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…The opportunity for journalistic distinction that its superior personnel presented and that its headless management squandered by misguided retrenchment was nowhere more marked than in Moscow, where the Herald Tribune had posted early in 1937 a superbly qualified correspondent of twenty-nine. He knew the Russian language, the land, the people, the history, and the bureaucracy as no other American correspondent did and had arrived to represent the paper just as the terrorist nature of the Soviet regime was being bared to world scrutiny.
Joseph F. Barnes, a broad-shouldered six-footer with a
long, strong face and great personal charm to match his good looks, had grown
up not quite a child prodigy in a highly unorthodox household. His father, a
social progressive, was an itinerant scholar and Chautauqua lecturer who had
not learned to read until he was twenty-five, traveled in academic circles
throughout the nation and abroad, and would take young Joe with him sometimes
on the speaking circuit. Joe’s childhood was passed “in masses of rooms full
of masses of books and masses of guests,” among them Harold J. Laski, the
British political scientist, whose socialist views Joe was exposed to and
favorably taken with during the year Laski lived with the Barnes family in
Philadelphia. Admitted to Harvard at fourteen, Joe was sent off instead to
stay for a year and a half with friends who lived a dozen miles outside
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Switching to the
If he had been captivated by Communist thought, he picked
a peculiar way to implement it on his return to
From the day he entered the city room, he was special. Handsome, reflective, courteous, he also evinced a youthful enthusiasm for people and ideas that he would never lose. Some found him too subtle; others took his self-possession for arrogance. Said one city-room contemporary, “He was one of the few men I’ve ever seen who could strut sitting down.”
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But he worked hard. He put in his time as a district man on the police beat, did hundreds of obituaries on rewrite, and hit the streets as a cityside reporter specializing in stories about science and education. Yet his fondness for journalism was tempered, he related in a remarkable memoir recorded in 1951 for the Columbia University Oral History Project. Joe Barnes was attracted to newspapering because it made him feel a part of his tumultuous times. Many young intellectuals had turned to Marxist doctrine as something solid to pin their hopes to. Joe had seen the Soviet prototype and harbored hopes but few illusions. And now he was out there witnessing his own troubled society up close, and the paper gave him his ticket as legitimate observer of its infinitely varied forms.
“Every day is done when the paper goes to press,” he mused, “and next morning the world starts as if it had been created afresh for you.” But there were days when he was convinced that the prime qualification for excellence in reporting was “a limitless capacity to be bored.” The fascinating personalities with whom legend said he was to be in steady contact were far outnumbered, he found, by tiresome ones – by dumb cops and timeserving politicians whose ineptness and insensitivity he could not openly challenge. He did his work well, though, and joined the newly formed Tribune unit of the American Newspaper Guild because he did not think twenty-five dollars a week was an excessive reward for the demands of his trade. And in a complex and painful romance involving the breakup of both their previous marriages, he wed Fred Field’s former wife, Elizabeth, known as Betty, a Bryn Mawr graduate with a serious and independent mind, who considered herself radical but in no way politically doctrinaire. No city-room agitator, Joe was nevertheless known to be leftist, so managing editor Wilcox put him to the test of covering the national convention of the Communist Party in 1936 to name its presidential ticket. His handling of the week-long assignment in thoroughly objective fashion convinced his bosses that he could be trusted not to let politics distort his reportage. Named as Moscow correspondent, he sailed in February 1937 with his wife, Betty, and her five-year-old daughter, Lila. En route, he stopped in Paris and met Laurence Hills, who was much taken with him; Hills wrote to Forrest that Barnes “strikes me as one of the best young men I have seen picked for foreign service in a long time.” Forrest concurred. Neither of them alluded to his private politics.
Covering Russia, at a time when the savagery of the Soviet secret police system was turning the purge, detention, and liquidation of political deviance into daily acts of state, was probably the most difficult journalistic assignment in the world for a correspondent from a capitalist nation. The Soviets offered no help. There were no press conferences, no access to the commissars, no interviews with official spokesmen. Every extracted fact was treated by the regime as a piece of potential military intelligence. An American correspondent’s main news sources were the Soviet press, what he could see on the sidewalk with his own eyes, and, if he knew the language without need of an interpreter (as only Barnes did among the American correspondents then in Moscow), casual contacts with the people on the street, in shops, or at the theater. All cables were censored, all phone calls and mail monitored.
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Under such circumstances, the Barneses elected to live not
within the safe confines of the foreign colony but across the
The oppressive political climate affecting Soviet citizens, moreover, did not restrict Barnes from traveling widely as long as he could fend for himself and make do with rough accommodations. He cruised down the Volga and over other inland waterways, mingling freely with the people, and was allowed to roam from the Ukrainian breadbasket to the new trans-Ural industrial heartland at the edge of Siberia. On such treks especially, the line between work and recreation disappeared for him and he relished the chance, as he would write in the chapter on foreign correspondence he contributed to Late City Edition, “of finding the sort of all-absorbing immersion in a new experience which some men would pay for.” He learned the correspondent’s priorities of survival – a bed, a cable or wireless office, a way of getting out of town, food and drink, local currency, and “some natives who are not too dishonest” – and suffered from what he called “the corrosive psychological effect of knowing” that wherever stationed or whatever his pay, the American reporter abroad was an aristocrat compared to the people he was writing about.
The hardest part of the job for him was its professional loneliness. There were never any instructions from New York or Paris about what to cover, never a rebuke when the Times’s veteran Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty scooped him, and only an occasional note of commendation from Wilcox or Sunday editor George Cornish. “I got almost nothing,” he would write of his employers, “but freedom and silence.” And from the Soviets, cold scrutiny and nightly struggles on the telephone with the censor. Once he put through a call to the Tribune bureau in Berlin and, thanks to careless monitoring, was able to get out a list of 1,200 Soviet officials of every rank who had been victims of the purges. The feat nearly got him deported. But he did not back down or disclose fear. “Joe was a very cocky guy, full of himself and ambition, and not fraught with anxiety or uncertainty,” his wife recalled. Such grit earned him the suspicion not so much of the Soviets as of those in the self-ghettoized American colony who did not speak the language as Joe did and did not choose to live across the river with the people and socialize regularly with those of other nationalities. “No doubt we were disliked for not being humble about our differences,” Betty Barnes surmised.
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How Barnes was viewed within the American colony is
suggested by the recollection of George F. Kerman, long a leading
A different contemporary view was offered by Henry Shapiro, who was a Moscow correspondent for forty years, starting as a Herald Tribune stringer in 1933, then becoming Reuters bureau chief, and switching to head the United Press bureau late in 1937. Shapiro found Barnes not more pro-Soviet than other American and Western correspondents, as Kennan judged him, “but less antiSoviet.” Most of the American press corps, in Shapiro’s estimate, had a cultural and political bias against the Soviet regime. “The very fact that Joe knew the language was enough to cast him under suspicion,” Shapiro said. “Joe’s problem was that he didn’t suffer fools gladly – he was head and shoulders over the rest of the correspondents, and he’d let you know about it. He’d been used to dealing with academics and others with a background in the area…. He was very critical of the Soviet Union when dealing with people with whom he thought he might have an intelligent conversation.”
Word came from New York at the beginning of December of his first year in Moscow that he was to hold down his filing as part of the Tribune’s economy drive. It had a chilling effect on Barnes. To be put, in reality, under the supervision of Larry Hills made matters even worse. Instead of protesting to the ownership as John Whitaker had urged them, the paper’s European correspondents got together and signed an aide-memoire among themselves, pledging cooperation to help meet their mutual problem and agreeing to take collective action only as a last resort. In January 1938, Hills praised Barnes by writing, “I think you have been holding your stuff down beautifully.” So discouraging was this perverse cheerleading that Barnes felt constrained at the end of that month to write Hills and explain like a schoolboy why he wished to take a two-week trip to the Urals and beyond to see, as no American correspondent had in eight years, the huge new Soviet industrial developments. It represented, Barnes carefully explained, “probably the biggest single shift in economic and military geography since the opening of the American West or the industrialization of Japan.” Hills cabled back: “TRIP PERMISSION GRANTED ON CONDITION NO EXPENSE TO PAPER . . . .” On the successful completion of his voluntary assignment, Barnes was greeted by word that he would not be reimbursed for his rail fare to and from Paris in December for a visit during which he had held extensive discussions with Hills.
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The Tribune’s self-defeating policy of fielding a corps of highly competent foreign correspondents and then drastically curtailing their output was illustrated in all its folly by the highly compact but unduly pinched accounts that Barnes filed on the great set piece of terrorist politics in the Stalin era – the purge trials for treason against twenty-one formerly prominent Soviet officials in March 1938. Years later, some would accuse Barnes of having slanted his copy toward the regime, but a close reading of his stories as published (after having been edited by the avowed Soviet sympathizer John Price) discloses no such bias. There were instead such skeptical phrases as “this plot for a Hollywood scenario” and “one of the strangest prisoner’s speeches in the history of political crimes” that amply conveyed the correspondent’s belief that he was witnessing a carefully staged drama. The trouble was not with what Barnes wrote but what he was not allowed to write. For the opening day of the trial, when the Times carried the entire text of the indictment of the alleged traitors and separate articles of commentary by anti-Stalinist exiles Kerensky and Trotsky in addition to the long main story – a full page of type in total – Barnes filed only 560 words, which when expanded from “cablese” came to a sixteen-paragraph story of about twice that length, skimpy in the extreme compared to its rival’s coverage. And things got worse as the trial progressed despite Barnes’s best efforts to compress his accounts. On most days he cabled fewer than 400 words, and even his longest piece, only twice that length, showed both the art and the strain of colorful compression; it began:
Moscow, March 8 – The thin ice of theoretical quibbles collapsed today in the sixth day of the Soviet Union’s most spectacular treason trial, dropping the entire proceedings into the political underworld. From Henry G. Yagoda, former head of the secret political police, and a trio of famous doctors who had worked on his instructions, the court martial heard a strange tale of the deliberate medical murder of four well known men as a last resort of the desperate conspirators struggling for power.
Barnes continued to cooperate without protesting the myopia of the paper’s cutback of its foreign correspondence. In April he again wrote Hills, politely asking if he might go to the Ukraine, where “this year’s harvest is likely to have overwhelming importance for the whole Soviet situation. As with my Magnitogorsk trip, it is understood that…I will pay all the expenses personally.” The correspondent, in short, was subsidizing his employer. But by May, Barnes’s patience was becoming exhausted. He politely but firmly wrote to Hills objecting to the paper’s decision to run an AP story on the May Day parade instead of his own interpretation of the event. Not only was the wire-service piece wrong on the facts, such as stating that U.S. Ambassador Joseph E. Davies was present when he was actually in bed with indigestion, but it missed completely the point “clear to nearly everyone except the A.P.” that the parade was less military than in former years and more a display of proletarianism. By July, his unhappiness was turning to disgust. After the Times correspondent had filed a piece of 750 words on a subject about which Barnes felt free to send off only 300, he wrote to Walter Kerr in the Paris bureau that “anyone comparing our stories will think I was lazy, inept, or both” and added:
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But this is a general problem, applicable to every story every day,
especially since [Times
correspondent] Walter [Duranty] has come back with ants in his pants, and is
sending a think-piece every day. The
“I never had the feeling,” Barnes
would say of his
The rest of the Tribune foreign corps was reaching the same conclusion. In May, John Elliott wrote Barnes that Hills had urged him to send New York part of a piece that the Paris edition had run under the headline “Avenue de l’Opera to Be Lavishly Decorated / With Roses for Visit of British King and Queen”; Hills went on, “I would appreciate it greatly if you and Mr. Kerr would keep your eyes open for anything that could be cabled in the way of a short to incite interest and bring Americans to Paris. As you know this helps the European edition and that means Mr. Reid. I am afraid we are threatened with a rather poor American tourist year.” This, two months after Nazi Germany had seized Austria – without a Tribune correspondent on the scene – and four months before the Munich Pact that would sentence Europe to war. Elliott also passed on word of the demoralizing effects of the economy drive in the New York office from Leland Stowe, who had written him: “As for foreign news, it has no champion in the upper hierarchy here – and may never have. To know what is happening abroad you simply have to read the Times and that will be the case ad infinitum, I fear. We have thrown away countless opportunities to become really a competitor and now are in retreat….”
The pusillanimous policy that led the Tribune to curtail its European coverage when it should have been expanding it and its European manager to appease fascist regimes – all because its owners were unwilling to deprive themselves of personal luxury or seek adequate outside financing so the paper would not have to live hand to mouth – was laid bare late in July 1938 when the Paris edition suppressed a column by Walter Lippmann. Hubert Roemer, assistant general manager of the Paris edition, acting in place of Hills, who had been hospitalized with intestinal cancer, wrote the New York office explaining the decision, which had angered Lippmann: “…it would be very foolhardy to prejudice what he [Hills] has built up by publishing some of Mr. Lippmann’s pieces. If there is no war in Europe this summer and we had published this particular article, we would have scared a lot of tourists needlessly.” He sent the New York management a copy of the letter of explanation he had written Lippmann, in which he stated that he knew the columnist appreciated “the rather unique position of the Herald Tribune’s edition over here .... [W]e cannot take the definite risk of antagonizing other nations or in frightening tourists by presuming to tell the former the faults of their regime or the latter by explaining to them, through our columns, the dangers of an immediate armed conflict over here.” After adding the gratuitous intelligence that in some countries the Tribune’s distinction between signed columns and official editorial policy was not recognized, Roemer concluded by insisting he was not assessing the situation “from a purely commercial point of view.” But no other was cited; it was simply dishonorable journalism. Wilbur Forrest cabled Roemer back: “REID AND I AGREE HILLS POLICY MUST PREVAIL PUBLICATION LIPPMANN ARTICLES. YOUR LETTER OUTLINING POLICY EXCELLENT.”
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It was the same sort of dollars-first abandonment of principle
that had permitted the paper to publish the shameful supplement touting the
joys of totalitarian
which you may think are none of my business . . . I feel that I ought to tell you that when Larry Hills was put in charge of the foreign service, practically every American journalist in Paris was appalled.
I have many old friends there and they write me candid letters, and they tell me that the Paris Herald Tribune is playing the fascist game from start to finish. Inasmuch as this is certainly not the policy of the Herald Tribune, I feel that you ought to do something about it.
The Tribune did. Hills, by then a terminally ill man, was summoned home and told there would be no more pulled punches in covering European fascism. He was stripped of the power to write editorials except of a purely local and nonpolitical sort, but direction of the paper was not removed from him; he had been, after all, a creature of the Reids and done their bidding all too well.
The measurable effects, meanwhile, of the economy drive on the health of the Tribune as the news heated up on the eve of World War II lent substance to Bill Forrest’s contention, as expressed to Hills early in 1938, “that a well edited and closely written paper – in normal times – is a better newspaper and that volume has to stop somewhere due to the sheer inability of the reader to absorb it . . . . I think the Times has a policy of long windedness which may prove an increasing embarrassment.” By the end of 1938, a year that was hardly “normal times,” and despite the reduced filing from foreign bureaus, the half-million-dollar slash by the economy committee in operating expenses, and the fact that the Tribune was running six fewer pages in its daily edition than the Times, it was the latter that suffered a larger circulation drop – of more than 20,000 in the daily edition compared with the Tribune’s loss of 1,500 – after both papers raised their price from two cents to three in May. “It is my personal belief – not entirely subscribed to by some others here – that we should never go back to loosely edited papers,” Forrest wrote Hills with the end-of-September ABC circulation figures in hand. The Tribune, he argued, “should surrender completely to the Times its unenviable obligation to publish full texts and other volume for the rag paper edition and library trade and publish a paper for people who have only part of the day to devote to it. In other words we should maintain our newly gained journalistic individuality.”
Whether this was an artful attempt to make a virtue out of
a shortcoming or an earnestly held conviction among higher management, the
cutbacks eased the financial squeeze without apparent damage to the Tribune’s competitive position. And
the coming of war, with its imposed restrictions on newsprint availability
and limitations in overseas filing due to crowded military traffic on cable
lines, would freeze the relative positions of