Preferred Citation: MacKinnon, Stephen R., and Oris Friesen China Reporting: An Oral History of American Journalism in the 1930s and 1940s. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1987 1987.

8 Political Objectivity and Personal Judgments

Political Objectivity and Personal Judgments

"Missed" stories also could be attributed to political bias. In chapter 7 the question was raised in relation to gatekeepers. But how were reporters in the field affected by political bias? Or, putting it more bluntly: "Were the reporters biased in favor of the Chinese Communists?" as James Thomson asks in the Introduction. These are questions that did not occur to the reporters themselves because it was like asking, "Was I biased?" This was a generation of journalists in conscious pursuit of "objectivity" in what they wrote, so their initial answer at Scottsdale was, "No." Significant soul searching then followed, beginning with an illuminating discussion of the accuracy of reporting on the Kuomintang and Chiang's forces as compared to reports about the Communists and their armies. Henry Lieberman:

It was true in China that much of the criticism of the Kuomintang was based on the fact that a lot of our people were living in Kuomintang areas and could see what was going on. What was happening in Communist areas we didn't know anything about. I went to Yenan, as did others, and it was the Camelot of China to the outward eye. But it


was also largely hidden from view, and much was unseen. We discovered a Russian presence in Yenan and were told, "Oh, those are Mao's doctors."

Also, when you got into areas where there had just been a battle you discovered that there were atrocities on both sides. Once when we were touring a battlefield under Nationalist auspices, it struck me that each fallen soldier seemed to have two wounds. One of them invariably was a shot in the head. It was amazing that there should be so many casualties with guys dying as a result of a shot in the head. It seemed clear to me that this was a case of Kuomintang atrocities. They didn't take any wounded. On the other hand, I came across one instance where someone was caught in a haystack and hacked to death. It was a Communist atrocity. The judgment to be made here is that when you get involved in a war some very unpretty things happen on both sides, and when you don't have full information you suspend final judgment but remain skeptical.

Peggy Durdin seconded the notion that "familiarity breeds contempt."

The idiocies, the mistakes, in the KMT area were pushed upon you every day. You knew the battles between the factions, you knew the miseries and all the rest of it. On the revolutionary side we knew very little and certainly not the seamier side of the factional fights.

Was the reporting of China biased because of the lack of hard knowledge about the Communists? Don Kight answered this question .

The implication, of course, is a bias toward the Left. Certainly there was a bias. Being human beings, newsmen


have all sorts of biases. However—and this is the key point—despite their biases, the pressmen I knew made every effort to be utterly neutral and to report facts. Undoubtedly they were tripped up now and then, at least unconsciously, but they were a highly professional, capable group of reporters and no other group could have produced any better copy.

If bias crept in, it was probably on the side of the Gimo, and came from visiting reporters. Individuals or groups under the aegis of the War Department or some other agency were forever appearing on quick world trips. (A number of them were not first-class reporters, for the invited editor would turn his invitation over to some reporter as a reward for a local scoop.) These transients, inasmuch as they weren't very informed on China and couldn't ask embarrassing questions, were well received by the Chinese and granted interviews "my" correspondents had been trying to get for months, which used to drive me up the wall.

As to the quality of the reporting—remembering that there are always exceptions—the best estimate may come from a friend, a former newsman turned army public relations officer and now retired, to whom I sent a recently turned-up list of the reporters in China, without asking for any opinions. He wrote, "It gave me . . . a good feeling . . . to read down that roster and remember that there is such a thing as truly responsible reporting . . . one can at least look back upon and think about."

Phil Potter backed up Kight's remarks .

Were we reporters aware that the Chinese Communists were not agrarian democrats? Yes, we were, throughout. I was up in Kalgan, capital of a Communist border re-


gion government, and one thing that was pretty obvious to a newspaperman was the fact that in Communist China there was not a single newspaper other than their own party organ, whereas in Kuomintang China there was a comparatively free press. You had the Ta Kung Pao and you had many others, so that you got a sense of opposition to the Kuomintang government. A newsman could hardly be unaware of the fact that if you don't have a free press, then you're not an agrarian democrat.

What about the degree to which the assumed anti-Communist position of the American government might have influenced the slant given to stories from China? Did the correspondents consciously or unconsciously try to forestall anticipated criticism of their reports? John Fairbank:

On the origins of the Cold War and the function of the press in it, perhaps we could agree on a certain perspective. The folklore has been that the Cold War was forced upon us by the Soviets, but I think the conventional wisdom now among thoughtful people is that it came from both sides.

On the Chinese scene, we had, for example, the case of Pat Hurley and his plumping for Chiang Kai-shek when his staff wanted to remain neutral in a Chinese civil conflict. This was a premature example of the American Cold War attitude. A question in my mind is the degree to which American officials, and particularly army officers, were predisposed to assume that the American posture must be anti-Communist, since it had been that worldwide. In particular it had been anti-totalitarian against the Nazis, and weren't Communists totalitarian? There


was a natural tendency to see the Cold War as a continuation of a just war against totalitarianism.

This general mind set, I rather assume, was in the American mentality and you found it in American officials and army officers. I think of Milton "Mary" Miles who was a leader in the anti-Communism cause very early. The joint US-KMT Sino-American Cooperative Organization (SACO) police headquarters and interrogation center in Happy Valley (near Chungking) is now a museum, with its torture chambers and evidence of American occupancy, and it's probably one of the must sights when you are in a tour group going to Chungking. Miles was a real boy scout with strong fascist proclivities. There must have been others like him scattered through the American establishment. When Walter Robertson became chargé after Hurley left (Walter was a Richmond banker) he knew what he thought about Communism.

The strategic posture against the Soviet Union came partly out of Washington. My question is, how much was anti-Communism in the blood and bone of the American establishment in China?

Bill Powell responded to Fairbank's query with an anecdote.

I think John Fairbank introduced a very important issue. Another side to it is the effect on the press of US government information and American officials attempting to sell their version of events to the press. We've all had experiences with that. If you're an American journalist working abroad you're really dependent on the consulate or the embassy. There's no way of getting around it. We have many examples where we've gotten pretty good


information, but I'm sure all of us have examples where we were badly treated by our own government. Wedemeyer lied to me about the American troops in North China, for example. One time at a July 4th reception, Consul Davis, who was probably one of the ablest consul generals we ever had in Shanghai, took me aside and complained about an article I had carried. He said he didn't think it was a very good article. And I told him I thought it was quite a good article and said, "You know, if you'll point out to me anything with it that's wrong, why I would be very pleased." We went back and forth a little bit, and finally he looked at me. "Bill," he said, "the United States has its friends and it has its enemies. Its friends it looks after and its enemies have to look after themselves." This has always been the case.

Arch Steele:

In the time frame that John Fairbank refers to, anti-Communism was a very important element in our attitude, and it made it difficult to deal with the question of the Chinese Communists. Take for instance the visit of the correspondents to Yenan in 1944. I was not there, but I saw what they wrote when they came back. I talked to them and some of them were saying, "Well, these people are not Communists. They're promoting a new democracy up there," which they were. But it was only one stage on the road toward Communism. We were reluctant to paint them as real Communists, though, because we knew that that would go against the American grain. If you took a favorable attitude toward the Communists, it would probably have created, in the eyes of the publisher, a feeling that the correspondent in question was maybe pro-Communist. The mind set that we acquired in the United


States before we came to China predisposed us to take a position regarding Communism, and that affected to some extent our views and subsequently our dispatches on Chinese events.

In fact it made it very difficult sometimes to say favorable things about what we saw. But there they were. A trip from Chungking to Yenan was like going, in one sense of the term, from hell to heaven because everything in Yenan looked so orderly and the people were practicing democracy, or so they said, and to a large degree they were. And the Communists seemed to have found a formula that might open the way to a new day in China. But behind it all was this Cold War assumption that Communism was a monolithic structure and that the Chinese Communists, regardless of the differences in their behavior, were at heart totalitarian. And if you asked them, "Are you really Communists?" they'd say, "Of course, we're Communists." And they were. The new democracy was just a step in the direction of Communism.

Steele has stated clearly the problem of being politically "objective" about the situation in China in the mid-1940s. Increasing coverage of the corruption and unreliability of our ally Chiang Kai-shek coincided with positive reporting on the new democracy and effectiveness of the Communist-led guerrillas. At one level, as Steele points out, both kinds of news contradicted the growing cold war attitude at home. But at another level, negative coverage of Chiang Kai-shek and greater attention given to the Communists paralleled changing opinion within the State Department and among policy makers in Washington. As we shall see in the next chapter, the sacking of Stilwell in the fall of 1944 brought matters to a head, with policy conflicts in official Wash -


ington producing even greater contradictions in China reporting. We turn now to an examination of how closely the changing political objectivity, or bias, on the part of journalists in the field reflected or contributed to shifts at home in US government policy and public opinion about China.


8 Political Objectivity and Personal Judgments

Preferred Citation: MacKinnon, Stephen R., and Oris Friesen China Reporting: An Oral History of American Journalism in the 1930s and 1940s. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1987 1987.