Real News or Fake? In 1939 Dorothy Thompson Weighed In on the Topic.

 

 

 

Dorothy Thompson on the cover of Time magazine, June 12, 1939

She was one of the most celebrated journalists of her era. On June 12, 1939, she graced the cover of Time magazine which called her “‘the second most popular and influential woman in the country behind Eleanor Roosevelt.’”  And Dorothy Thompson (1893-1961) was one of the women Jane Hall admired most. As readers of Such Mad Fun will know, Jane had, at times, flirted with the idea of being a journalist; she wrote several reports from Hollywood including a profile of author Vina Delmar for Cosmopolitan. But when I flipped through the August 1939 issue that includes Jane’s profile this morning, what intrigued me was an article titled “Government by Gossip” by Dorothy Thompson

In the 1920s and early 1930s, Thompson had spent many years in Europe—she even interviewed Hitler in 1931. She begins her article by acknowledging that she’d been a professional for 19 years and knew a great deal about what was going on in Europe as well as “a large number of the leading figures in politics, journalism, business and letters.” She had a reputation among her colleagues for being “exceptionally well informed.” But, Thompson wants her readers to know, she does not feel well-informed. Unlike many others, she is aware of what she doesn’t know; she worries because millions of dollars are being spent all the time to create false impressions. “An enormous amount of what we believe is rumor – and some rumor may even be true.” So many people are pulling strings every moment; “since no government, even the most brutal dictatorship, can work without having the masses behind it, the doping of the public is going forward on a gigantic scale.”

In dictatorships, Thompson observes, many people realize that the government only tells them what it wants them to know; but in countries with an independent press, at a time when the news coverage has never been greater, there has hardly been an event in recent international affairs “about which we know with positive authenticity all the essential facts.” Thompson gives several specific examples of how hard it is for journalists and their readers to find the truth about what’s really happening on several fronts such as the Spanish Civil War. Despite the miles of newspaper reports, she asks, “who is sure of certain highly important facts?” Even in America, there are way too many versions of what really motivates President Roosevelt’s decisions at critical times.

Thompson’s questions remain critical ones: “What is the condition of our armaments? One group of experts say they are excellent; another says they are lamentable. The man in the street doesn’t know, and he can hardly have an intelligent opinion, because he doesn’t know – and neither does Congress – what our defense policy really is.” Plus, on another matter,  she wrote: “There is a great deal of talk about balancing the budget, but does anyone in Congress really want economy to the extent of risking votes?” Thompson refused to discuss in detail “various poisoning campaigns, launched in the most shameless manner, for the purpose of boosting personal ambitions, aiding foreign powers, provoking public confusion for revolutionary purposes, and assassinating reputations with the object of removing the prestige of public personalities. Yet such conscious and malicious poisoners of public opinion are rampant these days.”  . . .”And even if you have your favorite columnists, [or substitute pundits on television and on the internet] consider that once in a while they, too, may be very, very wrong!”

Wikipedia lists some of Thompson’s most famous quotations. How about this one? “No people ever recognize their dictator in advance. He never stands for election on the platform of dictatorship. He always represents himself as the instrument [of] the Incorporated National Will. When our dictator turns up [in America] you can depend on it that he will be one of the boys, and he will stand for everything traditionally American . . . [People] will greet him with one great big, universal, democratic, sheeplike bleat of ‘O.K. Chief! Fix it like you wanna, Chief! Oh Kaaaay.’” [1935]

It was intriguing to read these words from the late 1930s. Some of Thompson’s caveats could come up in a Ted talk today. For years she had a syndicated newspaper column called “On the Record,” and she wrote a monthly column for the Ladies’ Home Journal until she died. I wonder what she would’ve thought of the new Cosmopolitan had she lived beyond 1961. Now I’m convinced that Jane Hall’s lifelong fascination with politics came in part from Dorothy Thompson’s columns in the 1920s, 1930s and beyond. I can see why.