The following is an interview with Loren Ghiglione, author of CBS’s Don Hollenbeck: An Honest Reporter in the Age of McCarthyism. The book is now available in paper. For more on the book you can also an excerpt from the chapter Press Criticism: From Name-Calling to Nuance
Q: Why should we care about a journalist who killed himself more than a half-century ago?
Loren Ghiglione: His life and death remind us of the pressures on truth-telling journalists, now and then, to censor and self-censor—to avoid controversy and speak less than the truth to power. Just as some politicians and media pundits work hard today to dismiss and disparage journalists as liberal/left elitists, so conservative critics tried in the early 1950s to paint Hollenbeck as a Commie-loving traitor. Actually he was an idealistic patriot who believed deeply in America and its values. For example, his pioneering press criticism—his radio program “CBS Views the Press”—held powerful New York City newspapers accountable for their reporting, especially when they were filled with partisan propaganda.
Q: Hollenbeck was played by Ray Wise in George Clooney’s 2005 movie, Good Night, and Good Luck, about the televised confrontation between CBS’s Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joe McCarthy. Was the portrayal of Hollenbeck accurate?
LG: While Wise captured Hollenbeck’s psychological vulnerability immediately prior to his suicide, Hollenbeck came across as a one-dimensional, cardboard-character victim of Red-baiting. Actually Hollenbeck was exceedingly complex—heroically tough in sticking to his principles, whatever the personal costs, and successful professionally in many media (newspapers, photojournalism, radio, television), but overwhelmed by personal challenges—alcoholism, depression, three failed marriages, and a fear of financial ruin (two network firings and the prospect of a third).
Q: What was the toughest part of writing about Hollenbeck?
LG: People close to Hollenbeck inevitably felt a host of unpleasant emotions about his suicide. Were they in some sense responsible? Could they have done more to help him? I found it hard to ask of them the questions I needed to ask for the book when I knew my questions would bring back painful memories that they had often tried hard to suppress. Second, I found it difficult to convey my ambivalent feelings about Hollenbeck’s toughest critic, Jack O’Brian, a witty, hardworking New York Journal-American columnist who could be a mean bully when criticizing Hollenbeck and others that he saw as liberal intellectuals soft on Communism and tough on Joe McCarthy.
Q: What was the best part of writing the book?
LG: I loved interviewing Hollenbeck’s family and friends, all interesting in their own right, and many people important to the history of news—from Bill Paley (who, when I pulled out my tape recorder, pulled out his tape recorder) to Mike Wallace to Walter Cronkite.
Q: What did you learn from writing the book?
LG: I was reminded of the need to remain humble. I worked hard to be accurate in my reporting—I read many accounts of the McCarthy era that contained errors about Hollenbeck and CBS—but learned that there were some questions that I could not answer, however many medical reports and FBI files I read, however many interviews I conducted. I spent months reading about the psychology of suicide and then, in an early draft, hypothesized about Hollenbeck’s mental state at the time of his death. Fortunately for me and the book’s readers an excellent copy editor suggested I eliminate the section of the book manuscript that contained my amateur psychologizing about Hollenbeck.
Q: So what’s your final assessment of Hollenbeck?
LG: Hollenbeck wasn’t an Edward R. Murrow—a celebrity journalist who regularly schmoozed with presidents and princes. He was, as he described himself, a working newsman. He was more anonymous than Murrow and perhaps more heroic. I’m reminded of the words of historian Daniel J. Boorstin: “In our world of big names, curiously, our true heroes tend to be anonymous….They alone have the mysterious power to deny our mania for more greatness than there is in the world.”