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CBS's Don Hollenbeck

CBS's Don Hollenbeck: An Honest Reporter in the Age of McCarthyism

Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 352
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    CBS's Don Hollenbeck
    Book Description:

    Loren Ghiglione recounts the fascinating life and tragic suicide of Don Hollenbeck, the controversial newscaster who became a primary target of McCarthyism's smear tactics. Drawing on unsealed FBI records, private family correspondence, and interviews with Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace, Charles Collingwood, Douglas Edwards, and more than one hundred other journalists, Ghiglione writes a balanced biography that cuts close to the bone of this complicated newsman and chronicles the stark consequences of the anti-Communist frenzy that seized America in the late 1940s and 1950s.

    Hollenbeck began his career at the Lincoln, Nebraska Journal (marrying the boss's daughter) before becoming an editor at William Randolph Hearst's rip-roaring Omaha Bee-News. He participated in the emerging field of photojournalism at the Associated Press; assisted in creating the innovative, ad-free PM newspaper in New York City; reported from the European theater for NBC radio during World War II; and anchored television newscasts at CBS during the era of Edward R. Murrow.

    Hollenbeck's pioneering, prize-winning radio program, CBS Views the Press (1947-1950), was a declaration of independence from a print medium that had dominated American newsmaking for close to 250 years. The program candidly criticized the prestigious New York Times, the Daily News (then the paper with the largest circulation in America), and Hearst's flagship Journal-American and popular morning tabloid Daily Mirror. For this honest work, Hollenbeck was attacked by conservative anti-Communists, especially Hearst columnist Jack O'Brian, and in 1954, plagued by depression, alcoholism, three failed marriages, and two network firings (and worried about a third), Hollenbeck took his own life. In his investigation of this amazing American character, Ghiglione reveals the workings of an industry that continues to fall victim to censorship and political manipulation. Separating myth from fact, CBS's Don Hollenbeck is the definitive portrait of a polarizing figure who became a symbol of America's tortured conscience.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51689-1
    Subjects: Performing Arts, Sociology, Business, History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xvi)

    When I started this book thirty-five years ago, I planned to write the definitive history of U.S. press criticism. But then I discovered a press critic whose career so intrigued me that I revised my plan. I chose instead to write the story of Don Hollenbeck, a story of firings and failed marriages, McCarthyism and suicide, conscience and courage.

    In researching Hollenbeck’s story I felt at times like a forensic psychologist. Why did the gifted journalist—described by a Columbia Broadcasting System president as “one of the few great writers that broadcasting has produced”—take his own life?¹ Who or...

  4. CHAPTER 1 The Boy from Lincoln
    (pp. 1-18)

    Don Hollenbeck looked back on Lincoln, Nebraska, as a hellish hometown of despair and defeat. His years at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln ended without a degree. His marriage quickly collapsed. His mother killed herself.

    But boosters of Lincoln in the mid-1920s portrayed their growing city (1920 population: 54,948) as a cosmopolitan center of commerce and culture, government and godliness.¹ More than one hundred passenger trains a day of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy and four other railroads helped make Lincoln the “Retail Capital of the Midlands,” the boosters said. Dozens of homeowners’ insurance companies promoted a vision of Lincoln...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Working for William Randolph Hearst in Omaha
    (pp. 19-32)

    Omaha was as close to naughty New York City in spirit as Hollenbeck could get and still be in Nebraska. It was a blood, guts, and sperm city: packing-houses and twenty-six hundred prostitutes; the heritage of five-term mayor James C. Dahlman, who bragged that he grew up with a branding iron glued to one hand and a six-shooter stuck to the other; and a $20-million-a-year liquor-vice-crime-graft-gambling industry nurtured by the political boss Tom Dennison. Omaha during Prohibition, recalled the reporter Sam Mindell, “was a wide-open town—nightclubs, gentle women, a little Las Vegas.”¹

    With three years of experience Hollenbeck landed...

  6. CHAPTER 3 The Founding of PM, a “Newspaperman’s Ideal”
    (pp. 33-46)

    Out of work and money in New York, Hollenbeck took a ten-by-twenty room, toilet and bath down the hall, in a five-story flophouse without an elevator at 309 West 14th Street. He smoked Sensations because his favorite Fatimas were, with tax, 17 cents a pack. He borrowed from his father “for the food I eat, and it is bitter bread,” he wrote Anne. A breakfast of tomato juice, toasted English muffin, and coffee cost him 15 cents at a neighborhood diner. He stuck to franks and beans, ham and eggs, and veal stew for dinner.

    “Prof. Hollenbeck’s next lecture will...

  7. CHAPTER 4 Politics at PM: Commies and “Good Liberals”
    (pp. 47-58)

    Although ambivalent about PM in the summer of 1941, a controversial moment in PM’s history, Hollenbeck went back to the paper as a $468-a-month national affairs editor.

    The controversy at PM involved politics. From the dummy issues befor its first day of publication on June 18, 1940, PM had made clear its opposition to fascism, especially Nazi Germany’s aggressive brand of fascism. But PM’s staff was divided about U.S. intervention in the war in Europe.

    Some staff members refused to support Britain and France, builders of colonial empires. Others saw Nazi Germany’s defeat as the highest priority and sided with...

  8. CHAPTER 5 Covering World War II from Home and Abroad
    (pp. 59-79)

    Everything about wartime London distressed Hollenbeck. His work at the Office of War Information (OWI) and the people there bored him: “It’s so damned difficult for me to get along with anybody very long. I’m hypercritical [with people], and I suppose people are with me.”¹ In his spare time he read Dorothy Sayers mysteries and Shakespeare, worked Double-Crostic puzzles, played his favorite classical records of the singers Charles Trenet and Maggie Teyte, and wrote letters daily to Anne.

    He used the bombings and blackouts as an excuse to jump off the wagon. He regularly downed Drambuie, double scotches, and ale...

  9. CHAPTER 6 Getting Fired by NBC and ABC, Then Hired by CBS
    (pp. 80-95)

    Despite the tight market for newscasters when Hollenbeck left NBC, he soon was hired by the American Broadcasting Company. “He was such a good journalist, both as a writer and a reporter,” John Gude, his agent, said. “He was as good as the best of them.”¹

    ABC assigned Hollenbeck to an unsponsored 7 a.m. newscast on WJZ, the network’s New York City station. The newscast provided little opportunity for individuality or innovation. But Hollenbeck’s performance delighted ABC executives. Robert E. Kintner, ABC vice president of public relations and radio news, wrote to him in January 1946: “We are extremely pleased...

  10. CHAPTER 7 The Invention of CBS Views the Press
    (pp. 96-114)

    Whatever personal and professional risks Don Hollenbeck may have anticipated from narrating and writing CBS Views the Press, he also understood the historic significance of the program. He knew that in 1947 criticism of newspapers by a radio program represented a revolutionary act.

    CBS was asking Hollenbeck, one of its most experienced newscasters, backed by every member of the CBS news staff, to put radio on a par with newspapers and to raise the possibility of an important new role for radio nationwide. The Washington Post editorialized: “Newspapers all over the country need the prodding of this sort of inquiry...

  11. CHAPTER 8 Jack O’Brian: Buffalo Dock-Walloper to Broadway Drama Critic
    (pp. 115-118)

    Don Hollenbeck’s toughest critic was Jack O’Brian, radio and television columnist for Hearst’s Journal-American and a middleweight boxer in build and brawny writing style. O’Brian’s pro–Joe McCarthy mauling of Hollenbeck and other broadcasters skeptical of the Wisconsin senator began in 1950, the year McCarthy established himself as the voice of anti-Communism and after Hollenbeck left CBS Views the Press. O’Brian’s contempt for Hollenbeck and love for McCarthy can be explained, in part, by the columnist’s conservative, anti-intellectual, working-class roots.

    He was born John Dennis Patrick O’Brian on August 16, 1914, in the First Ward of South Buffalo, New York,...

  12. CHAPTER 9 Press Criticism: From Name-calling to Nuance
    (pp. 119-136)

    In the history of journalism Hollenbeck’s CBS Views the Press represented an important idea whose time had finally come. Criticism of the media, once primarily partisan and political, was entering what Max Lerner, PM’s editor and later a syndicated columnist for the New York Post, called a new phase of more nuanced, more ambitious, and sometimes more entertaining media criticism.¹

    Of the new-phase critics, Hollenbeck was the most ambitious. He criticized the writing style of reporters, not just the content of their articles. He used the medium of radio to take listeners to the scene, conveying the emotion of newspaper...

  13. CHAPTER 10 Jack O’Brian: Championing Decency, Fighting Soft-on-Communism Liberals
    (pp. 137-140)

    In 1947, the year Hollenbeck began broadcasting CBS Views the Press, Jack O’Brian married Agnes Yvonne Johnston, one of ten children of Jimmy “Boy Bandit” Johnston. Johnston managed the world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Sharkey, directed boxing at Madison Square Garden, and exhibited mastery of, in the words of the New York Times, “colorful invective and lashing sarcasm.”¹

    Perhaps life with her father, the boxing impresario with a verbal punch, had helped prepare Yvonne for life with O’Brian, the pugnacious columnist. In 1943 O’Brian had left Buffalo to join the AP in New York as a crime features reporter. Within...

  14. CHAPTER 11 The Obsession with Subversives and Communist Spies
    (pp. 141-161)

    In 1947, when Hollenbeck began CBS Views the Press, the nation’s obsession with subversives and Communist spies received a big boost from President Harry Truman. Truman signed Executive Order 9835 into law on March 21, 1947, initiating a federal loyalty program. The executive order not only expanded the federal role in combating Communism, but it also became a model for state, local, and private anti-Communism initiatives.

    To root out Communists and other subversives the office of Truman’s attorney general, Tom Clark, screened current and prospective federal employees. At loyalty hearings the sources of accusations could be kept secret, and accusers...

  15. CHAPTER 12 Jack O’Brian: Traveling with the Conservative, Anti-Commie Crowd
    (pp. 162-165)

    Hearst columnist Jack O’Brian called himself a political independent with “no affiliation.” But he traveled in a circle of conservative, anti-Communist, pro–J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy New Yorkers. The American Jewish League Against Communism, headed by Roy M. Cohn, a young lawyer who had served as chief counsel to McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, awarded its first George E. Sokolsky Awards to O’Brian and Francis Cardinal Spellman. Sokolsky, Hearst’s far-right syndicated columnist, had gotten Cohn, then only twenty-five, the highly visible position with McCarthy. Spellman had defended McCarthy’s investigations. “No American uncontaminated by Communism has lost his good...

  16. CHAPTER 13 The Hearsts Versus Hollenbeck
    (pp. 166-179)

    In criticizing Hearst’s New York newspapers, Don Hollenbeck took on two popular powerhouses. The tabloid Daily Mirror had 919,000 circulation, second largest in the nation to the New York Daily News’s 2.4 million. The 700,000-circulation Journal-American, which Hollenbeck described in 1949 as “the city’s most widely circulated evening newspaper [and] of great influence,” saw itself as an exceptional metropolitan daily. The publisher, William Randolph Hearst Jr., who was known as Bill, said no paper covered New York as well as the Journal-American covered the city: “We kicked hell out of every other paper on a regular basis.” The Journal-American, he...

  17. CHAPTER 14 Jack O’Brian: Attacking the Communist Broadcasting System
    (pp. 180-182)

    Jack O’Brian devoted many columns to promoting his favorites, including the newscaster Walter Winchell, comedians Jack Benny and Eve Arden, and radio and television host Arthur Godfrey, about whom he wrote his only book. O’Brian also regularly used stories, one-liners, and letters from readers of his Journal-American column to question the politics and performance of CBS, Don Hollenbeck, and Edward R. Murrow.

    O’Brian often insinuated that CBS was the Red network. A temporary ban on producing color television sets during the Korean War gave him the opportunity to suggest that despite the ban, given CBS’s preference for Red, “color TV...

  18. CHAPTER 15 Loyalty Oaths, Blacklists, and Joseph McCarthy
    (pp. 183-198)

    When Hollenbeck left CBS Views the Press in 1950, television news was no longer a novelty. Two million families had installed televisions, and 100,000 more families were putting them in their homes every month. The Korean War, which started that year, would be known as the first war that many Americans learned about primarily from television. Evening news broadcasts, such as Douglas Edwards’s fifteen-minute program five nights a week on CBS, were becoming news sources as important to Americans as their hometown newspapers and radio stations.

    Hollenbeck was part of the CBS Radio news staff in the early 1950s that...

  19. CHAPTER 16 The Walking Wounded
    (pp. 199-214)

    Although Jack O’Brian’s Journal-American column had sniped regularly at Edward R. Murrow and Don Hollenbeck for years, the assaults intensified after Murrow’s famous See It Now broadcast about Joseph McCarthy and Hollenbeck’s extemporaneous remark. O’Brian pummeled Murrow’s program in his column—“An Analysis of Murrow’s Portsided Political Pitching”—as a “hate-McCarthy telecast” and vilified both Murrow and Hollenbeck.¹

    O’Brian claimed CBS had allowed Murrow to escape its “clean house of lefties” campaign. Murrow’s “Sevengali-style influence,” said O’Brian, explained CBS’s “heckling of publications . . . anywhere to the right of Murrow.” O’Brian blamed Murrow for CBS Views the Press, in...

  20. CHAPTER 17 The Sermon in the Suicide
    (pp. 215-226)

    Usually, Hollenbeck arrived at CBS’s television news offices in the Grand Central Terminal Building at 6 p.m., in plenty of time to select the film and write the words he would deliver on the 11 p.m. Sunday News Special, the only television news program that CBS broadcast on Sundays.

    He knew the routine well. He had been doing the fifteen-minute program continuously for three and a half years, since January 1951. He brought with him crossword puzzles from the Sunday New York Times and Times of London. He looked at a piece of film, completed one of the puzzles using...

    (pp. 227-232)

    After Hollenbeck killed himself, commentators for the three major networks broadcast eulogies that tried to sum up his tangled, tortured life. Bill Leonard, a CBS News correspondent speaking on WCBS radio’s This Is New York, offered the most perceptive assessment.

    Leonard, who was one of the few CBS colleagues Hollenbeck invited to his apartment to drink and talk, described him as being too sensitive to endure the consequences of his courage: “No man was ever more poorly fitted for public exposure and few were better at it.” Leonard said honesty and shyness were Hollenbeck’s “in extraordinary proportions, and this is...

  22. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 233-238)
  23. Notes
    (pp. 239-288)
  24. Bibliography
    (pp. 289-316)
  25. Index
    (pp. 317-334)