‘Truly Sinister’

When Journalists Decried JFK’s ‘Lies’ and Fake News Cries

‘The president has been listening to a few advisers who have the scornful idea that it’s proper the press speak only when spoken to, or reports the news with “one-sided fairness.”’

History has certainly been kind to John F. Kennedy in assessing his performance during the 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. In this year’s October tributes, many in the media will no doubt hail his measured response in comparison to what we might experience from an erratic and impulsive President Trump in a similar showdown. Looking back, reporters and pundits in 1962 surely expressed nothing but appreciation for how JFK managed to avert a nuclear war.

Well, not quite. While Kennedy drew wide praise for his handling of the Soviet missiles in Cuba, he had, in the process, sparked wide resentment among the media for how the White House had manipulated or even lied to the press about it while it was transpiring. Reporters had reluctantly gone along with repeated requests from Pierre Salinger, the White House press secretary, for self-censorship during the crisis and acceptance of a formal 12-point list of “guidelines” for withholding news. Surely, with the crisis over, the administration might admit it went a little too far—even lying about the president’s health and travel—or at least quickly shed the crisis-spawned secrecy demands.

But the White House was in no hurry to do that. In fact, after becoming president, JFK was as critical of the press as his predecessors, despite the generally favorable coverage of his administration. Just before the Cuba crisis he had ordered the FBI to tap the phone of Hanson Baldwin, a New York Times reporter, over a national security leak; and convinced CBS to kill Daniel Schorr’s coverage of an escape tunnel under the Berlin Wall and NBC to postpone its program on another tunnel. (I write about these CBS and NBC projects and JFK’s response in my book The Tunnels.)

Now, as the Cuba crisis died down, a public affairs spokesman for the Pentagon named Arthur Sylvester set off a firestorm when he admitted the control of information was even tighter than in World War II, yet defended it, due to “the kind of world we live in.” It was important for the nation to speak with “one voice to your adversary,” he opined. And he used a loaded term in speaking favorably of government “management” of the news. (He stopped short of revealing that Kennedy himself had used the phrase “news management,” and favored the practice.)

Journalists of all political persuasions raised a hew and cry, declaring that they were now expected to act as little more than government propagandists.

James Reston of The New York Times pointed out: “As long as the officials merely didn’t tell the whole truth, very few of us complained, but as Sylvester told the truth, the editors fell on him like a fumble.” Reston’s newspaper in an editorial declared that “management” or “control” of the news “is censorship described by a sweeter term.” The Times’ Arthur Krock, while admitting that all presidents have tried to manage the news, opined that “direct and deliberate action has been enforced more cynically and boldly” by this White House “than by any previous administration when the U.S. was not at war.”

The Washington Star asserted that Sylvester had “let the ugly cat out of the bag,” calling his comments, “truly sinister.” George Sokolsky, the conservative columnist, compared current U.S. press control with that under Hitler, Stalin, and Castro. Newsweek, however, was more generous, deciding that if the White House did indeed “mislead the public, it accomplished its tactical end—allowing U.S strategists to work in secrecy... It had worked.”

Sylvester refused to sign a clarifying statement drafted by the White House. He denied that the Pentagon had engaged in “distortion, deception or manipulation” and emphasized that national security and the safety of U.S. personnel required careful treatment of journalists. Sadly for Sylvester, The New York Times chose to characterize his remarks with the classic headline, “U.S. Aide Defends Lying to Nation.” His views, however, were largely shared by Salinger, who believed that disinformation and even lies were means by which democracy could defend itself in a Cold War where its enemy had the advantage of operating in secret.

Privately, JFK admitted to his friend, Ben Bradlee, then editing Newsweek, that the U.S. had indeed “lied” to the press during the Cuba crisis. And policies he had ordered in the wake of the Hanson Baldwin leak to monitor both reporters and government sources had now been instituted, at least in partial form, at the Pentagon and State Department. Merriman Smith, White House correspondent for UPI, complained, “The president has been listening to a few advisers who have the scornful idea that it is proper that the press speak only when spoken to, or reports the news with ‘one-sided fairness.’” A House committee began an investigation.

Kennedy in a Nov. 20, 1962, press conference took responsibility for the emerging media policies and said that if thought they “restricted the flow of essential news” to the public he would change them. However, one week later, his aide McGeorge Bundy wrote to columnist Joseph Alsop: “We are aiming at dangerous reporting assisted by irresponsible or careless officials... [T]his kind of reporting exists, and... there are such officials.”

Behind the scenes, JFK continued to rail against the press. There were media reports that some Cuban refugees were claiming the Soviets were hiding some of the missiles they had purportedly removed from the island. In a meeting at the White House with national security aides, Kennedy complained that the American people were “bound to think it’s true” if it appeared in the press and that this could raise tensions with the Soviets again, even “possibly a war.” Such media reports made the Kennedy team appear “incompetent or liars.” He asked CIA Director McCone to verify the removal of the missiles and debunk the news accounts.

Beyond that, he asked that a new system be devised to combat “inaccurate” stories in the media, though he did not refer to them as “fake news.” For example, he suggested, the White House could demand reporters hand over evidence of their claims about the hidden missiles. Referring to one report, Kennedy said, “CBS News shouldn’t, ahh—we ought to make that fellow [the reporter] come over and give us the dope.” Aides argued, however, that it might not be a good idea for the White House to start refuting news scoops by attempting to prove the negative.

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Kennedy retreated on this. Even if he’d had his own Twitter feed at that time, one can’t imagine, unlike the current occupant of the White House, that he would have charged that the press “is the enemy of the American people” or that it is “frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever it wants to write.”

Greg Mitchell’s latest book is The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill (Broadway Books).