Socialists: Darlings or Devils of the Press

How times change, and how quickly.  Only yesterday, it seems, the media were raking Bernie Sanders over the coals, while Wall Street fretted about what a Sanders presidency might do to the market. Now, Radio Silence, or something like that.

The sustained assault upon Sanders, across the conservative and liberal media, should not have been a surprise. A popular “democratic socialist” would naturally be seen as a threat, certainly to mainstream Democrats: he might make the party over as Trump has made the Republicans into Trumpians.

What might be a surprise is to learn that socialists have not always been abused by most of the U.S. press. Yes, crowds of demonstrators, striking workers, anything that signaled disorder, most especially if peopled by “foreigners” or non-whites, aroused editorial rage and fear. Orderly political campaigns of the Left brought sneers, but less ink was thrown at political movements not seen to threaten the two party system from within.

There is another reason for the difference in press treatment of the Left, then and now. Newspapers were essentially local businesses with advertising revenue less important than daily sales and subscriptions. News coverage could be hugely biased, but the editorial page was the least-consulted feature compared to sports, “the funnies,” local, state and national news— and the obits. Papers aimed at blue collar readers had to be especially careful not to offend their audiences of respectable and well-organized craft workers. 

We need to go back no more than a half-century or so to find Norman Thomas, the widely recognized “Conscience of America.” A former Presbyterian minister who ran for the presidency on the Socialist Party ticket five times, with ever-decreasing electoral results, Thomas seemed to grow in stature as his perceived threat to the system diminished. Consulted by leading newspapers and radio news programs from the 1930s almost until his passing in 1969, Thomas gained further mainstream respectability through his vivid anti-communism (only at the end of his life did he oppose the Vietnam War).  Yet he seemed always to be, somehow, the figure ready to uplift Americans toward a better view of each other and the world.

The real case example, however, is Eugene V. Debs, a class warrior by any definition, a political martyr/hero who earned nearly a million votes while behind bars in 1920. 

The socialist movement supporting him was feared, hated, and denounced, especially by the conservative press. But Debs himself, a half decade before running for president in 1900, received a curious respect. Leader of the dramatic 1894 Pullman Strike, arrested and put behind bars, he seemed to the Springfield (OH) Daily Democrat of 1899 as “not radical or anarchistic in his utterances, but instead plain, rational, logical and cool headed.” A rival paper in the same town called him a figure who has a “desire for the elevation of man and [wish to] ameliorate of the hard social and industrial conditions of the day.” These views were not unique. 

By 1906, when Debs was preparing his second run, the Dowagiac News, a Michigan daily, observed on January 9, about a local speech he made, that his “choice of language was beautiful and faultless, his passages at times sublime. Words slipped from [his]tongue into sentences of perfect English. It can truly be called a masterpiece of its kind.”  

Debs’s banner year of 1912 found him in the “Red Special” train riding across the country giving thousands of speeches (in those pre-radio days, often the same speech). The Tacoma Times of May 15 had “Predicts Stampede to Eugene V. Debs.” Soon enough, though, Progressive Party nominee Theodore Roosevelt  had stolen the third-party news, which was disappointing but illuminating in one way. 

“TR” himself  might be called the most famed anti-socialist of the day. He had denounced socialism and socialists in the most vehement terms since the 1890s. During the 1907 trial of IWW leader “Big Bill” Haywood on charges of involvement with the 1905 assassination of a former governor of Idaho, Debs had warned the authorities not to risk the wrath of the working class. Roosevelt answered in a rage, with a clear reference to Debs, that socialists “habitually appear as guilty of incitement or apology for bloodshed and violence.”

The U.S. entry into war and Debs’s resistance to it, along with the Russian Revolution, seemed to have shifted press views. Thus the El Paso Herald of June 22, 1918, recorded, “The man is a nuisance; a disturber and a fanatic who would, if he could, wreck not only the biblical plan of salvation, but send his country to pot as his likes, the Bolsheviki, have done for Russia.”

And yet Debs, in prison, seemed to gather a sort of solemn respect. Gene was, by this time, a sentimental memory of the vanished socialist dream of an egalitarian America without a world to conquer. He posed only a philosophical danger to capitalism. Besides, antiwar sentiment had by 1920 overwhelmed the orchestrated (and real) patriotism of wartime. The Red Scare raged, but Debs  was no longer a Red to scare the press.