- Interview by
- Sasha Lilley
In the 1930s, the owners of the most widely read newspapers in the United States and Britain married far-right, xenophobic politics with sensationalism. These press lords, as historian Kathryn Olmsted puts it in The Newspaper Axis: Six Press Barons Who Enabled Hitler, “trafficked in populist slogans but lived like kings.” Some identified with fascism, while others advocated neutrality toward Adolf Hitler, focusing instead on imperial ambitions in other parts of the world.
Sasha Lilley recently interviewed Olmsted for Against the Grain, a California-based progressive radio show, about her new book. In their conversation, Olmsted explains why these wealthy press moguls sympathized with — and at times even collaborated with — fascist movements, paving the way for right-wing mass media today.
In your book, you argue that far-right media today has its roots in the nationalist, xenophobic newspapers of the twentieth century. Who were these six newspaper barons, and what was the reach of their papers in the 1930s?
Collectively, they reached more than fifty million readers in the United States and the United Kingdom. In their respective countries, they were the biggest newspaper publishers, and their papers were the most popular.
First, in Britain, there was Harold Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Rothermere, who owned the Daily Mail, which by the 1930s was the most popular, best-selling newspaper in the world. He was an extremely conservative newspaper publisher and even pro-fascist; he was quite enthusiastic about Hitler. There was also Max Aitken, 1st Baron Beaverbrook, the owner of the London Daily Express, which by the mid-1930s had overtaken the Mail as the most popular newspaper in the world.
In the United States, I look at William Randolph Hearst, who was arguably the most influential media figure of all time. He owned twenty-eight different newspapers at his peak, as well as a movie theater, a movie studio, a newsreel company, and many magazines. He reached thirty million readers every day.
Then there were three cousins. Robert McCormick and his cousin Joe Patterson owned the Chicago Tribune and the tabloid the New York Daily News, respectively — two of the most popular newspapers in the United States. Patterson’s sister, Cissy Patterson, owned the Washington Times-Herald, which was the most popular newspaper in Washington, DC.
They were all determined to keep their governments from intervening in Europe and stop them from standing up to Hitler’s aggression. There was a spectrum of reasons for this.
In Rothermere’s case, he was actually pro-fascist. He supported the British Union of Fascists for a time, and he wrote very admiring stories about Hitler and the Nazis. Beaverbrook was not pro-fascist, but was an imperialist and called himself an isolationist — he believed that Britain should have nothing to do with what happened on the continent of Europe.
In the United States, Hearst for a time was accused of being fascist, and published articles by Hitler in his newspapers. By the mid-’30s, he was not overtly fascist, but he was certainly determined to be an isolationist. And the Patterson-McCormicks also used their newspapers to harangue President Franklin D. Roosevelt and to tell him that he should not do anything that could embroil the United States in European affairs.
The British press lords that I study were extremely pro-empire, and were very much in favor of the use of British military power to maintain and expand the British Empire. Likewise, the American press barons were perfectly fine with US military power being extended into Latin America, and even sometimes into Asia. They just did not want the United States to intervene against fascists in Europe.
Can you tell us about the term “isolationism”? In some sense, these press barons could be branded as isolationists in that they opposed military intervention in this set of circumstances. And yet, as you note in the book, the term has become fraught, because obviously there are people across the political spectrum who might oppose military intervention. In the 1930s, there was also a strong pacifist movement on the Left.
Because the term “isolationist” is so fraught, there are many historians who do not like to use it anymore. They prefer “anti-interventionist” or “neutralist” to capture the broad spectrum of opposition to intervention in World War II.
But perhaps historians have overcompensated here, because most of these press lords were proud isolationists. They used the term themselves. They understood it to mean that they wanted to be isolated from Europe, not that they believed the United States should be isolated from the rest of the world.
How did anti-communism inform the perspectives of media owners like Hearst and Beaverbrook?
Again, there’s a spectrum of anti-communism among the press lords.
Anti-communism is essential to understanding Rothermere’s embrace of fascism. He was terrified that a red tide would wash over Europe and eventually get to Britain, so he saw Hitler as a bulwark against Soviet communism. His anti-communism led him to fascism. Hearst was also intensely anti-communist, and very worried about what he saw as the communist threat in the United States. He had some sympathy for the fascists because they were standing up to communism.
For the other press lords, anti-communism was not as essential to their worldviews. But certainly they understood the conflict in Europe as a conflict between communists and anti-communists, which made them more sympathetic to the fascist worldview.
Part of the reason these newspapers were so popular was that their owners figured out that nationalism sold.
Hearst figured this out in the 1890s with the Spanish-American War. Rothermere’s brother, Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, figured this out in the 1890s with the Boer War in South Africa.
Because nationalism sold copies, these newspapers used increasingly strident terms to describe foreigners, and to describe the necessity of Britain or America extending its power over the world.
They defined the United States and Great Britain as Anglo-Saxon countries (although that was not true, even at the time), and they were afraid that if their Anglo-Saxon countries went to war with another Anglo-Saxon country (like, in their eyes, Germany), this would lead to the destruction of the white race. Of the newspapers, the New York Daily News was the most explicit about this fear, and that meanwhile, these so-called “yellow” races would take over the world. This was one of the reasons the Daily News argued over and over that the United States should not go to war with the Nazis.
How did these press barons relate to US domestic politics? It seems like there was a range, especially within the trio of the three cousins, in their views of Roosevelt and the New Deal.
Robert McCormick of the Chicago Tribune was extremely conservative. He was a traditional conservative, in that he was very up-front about his belief that hierarchies of race, class, and gender were what made America great. He did not want to disturb those hierarchies. Though he initially did not attack the New Deal — and by initially, I mean for a few weeks — he soon turned against Roosevelt and was an inveterate Roosevelt-hater from mid-1933 onward.
Joe Patterson was a rare newspaper owner for those days in that he actually supported at least some aspects of the New Deal through the 1930s; he even reluctantly endorsed Roosevelt for a third term in the 1940 election. But he broke with Roosevelt over foreign policy. He believed that Roosevelt was much too anti-fascist, much too pro-intervention. Patterson began to believe, like his cousin, that Roosevelt was advocating these foreign policies not because he was a sincere anti-fascist or because he believed that the United States was in danger from German expansion, but because he wanted a war so he could become dictator. The Daily News started predicting that Roosevelt was going to rig elections, get himself appointed dictator, and then never hold any elections again. It even predicted that once he made himself dictator during the war, he was going to appoint one of his sons as his successor. By the time of the United States’ entrance into the war, the McCormick-Patterson papers certainly could not have been more opposed to Roosevelt, in both his domestic and foreign policies.
And what about Hearst? What do we know about his relationship to the Right and fascism in the 1930s?
There is still a lot we don’t know about Hearst’s dealings with the Nazis, but he did definitely have a deal with the Nazi state-owned film-production company in the 1930s. Hearst’s newsreel company swapped film footage with the Nazi film company — they would show Hearst newsreels in Germany, and Hearst would show Nazi footage in his newsreels in the United States. As a result, during some of the biggest events of the 1930s, including Hitler’s invasions of other countries, people who were watching Hearst newsreels in the United States saw footage that had been shot by the Nazis.
As far as Hearst’s attitudes towards Roosevelt, he started out as a big fan. The Hearst production company made the movie Gabriel Over the White House, which debuted in March 1933. It valorized a Roosevelt-type president and suggested the president needed to assume dictatorial powers to take the United States out of the Great Depression.
By 1934, Hearst started turning against Roosevelt, because he thought Roosevelt was too pro-union. He was especially disgusted with Roosevelt’s 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act, which legally protected the right to join a union. Hearst began to believe that Roosevelt was influenced by communists, and used all the power at his disposal to attack Roosevelt’s domestic and foreign policies from that point on.
Robert McCormick, who you noted was particularly reactionary, was involved in a kind of revisionist history of Pearl Harbor, which claimed that the Roosevelt administration turned a blind eye to the coming attack. What was the theory McCormick proffered?
The Chicago Tribune published the first Pearl Harbor conspiracy theories by a reporter named John T. Flynn, who was extremely anti-Roosevelt and active in the isolationist America First Committee. Flynn had come to believe, along with other isolationists during World War II, that the United States had been tricked into the war and that there had been some sort of deception at Pearl Harbor — that, in fact, Roosevelt had either orchestrated the attack or had known it was coming and deliberately withheld this information. They believed he wanted to use this attack to get the United States into a war with Japan and eventually Germany.
Flynn published the first article suggesting this theory during the war. And then, immediately after the Japanese surrender, in September 1945, the Chicago Tribune ran a big story by Flynn, alleging that Roosevelt had foreknowledge of the attack at Pearl Harbor. The story inspired a congressional investigation into the alleged intelligence failure — or the alleged conspiracy — that had led to the attack.
Did these six media moguls face any consequences for their fascist sympathies or their America First, Britain First imperialist politics? Was there any fallout for them from the general public during or after World War II?
That’s an interesting question; the consequences varied from individual to individual.
Rothermere, who was the most pro-fascist, was very concerned that he might even be interned in Britain. He was able, with the help of his friend Beaverbrook, to get out of the country in 1940 and go on a mission to the United States and Canada. He died in 1940, so he never really had to face criticism for his years as a fascist.
Beaverbrook was an appeaser for years, even through the first year of World War II. But when Winston Churchill became prime minister in May 1940, he made Beaverbrook his minister of aircraft production. Beaverbrook threw all of his energy into that area and became a national war hero.
In the United States, Hearst’s newspapers initially suffered some circulation decline because of boycotts and the perception that he was a fascist. He had to declare partial bankruptcy in 1937 and reorganize his affairs, though he did recover.
The most interesting and perhaps frightening case in the United States is that of Joe Patterson, who did not suffer any financial consequences. The Daily News only grew in size and circulation during World War II. As it turned out, his angry populism resonated with a lot of readers, even in wartime.
These media owners also promoted the lifestyles of the rich and famous, which happened to include themselves.
Yes — this was especially true for Hearst. He famously owned Hearst Castle, a 115-room mansion on the California coast, to which he would bring Hollywood stars for big parties every weekend. He had the biggest apartment in New York City. He had a castle in Wales. He had a spread on the beach in Santa Monica. He bought European art. He bought the Dutch masters. He bought Italian fountains. He bought a Spanish monastery and broke it into ten thousand pieces and brought it back to the United States.
Hearst would then have his newspapers cover his rich and famous lifestyle. He was not only selling his newspapers; he was selling himself as an exceptionally successful American businessman. The readers could aspire to have a lifestyle like that of William Randolph Hearst.
How much continuity and discontinuity do you see between these mass-circulation publications in the 1930s and some of the offerings in the media system now?
I see a lot of continuity. I think that this book tells an origin story about the right-wing media that we live with today. We can see that the right-wing media’s embrace of authoritarian dictators has deep roots in the past. In this period, we can see the primordial Fox News — the roots of the right-wing media obsession with individualism and consumption, but also authoritarian politics and populist nationalism.
In that era, it took a lot of capital to start a newspaper. By the 1930s, it was basically impossible to start a new newspaper unless you were one of the richest people in the country. And of course, most of these people had right-wing politics.
The frightening thing is that these newspapers were not only entertainment for people. They were also how ordinary Americans got their news: from these very wealthy individuals, who used their media outlets to spread their conservative, reactionary, or sometimes even pro-fascist views.
Sometimes people argue that the reason we have celebrity-fueled journalism is because it’s what the public wants: to attract a mass readership, you need to give the public what it wants. Is this a fair argument about media in the 1930s or now? Are these far-right publications just giving people what they want to read?
I’m not sure that the mass public in the 1930s wanted to read nice stories about Hitler and the Nazis, or that they wanted to read that the Nazis did not pose a threat to the rest of the Europe. I think that was pushed on them by the owners of the newspapers, even as audiences read those newspapers for other reasons. The right-wing propaganda was slipped in with the sports and the comics and the columnists that people liked to read.
And so I don’t think that right-wing propaganda was necessarily the politics that people wanted. Perhaps they did want nationalism. But you can have a kind of civic nationalism that is not racist and imperialist and oppressive.
Unfortunately, in the vision of the media barons of the 1930s, nationalism was always a racial nationalism. It was a nationalism about the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race and the dangers of other races. And this somehow made the United States Hitler’s natural ally, as opposed to Hitler’s opponent.
That kind of ideology was tremendously dangerous to not only the United States and Great Britain but the whole world.
Going forward, it would obviously be great if students in high school or college could learn about media literacy and how to verify sources and information. But because of the way that very wealthy individuals tend to push right-wing politics through their media outlets, what we might need is more publicly funded media.