The headline blared across the front page of the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune. Big enough to stop a president: “U.S. CENSORSHIP PLAN REVEALED.”
It was two years after the end of World War II, and the nation was grappling with the new insecurity of the Cold War. President Harry S. Truman’s move for a tight grip on information was about to collide with the power of the press.
With today’s Washington swirling in a storm of leaks and investigations and battles over media’s role in society, it is worthwhile to remember how the press can save the government from its worst instincts.
After Pearl Harbor, America accepted a high level of censorship during the war as a price of victory. Truman proposed extending that wartime secrecy to every federal agency, allowing bureaucrats to withhold information at will.
His administration thought he had the power to do so from an executive order that demanded loyalty from all federal employees.
Of course, there was no public discussion of this new policy. But someone tipped off the Minneapolis Tribune’s Washington correspondent, Nat Finney. Finney, a Stewartville, Minn., native and University of Minnesota graduate, had ascended to the Washington job in 1941 after more than 15 years at the Minneapolis Star.
The lead story in the Oct. 19, 1947, Tribune was a tremendous scoop:
“The Truman administration is about to put the ordinary affairs of federal civilian agencies under a secrecy blanket modeled after wartime military security,” Finney wrote. The article went on to say that the definition of confidential information was so broad as to include records that merely “would cause administrative embarrassment or difficulty.”
So essentially, any bureaucrat could withhold any information for any reason. All the person needed was a rubber stamp marked “confidential” or “secret.” Anyone who leaked would be fired.
For the story, Finney interviewed Hamilton Robinson, who hatched the plan as chairman of a secrecy advisory group for the military. “Mr. Robinson thought that public officials should decide what the public ought to be told and what, for the public’s own good, it should not be told.”
If there were ever a more succinct expression of official arrogance, I’ve never seen it. And in 1947, as today, it does not sound persuasive.
Truman lashed out at the press for publishing the story, saying it was based on “fragments of preliminary reports.” Then he told a member of the House that he didn’t know much about it. As the cries of opposition grew from Congress and editorial writers, the president quickly abandoned the plan.
Still, members of Congress realized that they could not depend on the White House to ensure that government stays open and accountable. Referring to Finney’s coverage, U.S. Rep. George MacKinnon, a Minnesota Republican, said executive secrecy “can destroy our government” and called for a law guaranteeing transparency. That would come in 1966, with the first version of the Freedom of Information Act.
Finney’s coverage of Truman’s secrecy plan earned a Pulitzer Prize for the newspaper. It also won the Raymond Clapper award for Washington reporting, which is notable today only because of what we now call the optics.
At the White House Correspondents dinner on March 6, 1948, Truman himself handed the Clapper award to Finney, which came with a $500 check. The president, with his trademark grin, congratulated the reporter whose exposé thwarted his strategy for unbridled power.
That’s democracy in action.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116.