MediaWatch: December 1996

Vol. Ten No. 12

Janet Cooke Award: Alger Hiss, Beneficiary of TV Laziness

The threat of expanding slavery and death under communism ended with the Soviet Union in 1991. But the network obituaries of Soviet spy Alger Hiss on the night of November 15 suggested that ignorance lasts forever. For inaccurately remembering Hiss that evening with tales of red-baiting hysteria and Russian-based vindications, ABC, CNN, and NBC earned the Janet Cooke Award.

Since the statute of limitations for espionage had expired, Hiss was convicted of perjury in 1950. His guilt was underlined in 1978 with the publication of Allen Weinstein's book Perjury, and then again this year with the National Security Agency's release of the Venona transcripts, which detailed the activities of a spy code-named "Ales" which mirrored the allegations raised against Hiss by Whittaker Chambers. Only CBS, which aired only a few seconds notice of Hiss's death, covered the Venona transcripts (in a March 5 story by reporter David Martin).

The other network obituaries had a very uniform structure, proclaiming Hiss was (1) a well-established, brilliant public servant; (2) until he was accused of spying by Whittaker Chambers and exploited for political gain by Richard Nixon; (3) who protested his innocence against the anti-communist insanity of his times; (4) then cleared by Russian officials of ever being a spy.

On ABC's World News Tonight, Peter Jennings oozed sympathetically: "Alger Hiss was an accomplished lawyer and a diplomat until a man named Whittaker Chambers accused him of being a communist who passed state secrets to the Soviets. At congressional hearings he defended himself against a young Richard Nixon. Hiss was ultimately convicted of perjury. He lost his livelihood and his marriage. He protested his innocence until the very end, and last year, we reported that the Russian President Boris Yeltsin said that KGB files supported Mr. Hiss's claim."

CNN anchor Linden Soles lectured on PrimeNews: "Hiss was a Harvard-educated lawyer with a distinguished career in government when he was accused in 1948 of helping pass secret documents to the Soviets. The case attracted national attention and helped spurn a period of blacklisting and hysteria over the communist threat. Richard Nixon's political career got a major boost after his aggressive efforts in Congress against Hiss. Hiss was later convicted of perjury and spent the rest of his life trying to clear his name."

Over on the NBC Nightly News, Tom Brokaw proclaimed: "He was a public servant of rising prominence in the 1930s and 1940s when suddenly he was caught up in a spy scandal and he was accused of being a member of the Communist Party. In 1948 he was charged with helping pass State Department secrets to the Soviets. His case drew unprecedented attention and he was pursued tenaciously by a freshman Congressman -- Richard Nixon. Despite the support of many prominent Americans, Hiss was sent to prison for almost four years. It's a case that still divides many people in this country, but at the end of his life, Hiss considered vindication a declaration by a Russian general who controlled the KGB archives, saying that Hiss had never been a spy."

(On NBC spinoff MSNBC's The News with Brian Williams, anchor Brigitte Quinn announced Hiss "was a symbol of the Cold War and the McCarthy witch hunts that haunted that era....In 1987, a Russian general declared that Hiss was never a spy, but a victim of Cold War hysteria." Quinn was wrong: Gen. Dmitri Volkogonov made his declaration in 1992 -- and then admitted he hadn't thoroughly reviewed the files.)

Three days later, Tom Brokaw told viewers of Volkogonov's admission, without underlining Hiss's guilt: "Last week on this program we reported on the death of Alger Hiss, the establishment intellectual who was at the center of a bitter debate about his Communist Party credentials and suspected Soviet spy activity. Late in his life, we reported, he felt vindicated by a Russian general's claim that there were no records to support the claim that Hiss was a spy. However, the Russian general admitted he didn't have access to all records."

The next night, Peter Jennings retracted ABC's claims: "We have a clarification tonight...In the obituary of Alger Hiss, we reported that Russian President Boris Yeltsin had said that KGB files supported Hiss's contention that he had never spied for the Soviets, as he insisted all his life. It was actually a member of Yeltsin's staff, General Dmitri Volkogonov, who made the statement. He later said the evidence wasn't conclusive because there were other Soviet intelligence agencies whose files were not available." So two networks switched their reports on Hiss from vindicated to uncertain -- not to the truth that Hiss was a spy for a foreign power.

How is it that all these whitewashed reports echo one another in tone? Perhaps the best answer is a 334-word Associated Press dispatch labeled "Urgent" put out at 5:11 the night of November 15 with the headline "Alger Hiss, Nixon Nemesis, Dead at 92." It read: "Alger Hiss, the patrician public servant who fell from grace in a Communist spy scandal that propelled Richard Nixon to higher office, died Friday afternoon...Hiss' life can be neatly broken into two parts. The first was a stellar rise to a brilliant academic career, clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a series of important posts in the New Deal and the foreign policy establishment, foundation work. But on Aug. 3, 1948, a rumpled, overweight magazine editor named Whittaker Chambers alleged that 10 years earlier, Hiss had given him State Department secrets....For the rest of his life, he worked for vindication, both in court and in the court of public opinion. He proclaimed that it had come finally in 1992, at age 87, when a Russian general in charge of Soviet intelligence archives declared that Hiss had never been a spy, but rather a victim of Cold War hysteria and the McCarthy Red-hunting era."

By 9:26 PM, AP was distributing a longer story by Jerry Schwartz that mentioned the Venona files and the Volkogonov admission, but it was too late. ABC and NBC failed to return phone calls, but CNN spokesman James Holland told MediaWatch: "We did treat all aspects of the issue, with the weight of the evidence toward the mainstream, what the common thoughts are on this particular individual and his history."

Liberals insist conservatives see an organized conspiracy in media bias. What the Hiss TV stories prove is that sometimes, biased reporting just happens when lazy reporters can't manage to do more legwork on a world-historical story than walk across the room and rewrite a biased AP dispatch. Newspapers work up obituaries years in advance on major historical figures. Why couldn't the net- works do more?