The Press: The Price of Freedom

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As James V. Forrestal was buried with military honors in Arlington National Cemetery (see NATIONAL AFFAIRS), the nation's press reflected on the vitriolic attacks made on the nation's first Secretary of National Defense. Commentators Drew Pearson and Walter Winchell, who had jabbed away at Forrestal for relentless months in syndicated columns and Sunday-night broadcasts, found themselves the attacked instead of the attackers.

An Oblique Reply. Hatchetman Westbrook Pegler, in no position to strike the first blow, nevertheless struck the hardest one. Wrote Pegler: "For months, Drew Pearson and Walter Winchell hounded Jim Forrestal with dirty aspersions [and] insinuations, until, at last, exhausted and his nerves unstrung, one of the finest servants that the Republic ever had died by suicide . . ." Pearson, whose column runs in many Hearst newspapers, promptly announced that he would sue Hearstling Pegler for $250,000 for libel; Winchell, also featured in most Hearstpapers, made an oblique reply in his column ("It is typical of one presstitute [that when he] condemned critics of Forrestal [he also attacked] Roosevelt").

Along with Pegler's attack, Pearson and Winchell also had a chance to consider angry criticism from other members of the nation's press. In the New York Times, Hanson Baldwin wrote: "Drew Pearson and Walter Winchell . . . maligned and traduced and attacked [Forrestal] in various commentaries ... for which the radio and press must bear the burden of shame." Cried the Hartford Courant: "[Americans] are sick at the stomach over the cur-pack that long yelped at the heels of this man . . ." The New York Herald Tribune deplored their "juvenile savagery"; the Washington Post berated them for "below-the-belt" blows.

Unquestionably, the attacks by Pearson and Winchell had gotten under Forrestal's skin long before he resigned his post and went into mental collapse. The columnists had questioned everything from his policies to his financial honesty, his patriotism, his courage and even his "chivalry." To a visitor last January, Forrestal had said: "Pearson and Winchell are a high price to pay for the freedom of the press, but I guess you've got to do it."

An Elusive Line. Probably few newsmen really thought that criticism alone could have unmanned someone of Forrestal's stature. Columnist Eleanor Roosevelt, who has herself been a target for Westbrook Pegler, spoke the thoughts of many when she wrote: "No man in public life in this country is immune from criticism . . ." Several editorial writers and columnists tried, without notable success, to draw a dividing line: How far should a vigilant press go in its role as guardian of the nation's welfare and proper critic of the acts of its public officials? At what point was freedom of the press shamed by lack of responsibility of the press? Nobody had the answer, and if it meant reducing the case to specifics, no one would ever define it. But in the Pearson and Winchell assaults on Forrestal, one thing was clear: both had overstepped the bounds of accuracy and decency, both had strayed far from their responsibilities as journalists.