Accuracy in Media

By Wes Vernon*

“Stepping Out of the Shadows” was the Washington Post headline in its Style section of April 5, 2007, over an article by staff writer Lynne Duke. Alongside the headline is the picture of a young Alger Hiss, the Soviet spy?convicted in court and then imprisoned for lying when he denied he had betrayed his country.

As it happens, Hiss?tall, urbane, and oh, so sophisticated?had been “stepping out of the shadows” both before and after his conviction and even before and after his death. And he has had plenty of help from the media?which are loathe to acknowledge that such a pillar of the East coast elite could ever have been found guilty of wrongdoing. In their world, he was smeared by know-nothings on the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA) and yahoos who wanted to run Harry Truman out of office.

The History

For younger AIM readers?or for those who may need a refresher on the history of the greatest spy case of the 20th Century?Alger Hiss?along with many others?was identified as a Communist and Soviet agent in sworn testimony before the House committee in August of 1948.

Hiss’s main accuser was Whittaker Chambers?a former Communist who later broke with the party and became an FBI informant. Most of those named by Chambers (and also by other former Communists such as Elizabeth Bentley) took the Fifth Amendment when asked by the committee to affirm or deny that they had betrayed their country.

Only Hiss defiantly swore, “I am not and never have been a member of the Communist Party.” Further, he added, “So far as I know, I have never laid eyes on [Whittaker Chambers], and I should like the opportunity to do so.”

Washington?then and now?is a place where truth and logic often take a backseat to this town’s number one obsession?politics.

Politics Muddied The Waters

President Truman, when asked for his reaction to the Hiss case, declared it “a red herring.” However, the late Ralph de Toledano?who covered the Hiss case for Newsweek, reported that behind closed doors with his closest aides, the man from Missouri called Hiss “a son-of-a-bitch” who was “guilty as hell.” Asked why he said something totally different for public consumption, the president replied, “The Republicans are not attacking Alger Hiss. They’re attacking me.”

According to fifties radio commentator Frank Kirkpatrick, California’s Governor Earl Warren?at the 1948 Republican National Convention?agreed to accept the nomination for vice president on certain conditions. Among them:  The presidential nominee, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, would not make an issue of Communist spies in the government.  That particular part of the deal?secret at the time?indicated Warren’s true colors which would become more publicly evident years later after he was seated as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In that capacity, he handed down decisions that would free jailed Communists and cripple this nation’s anti-Communist security program right in the midst of the Cold War.

Pro-Hiss Media

From that steamy August day in 1948, when Chambers identified Hiss as a Communist before HCUA, and right on through the first Hiss trial (ending in a hung jury) and the second trial (which found him guilty of lying when he said he had not engaged in espionage), the media covering the real-life drama made little if any attempt to hide their hostility to Chambers and their apologia for Hiss.

After the jury finally reached its verdict that Alger Hiss had lied when he said he had not engaged in espionage, the quisling’s immediate reaction was that he had been done in by “a gallivanting drunken press,” notwithstanding that the press table throughout the case was something of a virtual cheering section for the man.

Whittaker Chambers was painfully aware that if the media rather than a court of law, were to judge the case, he wouldn’t stand a chance. His ten years as a senior editor at Time magazine had prepared him for that.

Communists at the magazine had spread ugly rumors about him and had tried to change his copy to make it more favorable to the Soviet Union, the Communist Chinese, and of course, home-grown Reds. Research material he had gathered for stories to which he had been assigned would mysteriously disappear just as he was up against deadline.

Washington Post Role

The Washington Post, then as now the house organ for the D.C. establishment, took umbrage that so refined, well-bred and well-educated a young man as Hiss could have his career short-circuited by a short rumpled man as Chambers. Reporters and editors at the paper saw Chambers’ testimony as damning not only to Alger Hiss, but to the New Deal which Hiss symbolized. Here was a man who sat right behind President Franklin Roosevelt at Yalta, and had served in the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, in the Justice Department, and as counsel to a Senate committee.

He was also at the founding conference of the United Nations (later dubbed by critics as “the house that Hiss built”), and in fact served as the UN’s first Secretary-General (on an acting or interim basis). Who was this commoner who would dare to besmirch Hiss’s good name?

The Washington Post dislike for Chambers was cordially reciprocated. In his book Witness (one of the great literary masterpieces of the 20th Century) Chambers records his first meeting with Alger Hiss at a strategy meeting with top Communist functionaries at a location “rather fittingly a few doors from the Washington Post.” Elsewhere he refers to the Post as “the most implacable of the pro-Hiss newspapers” and as Hiss’s “staunch friend.”

Of all the reporters who felt free to wander in and out of Chambers’ house during the days when the case was Page 1, Chambers recalled “Only one, so far as I can remember, was ever outstandingly rude. He was a representative of the Washington Post and a former Life [maga-zine] employee. He appeared at the very end of the Hiss case, a few hours after Hiss had been convicted. ‘I’m going to give you hell in my story tomorrow,’ this gracious fellow assured me. To my wife, he promised: ‘We’re going to give your husband what he used to give the writers at Time.’ He kept his word (as he understood it), overwrought, no doubt, by Hiss’s conviction.”

Post Still Holds Out Hope

After nearly 60 years, the same Washington Post is still casting doubt on the legitimacy of the guilty verdict.

Its April 5th article, about a conference on Hiss, declares, “Alger Hiss was a spy, many scholars say. He was not, say many others.”

Herb Romerstein, a real scholar with a background in intelligence in both the legislative and executive branches of government, rejects this journalistic credibility-equivalence on Hiss-Chambers “scholarship.”

In an interview with AIM, he opined: “Well, they [Hiss’s defenders] don’t have any scholars. They have propagandists like Victor Navasky [longtime icon of the Hiss-sympathizing Nation magazine]?but then Navasky says he believes Hiss was innocent?and anybody you actually identify as a spy, and the documents show that they are spies?these people claim that no, they’re innocent, and there was a lot of spying going on, but nobody was doing it.”

What was the source of the conference?

The Post’s April 5 piece identifies New York University’s Center for the United States and the Cold War as “sponsoring today’s conference.” But it said nothing about NYU’s Tamiment Library having received the archives of the Communist Party USA. Herbert Romerstein shares some insight on that with AIM:

“The Communist Party has run out of money, has run out of the money [it] got from Moscow. So they had to sell their building, and they want to continue paying the salaries of the party functionaries. That meant no room for the archives. So the Communist Party archives which they of course have had decades to strip of anything of significance have been turned over to the NYU and Tamiment.”

Suppose a university held a seminar questioning whether Germany’s National Socialist-engineered Holocaust ever took place. Is it reasonable to expect the Post would take the time to determine if the sponsoring group had any links to the cleansed archives of a Nazi group?

NPR Gets In The Act

The Post does mention University of Virginia historian G. Edward White, who wrote a book, Alger Hiss’s Looking-Glass Wars, which reaffirms Hiss’s guilt. White also attended the conference. But most of the article is designed to raise questions about whether Hiss was really a communist spy.

It’s an old story. Columnist and author Mona Charen recalls that when she was working at the Reagan White House in 1985, National Public Radio observed the fortieth anniversary of the Yalta conference and used Hiss as an objective source.

“NPR was doing a little retrospective about the meaning of Yalta,” Charen told AIM. “They interviewed a series of people, including Alger Hiss, and asked him about the meeting, about the atmospherics, [and] identified him only as a former State Department official.”

The (then) White House staffer?now journalist?Charen likens that to identifying Benedict Arnold as “a former Revolutionary War general.”

When she mentioned this to fellow White House worker Pat Buchanan, his response was that obfuscation is par for the course for public broadcasting.

A Liar Not A Traitor?

The media effort to soft-pedal Alger Hiss’s guilt came through in the 2005 George Clooney movie “Good Night and Good Luck,” a totally distorted account of the 1954 clash between CBS commentator Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Clooney puts into the mouth of the legendary founder of CBS William S. Paley the shopworn eyewash that “Alger Hiss was not convicted of treason. He was convicted of perjury.”

(Lynne Duke of the Post made the same point, insisting that “…it has to be noted that he was never indicted for espionage,” as if there was some doubt about his guilt.)

Injecting this line into the movie (whether Paley actually said it or not) was gratuitous since the movie supposedly was about McCarthy who had nothing to do with the Hiss case other than to cite it in some of his speeches.

When this writer came to Washington in 1968, some veteran reporters who had covered the Hiss case would repeat that disingenuous half-truth. No doubt they were among the scribes who?twenty years earlier? had stopped talking to Ralph de Toledano when he pinpointed Hiss’s guilt in his Newsweek columns.

For what seems like the millionth time, let us set the record straight: Hiss could not be convicted of espionage because the statute of limitations had run out. Therefore, he was convicted of the more recent crime of lying under oath when he swore before the House committee that he had not engaged in espionage. As Romerstein tells AIM, “This story was complicated by Alger Hiss and the Communist Party?because they had tried to continue to put a smokescreen over the issue.”

Harry Truman And Hiss

Romerstein in his voluminous book The Venona Secrets (co-authored with Eric Breindel) reveals in detail the code-named Venona documents?secret Soviet cable traffic from the 1940s that the U.S. intercepted and eventually decrypted.

President Truman was so fearful of the political dynamite in the Venona documents that he ordered them destroyed. But some patriot merely filed them away for future historians. They were finally made public in July, 1995.

Venona And Hiss

In a March 30, 1945 message (decrypted in August of 1969) the Washington D.C. Residentua reported to Moscow headquarters on a meeting between “illegal” Resident Akhmerov and an agent for military intelligence called “Ales.” In reading the message, “one sees clearly that ‘Ales’ was Alger Hiss.”

The message said “Ales” had been working for military intelligence since 1935, though most others had been transferred to the NKVD. Hiss was known to have been part of a small group that did not make the transfer. He stayed with military intelligence, the GRU.

The “small group” was described as “for the most part consisting of his relatives.” Hiss’s wife Priscilla was identified by Chambers as being active in Soviet espionage, and his brother Donald Hiss was in the State Department (needless to say, Hiss’s “relatives”).

The message said that after the Yalta Conference when he had gone to Moscow “Ales” had met with “a personage in a very responsible position [Ales indicated it was Comrade Vyshinsky].”

Summing it up to AIM, Romerstein puts it this way: “When you read the Venona documents, you sort it out that he [Hiss] was a longtime agent of [Soviet] military intelligence, which is precisely what Chambers said.  And [Hiss] says he received a medal from Vyshinski when he was in Moscow right after the Yalta conference, and that he went on the American plane from Yalta to Moscow. And there [was] only a handful of people on that plane. And none of the others could possibly be Ales, including the man who was Secretary of State [Edward Stettinius]. And so it’s just ridiculous that it could be anybody but [Hiss].”

Purifying Hiss

In October 1992, the New York Times played up a story quoting Russian General Dmitri A. Volkogonov saying that a search of KGB files offered no evidence that Hiss was ever a Soviet spy.

“You can tell Mr. Alger Hiss that the heavy weight can be lifted from his heart,” he proclaimed.

Later, the general admitted that the search had not been thorough, that it could not be complete because files had been destroyed, and that he could not speak for other intelligence agencies?just the KGB. He did not offer to check again, and the old Soviet warhorse was quoted as saying Hiss’s attorney had pressured him into giving his client the clearance.

More to the point, Hiss had not been accused as an agent for the KGB. Rather he was with the GRU which, as noted above, was the military arm of Soviet intelligence. That corrective story was relegated to Page 10 in the New York Times.

Still Wrong

On the night that Hiss died?November 15, 1996?the Associated Press sent out an obituary that included Volkogonov’s original Clean-bill-of-health statement on Hiss, but not his later correction.

This writer?then a broadcast correspondent?phoned AIM Founder Reed Irvine, and passed along the AP story. Reed in turn phoned the AP and pointed out the wire service error. AP later revised its copy, noting Volkogonov subsequently retracted his earlier clearance of Hiss. 

But the wire service correction was not in time to hit the evening TV shows.

Typical was this from Tom Brokaw on the NBC Nightly News:

“Hiss considered vindication a declaration by a Russian General, who controlled the KGB archives, saying that Hiss had never been a spy. Alger Hiss, dead tonight at age 92.”

The AP correction did not come across the wires until later in the evening. Reed Irvine kept after the broadcasters to make sure that their misinformation on Nov. 15 (a Friday) was corrected on their regular newscasts the following Monday. The results as he reported at the time were mixed. Again truth did not catch up with the lie.

Half Right

The New York Times in its editions the following day?Saturday Nov. 16, 1996?said that Volkogonov “conceded that he could not rule out the possibility that some records have been overlooked or destroyed.”

Interestingly, this writer was able to purchase (via the Internet) from the NYT Volkogonov’s (October 29, 1992) original statement clearing Hiss, but not the later article (December 17, 1992) where the general acknowledged relying on the wrong records. Accessing that particular article, the reader is told, would require a higher-grade purchase including bombardment of e-mails on a regular basis. Question: Why is an early article based on incorrect information easier to access than the article with a corrective?

To its credit, the NYT added, “In 1993, Maria Schmidt, a Hungarian historian [in post-communist Hungary] doing research on the Hungarian secret police, said she had discovered a stack of documents among the files of the Interior Ministry in Budapest that implicated Mr. Hiss as a communist spy.” Correspondence from a former spy, Noel Field, corroborated that, saying Hiss tried to recruit him as a spy, not knowing at the time that in the compartmentalized world of Soviet espionage, Field was also a spy. Field told Hiss they were fellow conspirators. The Soviet underground had to reorganize on the basis of Field’s loose tongue.

Cleansing The Record

Ralph de Toledano, in an updated version of his Seeds of Treason, notes Hiss “in his last days in government came within inches of putting through a reorganization plan which would have given him virtual control of the State Department.”

But Hiss’s influence remains.

An October 2005 State Department report on the founding of the U.N. ignored the role of Hiss while noting that President Truman “directed” Harry Hopkins to negotiate aspects of the U.N. Charter. It failed to mention the evidence that Hopkins, who had been FDR’s right-hand man, was also unmasked as a Soviet agent.  

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