Hiss Obituaries Prove Network Laziness
by L. Brent Bozell III
November 21, 1996
Alger Hiss was a felon, a traitor to his country, and an agent seeking the global spread of slavery and death under communism. That hard reality was proven by Hiss's conviction for perjury more than four decades ago. The radical left refused to accept the verdict and made him their poster child, an innocent bystander, a victim of the Cold War.
But his guilt was further proven in the 1978 publication of Allen Weinstein's definitive book "Perjury." The final nail in the coffin came with the National Security Agency's recent 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.
In their obituaries, both Time and Newsweek thoughtfully and unequivocally described Hiss as a spy. Not so the networks, who described Hiss on November 15 as: (1) a well-established, brilliant public servant; (2) until he was accused of spying by Whittaker Chambers (never described as his Soviet contact) and exploited for political gain by Richard Nixon; (3) one who protested his innocence against the anti-communist insanity of his times; (4) cleared by Russian officials of ever being a spy.
On ABC, Peter Jennings oozed sympathy for Hiss after his conviction: "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." A Soviet agent who lost his livelihood after his conviction? One would hope Jennings would consider that a positive development in light of the millions of lives lost to the brutal regime he served.
CNN's Linden Soles lectured: "The case attracted national attention and helped spurn a period of blacklisting and hysteria over the communist threat." Yes, for the radical left. For the rest of the country, the conviction proved how very real was that communist threat.
Over on NBC, Tom Brokaw proclaimed: "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." Brokaw should have said the opposite, that because of the tenacity of men like Chambers, Hiss was sent to prison, a Soviet agent exposed and convicted. Brokaw's report was shameless, declaring Hiss was "suddenly caught up in a spy scandal." And Hitler was "caught up" in the Holocaust, Stalin in the Soviet genocide, Sirhan Sirhan in Robert Kennedy's assassination, too.
On MSNBC's "The News with Brian Williams," news anchor Brigitte Quinn announced: "Alger 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: General Dmitri Volkogonov made his declaration in 1992 - and then admitted he hadn't thoroughly reviewed the files.
How is it that all these reports not only declare Hiss an innocent victim, but echo one another in tone? I offer as an answer a 334-word Associated Press dispatched 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...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....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."
The liberal media's defenders suggest conservatives feverishly insist news coverage is the product of a hard-working, well-organized conspiracy. But that's wrong. What the Hiss TV stories prove is that sometimes, biased coverage happens when lazy reporters can't manage to do more legwork on a world-historical story than to walk across the room and rewrite a biased AP dispatch. Newspapers work up obituaries years in advance on major historical figures. But hey, this is TV - we'll wing it with wire copy!
Three days later, Tom Brokaw came back to tell viewers of Volkogonov's admission. Then Peter Jennings retracted ABC's claims about Yeltsin clearing Hiss. When was the last time two networks had to correct an obituary? It just doesn't get sloppier than this, though surely forty years from now there will still be some nut charging around, with TV cameras obediently in tow, arguing the innocence of this American traitor.