writing The Armies of
the Night
, as one who "had done everything a dustjacket could
require."

Yet People's Witness is more than a collective biography that
extols engaged journalism and criticizes conventional ideas about
objectivity. What makes this book valuable is not one life story or
another but its historical perspective--the place of journalism from
World War I to 1989.

Inglis's story is largely an international narrative, framed mostly by
British and American experiences during World War II and the cold war.
The book's chapter on World War II, revealingly titled "The Blessed
Simplicity of Action," argues that for many journalists the war provided
a way of reconciling reporting and antifascism. In the story of Edward
R. Murrow, Inglis finds broadcasting that closed the distance between
Britain and America with vivid details and high ideals. During the
bombing of London, Murrow told listeners how "shrapnel clicked as it hit
the concrete road nearby." Covering the Normandy invasion, he said it
was possible to imagine hearing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" above
the roaring motors of Allied bombers.

Things get messier during the cold war. Some American reporters, such as
I.F. Stone, maintained their independence. Others uncritically accepted
government lines. In discussions of coverage of the Korean War, Vietnam
and more, Inglis's dual perspective--British and American--provides a
second line of sight on America's global struggle with Communism. For
many American readers, the book is likely be an introduction to
Commonwealth journalists--John Pilger and James Cameron, for
example--whose perspectives have departed from the standard frames found
in the US media.

For all its cruelty and bloodshed, and for all the confusion that has
appeared since its end (especially since September 11, 2001), the short
twentieth century was a remarkably good period for journalism. The years
from the end of World War II to the end of the cold war, in particular,
saw a flowering of public service broadcasting, muckraking, dissenting
critics, samizdat publishers, adventurers reporting from
hellholes and reporters' efforts to hold democratic countries to their
best values. Why?

Part of the explanation has to do with historical circumstances. As
People's Witness suggests, memorable journalism opposes something
in the name of something better. (American journalists today may
subscribe to a belief in "objectivity," but some of their most revered
forebears--Jacob Riis, Lincoln Steffens, Jessica Mitford--have been
muckrakers with a pronounced political purpose in their work.) During
World War II and the cold war, journalists in Britain and America had a
great choice of adversaries--from fascists to Stalinists to citizens of
democratic countries who trampled their country's best values in the
name of fighting Communism. Even if the early years of the cold war were
marked by an excessive faith in government sources among American
journalists, once conflict broke out within government over the Vietnam
War, journalists began to expand and enrich public debate.

As communications professor Michael Schudson has observed, news gains
power in societies when people believe that if they are armed with
knowledge, they can influence the course of events. America in the era
of the civil rights movement was such a place, and it produced great
journalism that connected the demands of the oppressed with the
consciences of the many.

In the same period, the successes of social democracy--or at least the
mixed economy--gave journalists breathing room from the kind of economic
pressures that afflict them today. In the extraordinary thirty years
after World War II, in Western Europe and North America, nations
concluded that the market was not to be the measure of all things.
Activist governments were willing to provide everything from national
health insurance to grants for artists. In journalism this meant
financial support for public broadcasters who were, at least in theory,
independent of both the political pressures of the state and commercial
pressures of advertisers. The best work of the British Broadcasting
Corporation and the Public Broadcasting Service testifies to the
enduring validity of this idea. Among private broadcasters, specifically
in American television, federal regulations required fairness and public
service in broadcasting--a requirement that fostered, in thoroughly
commercial networks, the creation of substantial news and documentary
units. The death of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 led to the decline of
public service broadcasting. People's Witness offers yet more
proof that journalists, whatever their party affiliation, have a strong
interest in the maintenance of societies where the profit motive does
not always rule.

In America, the journalists of 1945 to 1989 also enjoyed the benefit of
reporting for a society characterized by mass media and mass politics.
Particularly in television, journalists could act with the confidence
that they were reaching large segments of their fellow citizens. Today,
in the age of 24/7 cable television, when the public is subdivided into
niche markets, much news and journalism can seem to be both ubiquitous
and insubstantial. Then came September 11.

From journalists, in Inglis's view, the good journalistic responses to
9/11 combined individual survivors' stories and "what they could count
on as the trustiest of their national values," finding its heroes in
self-sacrificing firefighters. Some of the worst reactions, he argues,
came from elements of the left--which he would normally support--that
failed to recognize the flaws in radical Islamism and the virtues of
Western democracy. He identifies three journalists whose work can help
bring us into an uncertain future: Seymour Hersh, who "discovers what we
could not possibly discover for ourselves, and tells us what it is";
Tim Judah, whose reporting from the Balkans and then Afghanistan "moved
easily between the obligatory self-deprecation of being there and
the sure deployment of big strategic tropes"; and Michael Ignatieff, who
calls for an internationalism with a strong sense of both ideals and
interests.

Is this enough? As People's Witness suggests, journalism as an
institution rises and falls with the currents of its time. Journalists
as individuals sometimes do better. Since economics triumphed over
politics, it is harder to envision a solution to the market pressures
that deform public and private broadcasters. This book, for all its
virtues, has no obvious solution to that problem.

But in the lives of journalists, and in Inglis's ruminations on the
meaning of journalism, possibilities emerge. In the face of Pentagon
media managers who would censor war news in the name of keeping up
morale on the home front, journalists will need Knightley's dogged
insistence on independence and truth. In the face of the kind of men who
murdered Daniel Pearl, journalists will need Inglis's stouthearted
vision of reporting that stands for democracy and decency, and against
cruelty and sectarianism. But without a new version of the ideals and
structures that serve to protect public service journalism, will this be
enough?

In a lucid, detailed and imaginative analysis, Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II, Freeman shows how the city's working class, in alliance with leftists, built an urban social democracy that enriched many lives before it fell to the forces of global economics and domestic politics. Anyone who wants to understand the changing fortunes of working people and the left in the nation's largest city should read this book. In Freeman's view the mortal blow to this city on a hill was not McCarthyism but the fiscal crisis of the seventies, which undermined New York's miniature welfare state.

The fiscal crisis and the new politics that followed ravaged the public institutions that working people depended on, enshrining a lean and mean city government instead of one that helped cushion the inequalities of the market. "Public institutions once attractive to all sorts of New Yorkers," Freeman writes, "became subnormal institutions of last resort." As a result, all New Yorkers--but, most important, working people--live in a metropolis defined by stark inequalities.

The New York of 1945, Freeman argues, was fortified by a red subculture. The Communist Party, legitimated by the Popular Front and wartime antifascism, and represented everywhere from unions to the city council, held substantial power. In the late forties and fifties, this alignment shuddered under the blows of the cold war and McCarthyism. Classroom by classroom, block by block, union by union, Communists were driven to the margins of public life in New York City.

Nevertheless, as Freeman shows, New York's political culture remained open to former Communists. Whatever the disagreements of Communists and liberals on international issues, on domestic questions--national health insurance, civil rights, the need to preserve the New Deal--they shared much common ground. For those who were willing to throw off what Freeman calls "the dead weight of Soviet allegiance," there was room for maneuver and even success.

In his effort to salvage the best of the New York Communists' legacy, Freeman verges on understating the role of non-Communists, liberals and socialists in Gotham's exceptional political culture. And the transition from Communist to post-Communist activism was not always as smooth as he suggests, either. The Communists, Freeman writes, believed in "class rule--or at least in their own rule in the name of the working class--both as a theoretical and practical matter." From the standpoint of democratic socialism, this perspective raised the fear of a party substituting itself for a democratic majority--and worse. Ex-Communists who became independent radicals or staunch liberals often had to confront such inheritances as part of a process of sorting through which ideas were worth keeping from their party days. The process was not easy, and the getting of wisdom after leaving the party could be as valuable as lessons learned in it.

Freeman's larger point stands, however. Thanks to the work of radicals, liberals and unionists, from the late forties into the sixties working-class New Yorkers enjoyed the fruits of a unique urban social democracy in union health plans, government-subsidized housing and superior public institutions such as parks and schools. Working-Class New York is masterly in its analysis of the human, political, legislative and institutional foundations--and contradictions--of this state of affairs.

Beneath surface appearances, though, the apparently stable blocs of power that supported the New York way were beginning to realign. From the 1940s into the 1960s, more than 2 million white New Yorkers left the city, dispersing formerly cohesive working-class communities. Meanwhile, African-Americans and Latinos settled in Gotham in similarly transforming numbers, only to find discrimination and a changing economic order that prevented them from gaining the same political and economic power as their white working-class counterparts. From the fifties to the eighties, New York shifted from a manufacturing to a service economy. The city that emerged offered fewer decent jobs to people who worked with their hands.

Freeman--who is both critical of and affectionate toward the working class--shows how disputes within and between unions undermined efforts to respond to the emerging postindustrial order. Manufacturing unions saw no benefit in urban development that destroyed factories. Building trades unions, on the other hand, thrived on construction (and resisted the racial integration of their membership). In the name of keeping jobs, garment unions moderated wage demands--which ultimately reduced the wages of unskilled workers overall and placed Puerto Rican and African-American workers in a terrible bind as they entered the garment industry. Sometimes initiatives to benefit one group of workers hurt another, as when slum clearance to create public housing drove poor people from their homes without creating alternative housing for them.

Yet the sixties, instead of signaling a departure of working-class people from the city's political stage, were a decade of protest and strikes. Insistently refusing to treat race and class as mutually exclusive phenomena, Freeman shows how African-American newcomers to the city, overwhelmingly working-class in their occupational and economic status, waged a civil rights movement of their own. At the same time, the growing unionization of city workers brought labor militancy to social workers' offices, hospital wards and classrooms--and a dramatic improvement in the wages and living standards of city workers.

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