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All around Union Square is the land of The Daily Worker.
You'll see them standing everywhere, reading The Daily Worker.
You go in the door of a soda store and talk to the soda jerker.
He knows the truth about the war – by reading The Daily Worker.
SENATOR JOSEPH McCARTHY:
If I am giving comfort to our enemies, I ought not to be in the Senate. If, on the other hand, Mr. Murrow is giving comfort to our enemies, he ought not to be brought into the homes of millions of Americans by the Columbia Broadcasting System.
Senator Joseph McCarthy, in April of 1954 on Edward R. Murrow’s television program, See it Now.
SENATOR JOSEPH McCARTHY:
And I want to assure you that I will not be deterred by the attacks of the Murrows, the Latimores, the Fosters, The Daily Worker or the Communist Party itself.
Ed Murrow, author Owen Latimore, Communist Party head William Foster - they would all outlive McCarthy, and so too would The Daily Worker, which ceased publication, at least in its original daily form, 50 years ago this weekend. Founded in 1924, The Worker was the de facto house organ of American Communism, echoing the Party line from Moscow and touting a global Marxist ideology.
Vernon Pedersen is a historian of American Communism at the University of Great Falls in Montana. He says The Daily Worker started out a pretty drab affair.
Well, in the very beginning it was primarily an in-house organ for the Communist Party, publishing a lot of Party documents and pronouncements that came down from Moscow, and it was really pretty dry reading.
But in the 1930s, when Earl Browder came to be Party chairman, that’s the point The Daily Worker really started to orient itself towards a general audience, trying to do things that would appeal to the common man. And they were particularly unhappy with Franklin Roosevelt when he was first elected.
Yeah, let me talk about that, because Roosevelt, I would say, is universally regarded as our most socialistic president. But The Daily Worker, I guess [LAUGHS] he wasn't pink enough for them. Tell me what the paper sounded like on the subject of FDR.
Well, in fact, I've got an excerpt from an article from 1932 commenting on Roosevelt’s New Deal. It says, “The policy of Mr. Roosevelt’s party is identical in all essences with that of the Republican Party. Mr. Hoover could be a member of Roosevelt’s cabinet – or vice versa.” [BOB LAUGHS]
And there’s a series of headlines I gathered. This one says in bold type, “Wall Street: Roosevelt Bill Passed by House Robs Tens of Thousands of Vets and Members of the Armed Forces.” Or, “Loot Reaches Seven Billions as Banks Fold Up. Hoover and Roosevelt Shaped Plot Months Ago.” In the early days they were not happy with Franklin.
Certainly, at least through the late '20s and into the '30s, Communism was regarded by many Americans as just a global fight for social justice and therefore in some ways were sympathetic with its goals. The people read The Daily Worker and even subscribed to it. Was anyone’s life ruined during the McCarthy era for having subscribed in their naive youth to The Daily Worker?
Well, in fact, subscriptions to The Worker could get you in a lot of trouble in the 1950s. One of the more famous ones, though, actually rebounded very badly on McCarthy. There was a black woman in Washington, D.C., named Annie Lee Moss who was a member of the Communist Party in the 1940s. She wasn't a particularly good member of the Party. She rarely attended meetings.
But, in 1954, Annie Lee Moss was working for the Pentagon as a code clerk. She just translated things from one machine to another and wasn't privy to any classified information. But McCarthy picked up on this and denounced her as a security risk.
They brought her in to testify before his Senate committee. The poor woman really made a pathetic figure on the stand. She was only about 5’2.” I think she weighed maybe 100 pounds. They had her bundled up in a coat and she was wearing a hat. She looked like she was very nervous and possibly quite ill.
The major evidence they had against her was a Party card and the evidence that she had subscribed to The Daily Worker. She made such a compelling figure that McCarthy realized how bad things were going and actually left in the middle of interrogating the woman, and left the whole thing to Roy Cohn, of course, who was notorious for his bad treatment of people on the stand.
This is one of the things that led directly to the Army/McCarthy hearings and McCarthy’s discrediting, even though, in fact, Annie Lee really was a Communist.
Hm. By any measure, did The Daily Worker do journalism as we currently define it?
I would have to say that even though it took a very ideological line in its coverage of strikes and some of the grass roots movements, it did very much practice journalism. For example, during the 1934 San Francisco strike that led to the formation of the ILA under Harry Bridges, the Party had a number of people in San Francisco at the time who were sending back dispatches to New York so that they could be turned into articles. And these were very much like the kinds of immediate reporting that other people were doing.
The Party always had to put a spin on it to try and present events in the way that they felt people needed to understand them, but a lot of mainstream journalists do that as well.
There was one sportswriter at The Daily Worker named Lester Rodney who played a fairly pivotal role in breaking the color barrier. Tell me about him.
Lester Rodney is really kind of the epitome of the changes that took place in The Daily Worker during the Popular Front period. Previously, the editors didn't like the idea of sports coverage because that seemed like a bourgeois pastime and just something to distract the workers from the real job of revolution.
But in 1936, Rodney came on. He was a self-taught journalist. He'd been a sportswriter at his high school, joined the Communist Party and parlayed his early high school experience into a job as their baseball correspondent.
The man loved the sport and was given a fairly wide range to write freely about what he saw as the problems in baseball and especially the segregation of black players. He championed the career of Jackie Robison for nine years before Robinson was actually brought on to the Brooklyn Dodgers.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about The Daily Worker?
I guess the biggest misconception would be to think of it as just this strident, completely irrelevant publication. It actually had a place in American culture and society for a long time. During the heights of the Popular Front it attracted a number of very good contributors. Woody Guthrie occasionally contributed columns on music. Richard Wright wrote about things happening in Harlem and in the black community.
And for a time, they even had a comic strip called Little Lefty that one of the contributors did, a man named Harvey Kurtzman, who later went on to edit Mad Comics, which turned into Mad Magazine in the 1950s.
[LAUGHS] Little Lefty?
The paper’s high point, you know, I would say would have to be between 1956 and 1958, when it stopped publishing. At that time, John Gates was the editor. He had had a lot of serious criticisms of the Communist Party after Khrushchev made his famous speech to the 20th Congress.
He opened the paper up and people began writing serious editorials, questioning Party policy and doing the kind of things that you really do in a popular press. Of course, Gates then was thrown out of the Party and the paper ended its run shortly after him.
Vernon, I appreciate it. Thanks so much.
Thank you very much for the opportunity.
Vernon Pedersen is a historian of American Communism at the University of Great Falls in Great Falls, Montana.
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You go to a dance to look for romance/
They're waltzing a mazurka/
You have a chance to catch their glance/
by reading The Daily Worker/
The Eskimo, the Hottentot/
The Chinaman and the Turk-a/
They know exactly what is what/
By reading The Daily Worker.
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That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips and Nazanin Rafsanjani, and edited - by Brooke. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson and more engineering help from Paul Schneider. We also had help from Andy Lanset, Jessica Magaldi and Ian Whitehead. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
And I'm Bob Garfield.