Why Don Hollenbeck Fascinated Me Enough to Write His Biography


Loren Ghiglione is the Richard A. Schwarzlose Professor of Media Ethics at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. This article is adapted from his 2008 Hollenbeck biography and his 2008 collection of Hollenbeck's best press criticism, Radio's Revolution: Don Hollenbeck's "CBS Views the Press" (University of Nebraska Press).

In writing CBS's Don Hollenbeck: An Honest Reporter in the Age of McCarthyism (Columbia University Press), I wish I could say that I wrote out of a sense that Faulkner was right:"The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Sure, the paranoid state of mind and demonizing of the press so evident in the era of McCarthyism exists today in the age of terrorism. Hollenbeck, who was portrayed as a Commie-loving traitor by conservative columnists and killed himself in 1954 (captured in George Clooney's 2005 movie"Good Night, and Good Luck"), would be dismissed by today's conservative partisans as a member of the effete left/liberal media elite.

But, true confession, I wrote the biography of the talented CBS correspondent only because his career--a story of firings and failed marriages, McCarthyism and suicide, conscience and courage--intrigued me.

First, I wanted to know why the gifted journalist--described by a CBS president as"one of the few great writers that broadcasting has produced"--took his own life. Both my parents had died while I was a student, and when I began the Hollenbeck book 35 years ago I was curious why someone so successful would voluntarily end his life early, at age 49.

Second, Hollenbeck's story intrigued me because his life of personal misfortune and professional success tantalizingly married American tragedy to the American dream. Hollenbeck was generations ahead of his time in training himself to be a multimedia journalist. He wrote for heartland newspapers in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska, and then served as a camera-savvy editor for the Associated Press and PM, an innovative New York City tabloid that refused advertising and hired some of America's best writers and photographers.

He reported the Allied invasion of Italy during World War II for NBC radio. And, as a member of CBS's legendary news team at CBS, he broadcast ground-breaking television news programs during the 1950s, the decade that gave birth to television news.

Third, Hollenbeck fascinated me because of his pioneering press criticism."CBS Views the Press," his 15-minute weekly radio program on WCBS in New York from 1947 to 1950, candidly dissected the city's powerful, pugnacious press. The program, said former CBS correspondent Mike Wallace,"named names and kicked ass."

Fourth and finally, I was drawn to Hollenbeck because he represented the timeless tale of good versus evil. Nat Brandt, a CBS newswriter who worked with Hollenbeck, said he was"early on, when it wasn't fashionable," against McCarthyism--indeed, prior to the word's invention.

CBS, arguably the best of the networks for news in the early days of radio and television, featured a team of celebrated newscasters. Hollenbeck--more than Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, Howard K. Smith, and the others--was the uncompromising knight, fighting anonymously, by comparison, for journalistic first principles, said Jack Walters, a CBS newswriter.

"Of them all," Walters added,"Hollenbeck bore the truest lance. The fact is that he succeeded in one giant step for journalism, where the more favored, the more self-controlled were afraid to tread."

The statement by Walters reminds me of a line by historian Daniel J. Boorstin that, in the world of big names and celebrities," curiously, our true heroes tend to be anonymous. They alone have the power to deny our mania for more greatness than there is in the world."

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