A Socialist in the Newsroom: Kent MacDougall, 1931–2021

A Socialist in the Newsroom: Kent MacDougall, 1931–2021

A Socialist in the Newsroom: Kent MacDougall, 1931–2021

The once-controversial reporter and teacher dies without notice.


Halfway through my first year as dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley in 1989, a long front-page story appeared in the Los Angeles Times about a politically charged situation: Kent MacDougall, who had joined the teaching ranks at Berkeley after a distinguished reporting career at The Wall Street Journal and the LA Times, had just published a confessional that he had been a closet socialist while reporting for these two establishment bastions.

Unexpected attention was paid to this 9,000-word memoir, which initially appeared in two installments in the limited-circulation Monthly Review (6,700 paid subscribers). The memoir, which was then excerpted in the Columbia Journalism Review, was titled “Boring From Within the Bourgeois Press”—a headline that gave some of Kent’s detractors a cheap way to mock his unadorned writing style. The memoir had gone viral after it was picked up by Page Six of the New York Post, which ordinarily does not count a socialist journal among its tip sheets.

For a while, Kent was undoubtedly the most written about—and dissected—journalist in the country. Time magazine devoted a full page of its precious real estate to “Confessions of a Closet Leftist.” The article was accompanied by a portrait of Karl Marx with the deadpan caption: “His favorite newsman.”

Kent was vilified by some, singled out as proof of the liberal slant of the press. The Wall Street Journal described itself as “offended and outraged” by Kent’s disclosures.

Right-wing press critics offered up Kent as prime evidence of a press saturated with liberals and worse. Pressure was brought on me to fire him. At least a few publishers lobbied against Kent in Sacramento. Berkeley was steadfast in its support of Kent’s academic freedom. It referred all complaints to me. “We have no ideologic litmus test at the school,” I said in a brief statement. “Kent MacDougall’s personal beliefs are his business, not ours.” Complaints intensified after Human Events, then a leading conservative political newspaper, editorialized against Kent. After that happened, I recall the Journal’s editor calling to tell me he was left with no choice but to attack Kent. I was dumbfounded.

Kent also received flak from the left, especially from Alexander Cockburn, who questioned his waiting to declare his political views until after he had received tenure.

As it happened, Kent’s loudest cheerleader was a former Journal editor, Mike Gartner, who as the deft Page One editor of the Journal had edited many of Kent’s stories. Gartner, who went on to become president of NBC News, lavishly praised Kent: “The best reporter I have ever met.”

Kent died late last year, weeks shy of his 90th birthday. At first, no one—not the LA Times, not the Journal, not Berkeley—took note of his death. Information gradually dribbled out from an advance obituary Kent had written himself for Legacy.com five years before his death. To date, no one has attempted an assessment of his career.

Kent’s long-ago sins? At the Journal, he wrote that he placed articles that were sympathetic to the “ideas of radical historians, radical economists and the left-wing journalist I.F. Stone.” At the LA Times, he wrote articles about Mother Jones magazine and Marxist economists Paul Sweezy and John Gurley.

After the flap about his beliefs, Kent continued to teach for a while. Once he retired, he continued to live his quiet, structured life. Google him, and you will find nothing of his post–Monthly Review life.

Writing in the third person for his obituary, Kent said he felt at home in “dissident-friendly” Berkeley. He went on to describe how he happily led a life more suited to a world of half a century ago: “Continuing to emulate those simpler times throughout adulthood, Kent made a practice of making do with what still worked. He stuck with his vintage 1974 Plymouth Valiant, favoring the klutzy clunker’s ergonomically superior bench seats to the bucket seats of newer, sleeker models.” In a swipe at contemporary technology, he noted that “his manual typewriter and rotary dial telephone continued to suit him just fine.”

He was a finicky reporter who specialized in including even the most arcane details. For instance, at the LA Times, he wrote a lengthy first-page appreciation of the “humble” paper clip. His lede: “Consider the paper clip.”

Journalism education played a pivotal role in Kent’s life. Kent idolized his father, Curtis D. MacDougall, a journalist and political activist who ran as the Progressive party candidate for the US Senate from Illinois in 1948. Curtis, one of the most prominent professors of journalism of his generation, taught for 29 years at Northwestern University, where his students called him “Dr. Mac.”

Kent himself became a dedicated, if sometimes quirky, teacher in the pre-digital age, who emphasized the basics. At the end of each term, he invited his students to take a tour of his prodigious files, which with the help of his wife, Kathleen, were neatly arranged in the basement of his home.

In its 1989 attack on Kent, the Journal opined that 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.”

In a stunningly thorough LA Times story, reporter David Shaw interviewed students who pushed back against this claim.

Shaw quoted a half-dozen who had taken classes from MacDougall. “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 commented: “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.”

Kent raised important issues regarding journalism—issues that were not settled then and have not been settled since. For instance: Where do the private views of a reporter belong? In the desire for newsroom diversity, what role should political diversity play?

One suggestion Kent made, in his long essay, to expand our notion of diversity seems especially salient: “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.”

More than three decades after he wrote that, no one has picked up on his modest proposal.

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