On December 11, 1941, four days after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Joseph Medill Patterson went to see President Roosevelt at the White House. Appropriately enough, it was high noon—and F.D.R. was ready for a showdown.
Patterson was the owner of the New York Daily News, the largest-circulating newspaper in the country (4.5 million on Sundays), which he had devoted to increasingly rabid attacks on Roosevelt’s foreign policy.
The president was in no mood to be gracious. He kept Patterson waiting and then had him stand while he ordered him to read his own editorials—screeds that, Roosevelt insisted, impeded America’s preparation for war. “Read every one of them and think over what you have done,” the president said. A shaken Patterson teared up.
But Roosevelt wasn’t finished yet. He then turned his attention to Patterson’s sister. Eleanor Josephine Medill “Cissy” Patterson, Countess Gizycki (on account of a clichéd marriage to the standard dissolute Polish count), was the publisher of the Washington Times-Herald, the paper remembered for hiring a young Jacqueline Kennedy as an inquiring photographer.
Her paper flooded Washington with an amazing 10 editions a day, each one spewing anti-Roosevelt bile that not even her brother matched. She was to his right.
Roosevelt also had Robert McCormick to reckon with. Known as “the Colonel,” McCormick was the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, the dominant paper in the Midwest, and, like the Pattersons, a grandchild of Joseph Medill. As cold as the Chicago winter, he provided unmistakable evidence that Roosevelt-hating, like toxic bathtub gin, vandalized the mind.
McCormick insisted that Roosevelt was in thrall to certain “internationalists,” some of them having changed their recognizably Jewish names to something more “American.” As a public service, and with relish, McCormick outed them.
McCormick was uniquely rich and uniquely mad, but in the America of the late 1930s he was just another reactionary publisher. Most newspapers were owned by wealthy conservatives—a redundancy there—but the most powerful of them all was “the Chief” himself, William Randolph Hearst. He controlled 28 newspapers and used them all to spew a furious isolationism.
His early admiration for Roosevelt had soured into a porridge of hatred so bilious it could kill at first sip. Like the Medills, he believed that the president might cancel the 1940 elections and was overlooking the nation’s most pressing threat: the so-called Yellow Peril supposedly posed by Japanese or Chinese immigrants and the (opium-crazed) hordes remaining in Asia. The Chief was a bit crazed on the subject. Maybe it had to do with a childhood sled.
Cissy Patterson’s afternoon paper flooded Washington with an amazing 10 editions a day, each one spewing anti-Roosevelt bile that not even her brother matched.
Lest you believe that this sort of thinking was a solely American phenomenon, Kathryn S. Olmsted sets you straight. Her new book, The Newspaper Axis, begins with a pair of hugely successful British newspaper proprietors who did whatever they could to obstruct Churchill’s efforts to ready Britain for war.
One of the two, Lord Harold Rothermere, of the Daily Mail, got so close to Hitler it’s a miracle he didn’t get mustache burn. He deeply admired the German leader without, of course, overlooking his “minor misdeeds.” He maintained, however, that someone had to do something about those “Israelites with international attachments”—and Hitler, despite some criticism, did just that.
Max Beaverbrook, the other British press magnate, was less enamored of Hitler, but his Evening Express so adamantly championed what was decorously called “splendid isolation” that it canned Winston Churchill as a columnist for insisting that Britain stood in mortal peril. Churchill soon got a better job (with a car and driver) and, recognizing Beaverbrook’s organizational brilliance, invited him to join the government. A temperamental sort, Beaverbrook resigned something like 14 times before an exasperated Churchill finally let him go.
Now come current events to provide some perspective. When Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine—a brazen violation of international law and postwar norms—here and there were prominent conservatives who either offered the Russian leader a shrug of indifference or a pat on the back.
The shrug came from Tucker Carlson, whose reading of Ukrainian history was both jaundiced and jumbled, and the pat came from Donald Trump, whose adoration of Putin is of the sort a puppy has for a master or, for that matter, a son for a father who built a real-estate empire.
Following Germany’s invasion of Poland, in 1939, and Britain’s declaration of war, even Rothermere had to bow to reality. But, in America, war would not come until almost 1942—plenty of time for Hearst and the Medills to insist that what was happening in Europe and Asia (where Japan had attacked China) was neither America’s concern nor its business.
They had more pressing concerns. To them World War I had taught America a brutal lesson about the futility of intervening in Europe’s gang fights, but underneath it all, beating like Poe’s telltale heart, was an endemic anti-Semitism and, Hearst’s standby, the Yellow Peril.
Olmsted has herself a clever book title, but it’s a bit of a stretch. The various media barons really had little to do with one another. A greater handicap is her intellectual integrity: she has to acknowledge that her “axis” members, while hugely mighty and important, nevertheless kept failing in their main objective—defeating Roosevelt. Instead, he just kept on coming.
By the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, he had won three terms, carrying McCormick’s Chicago and Patterson’s New York every time. Along with Hearst, they might have had millions of readers, but mostly for the comics or sports or salacious gossip—not for the news coverage, and certainly not for the editorials.
Roosevelt was a laggard when it came to denouncing Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. But as Olmsted makes clear, the president was dealing with a right-wing press that, absent reliable polling, was thought to reflect its readership. What polls did exist revealed that Americans wanted no part of a European war—especially one purportedly to be fought on behalf of the Jews. America back then was not ready for Seinfeld.
In the end, Germany and Japan settled the argument. Japan attacked, and Hitler, doing Roosevelt an immense favor, declared war on the U.S. Still, it took Roosevelt’s nimble haters little time to decide that the attack on Pearl Harbor was a false-flag operation—a “terrible conspiracy” to tempt Japan into an attack, McCormick wrote. The Pattersons, as usual, agreed.
But, increasingly, the Medills and Hearst were becoming marginalized. Hearst not only couldn’t stop Roosevelt; he couldn’t entirely stop Orson Welles, either, despite a massive discrediting campaign. When Citizen Kane opened in New York, the critic Kate Cameron praised it. She wrote for Joe Patterson’s Daily News.
Richard Cohen is a former op-ed columnist for The Washington Post