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The New York Times Shafted My Father

Silence, from Melvin Barnet and then the paper he worked for, destroyed his career.

June 26, 2005|Michael Cross-Barnet | Michael Cross-Barnet, formerly an editor at the Los Angeles Times, is an editor at the Baltimore Sun.

The letter hasn't yellowed much since it arrived on a summer's day in 1955. And the words have lost none of their power.

"You are hereby commanded to appear before the Internal Security Subcommittee ... of the Senate of the United States," the subpoena declares.

It was addressed to my father at the New York Times, where he was a copy editor. Senators investigating communism in newspapers wanted to ask Melvin Barnet about his politics and the people he knew from his days as a young radical in the 1930s.

Two choices with profound consequences followed soon after. The first, my father's, cost him his career. The second was made by the Times, and it too came with a price. It stands as a singularly strange and sad chapter in the history of America's greatest paper.

With his sharp mind and Harvard degree, my father could have done almost anything, but he chose journalism. It's the only industry singled out for protection in the Constitution, and in my father's time it ranked among the most honorable of trades. Certainly it meant something special to my dad, especially after working his way up to the New York Times in 1953.

My father had navigated turbulent waters: the Depression, the brutality of World War II, the idealism and disillusionment of political radicalism. But now a bright future was on the horizon. Then, 50 years ago this week, an old friend -- the best man at his wedding -- identified him as a former communist.

My father had abandoned communism more than a decade earlier. He had served his country as an Army cryptographer in the Pacific during the war. Still, he did not expect much sympathy from Congress -- certainly not from Sen. James O. Eastland (D-Miss.), who had succeeded Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) as the Senate's top Red-baiter.

But he had faith in the Times. Although the paper was more conservative then, its editorials spoke out in favor of civil liberties and constitutional rights. In 1953, Publisher Arthur H. Sulzberger, grandfather of the current publisher, said in a speech that people who gave up communism before the 1950s should be forgiven, and that he would not allow "witch-hunting" at the Times. "Such a thing would destroy the atmosphere of mutual confidence and respect built up over the years," he said, according to James Aronson's book "The Press and the Cold War."

On July 13, 1955, in Room 135-A of the Senate Office Building in Washington, my father tersely recounted his past. He said he had not been a communist since 1942. But when asked about other people, his lips were sealed. Twenty times the committee's attorney provided a name and asked my father if he knew that person "as a communist." Twenty times, my father gave the same reply: "I assert my privilege, sir, under the 5th Amendment." He would identify no one. Not even the man who had informed on him. Not even a dead person. The committee, he believed, did not have the right to ask him.

After the hearing, he went to the Times' Washington bureau, where he was handed a note stating that his conduct "has caused the Times to lose confidence in you as a member of its news staff." His career in journalism was over -- he was 40.

It is unfortunate that the Times fired my father for refusing to name names half a century ago. But the country was in the grip of fear and, as a new generation of Americans learned after 9/11, fear is a powerful emotion. What is more puzzling, and in a way more disturbing, is that 50 years later the New York Times won't admit its mistake.

The Times had a lot of company in its shameful behavior then, including the "friends" of my father who shared his name with congressional investigators and the newspaper union that failed to stand up for him. In truth, only a few courageous voices resisted the hysteria. The tireless progressive I.F. Stone wrote articles such as "What Right Has Congress to Investigate the Press?" and "The New York Times Opens the Gates to its Enemies." Asked Stone: "How can the Times editorially support the 5th amendment and discharge those who invoke it?"

The Times' "explanation" that it had lost confidence in my dad explained nothing, said people who knew him. "He was the most cultivated and intelligent guy I knew at the Times, and they had total confidence in him," veteran Times journalist John L. Hess told Associated Press after my father died in 1998. "They were just embarrassed."

On July 17, 1955, the New York Post -- then a mainstream paper with a liberal bent -- wrote: "In the absence of any fuller explanations, it would appear that Barnet ... was fired for invoking a Constitutional safeguard which cloaks all Americans." So it appeared then, and so it still does today.

The Times has never provided fuller explanations -- not when my father asked, not when it published his obituary seven years ago, and not during my recent discussions with Catherine J. Mathis, vice president for corporate communications for the newspaper.

When asked to inform on old friends, my father refused. That silence was, and is, eloquent testimony to his convictions and his character. The New York Times' silence over the last 50 years is testimony too.

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