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Why Dorothy Thompson Lost Her Job: Political Columnists and the Press Wars of the 1930s and 1940s

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 February 2017

Lynn D. Gordon*
Department of History, University of Rochester


In October 1940, New York Herald Tribune columnist Dorothy Thompson outraged her publisher, Ogden Reid, by switching her support from Wendell Willkie to Franklin D. Roosevelt in the midst of the latter's bid for an unprecedented third term as president of the United States. Reid initially suppressed the column containing Thompson's endorsement of FDR, but he ultimately printed it, beside a rejoinder from the Tribune editorial staff. His wife and co-publisher Helen Rogers Reid urged Thompson to confine herself, in the future, to “nonpolitical” subjects—a strange request to make of one of America's most widely read political commentators. Thompson's contract was up for renewal in the spring of 1941, and the Reids made clear that, if negotiations took place at all, they would be most unpleasant. Telling Helen Reid, “I feel an unbridgeable hostility to me in the Tribune,” Thompson accepted an offer to move her column to the New York Post.

Copyright © 1994 by the History of Education Society 

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1 These events are discussed in Sheean, Vincent Dorothy and Red (Boston, 1963); Sanders, Marion K. Dorothy Thompson: A Legend in Her Time (Boston, 1973); Kurth, Peter American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson (Boston, 1990); Kluger, Richard The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald Tribune (New York, 1986), 328–29; and Drawbell, James Wedgwood Dorothy Thompson's English Journey: The Record of an Anglo-American Partnership (London, 1942), 182–83. Thompson's comment on her situation at the Tribune may be found in her letters to Helen Rogers Reid, 10 Nov. 1940 and 23 Jan. 1941, file 13048, D254, Reid Family Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Contemporary accounts of Thompson's difficulties with the Herald Tribune and her move to the New York Post, include “Minds Made Up,” Time, 21 Oct. 1940, 19; “Moving Day for Columnists,” Time, 17 Mar. 1941, 38; “Herald Tribune Gags Dorothy Thompson When She Says Axis Wants FDR to Lose,” unidentified clipping (possibly from the Nation), 14 Oct. 1940, file 13416, D278, Reid Family Papers; “Dorothy Thompson Is Censored,” New York Post, 14 Oct. 1940.

2 The New York Post would not respond to questions concerning archival materials in its possession, so I have very limited information on Thompson's years there. Thompson said that a full quarter of her income from the column came from the New York outlet. See Thompson, to Weisgal, Meyer 5 Mar. 1947, folder 34, box 2, series II, Thompson, Dorothy Papers, Special Collections, Syracuse University Library, Syracuse, New York.

3 An inter-departmental memo to Reid, Helen Rogers 15 Jan. 1941, analyzed readers’ letters concerning Thompson from 6 Nov. 1940 to 10 Jan. 1941. Of 562 letters received, 526 (93.6%) “were adverse”; only 36 (6.4%) complimentary. Although readers registered a variety of complaints, the chief issue was, of course, Thompson's defection from the Republican ranks. Memo is in file 13049, D255, Reid Family Papers. See also a memo of 2 Apr. 1941 concerning the reaction to Thompson's departure. Of 110 letters received, 90 were “glad Miss Thompson has gone.” File 13052, D255, Reid Family Papers. The Dorothy Thompson Papers contain a few letters from supporters disappointed and upset at her dismissal by the New York Post, but lack of access to the Post's files prevents me from getting a more general sense of the readers’ views about her case and especially from discovering the views of readers who disliked her column. See, for example, Thackrey, Ted O. to H. Griffiths, McAllister 18 Mar. 1947, folder 9, box 21, Hirning, L. Clovis M.D., to Thackrey, 11 Apr. 1947, folder 12, box 5, and Shapiro, Nathan D. to the Bell Syndicate, Inc., 14 Mar. 1947, folder 9, box 21, series I, Thompson Papers.

4 O'Connor, Richard Heywood Broun: A Biography (New York, 1975), 128–40; Kahn, E. J. Jr., The World of Swope (New York, 1965), 267–72.

5 O'Connor, Heywood Broun, 140–49.

6 Thackrey, to Shapiro, 18 Mar. 1947, folder 9, box 21, series I, Thompson Papers.

7 For correspondence between Adams, Reid, Helen Rogers and Thompson, in 1947, see Adams, Franklin P. to Reid, 15 Mar. 1947, file 6280, D71, Reid, to Adams, 25 Mar. 1947, file 6280, D71, and Thompson, to Reid, 4 Apr. 1947, file 6763, D82, Reid Family Papers.

8 Thackrey, to Thompson, 28 Oct. 1946, folder 9, box 21, series I, Thompson Papers. For Thompson's response, see Thompson, to Thackrey, 3 Nov. 1946, folder 33, box 2, series II, Thompson Papers.

9 On Broun's dismissal from the Scripps-Howard Papers, see O'Connor, Heywood Broun, 197–98 and 220–21.

10 Marzolf, Marion Tuttle Civilizing Voices: American Press Criticism, 1880–1950 (New York, 1991), 119–48.

11 Schudson, Michael Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers (New York, 1978), ch. 4. Contemporaries acknowledged the “rise of the columnist” but for the most part focused their comments on the work and personalities of individuals, rather than assessing the genre. See, for example, Fisher, Charles The Columnists (New York, 1944); Bulman, David ed., Molders of Opinion (Milwaukee, 1945); and the 1938 series on individual columnists by Margaret Marshall in the Nation (“Columnists on Parade: VIII. Dorothy Thompson,” 25 June 1938; “Columnists on Parade: VI. Walter Lippmann,” 23 Apr. 1938; “Columnists on Parade: V. Eleanor Roosevelt,” 2 Apr. 1938; “Columnists on Parade: II. Westbrook Pegler,” 5 Mar. 1938; “Columnists on Parade: III. Hugh-And-Cry Johnson,” 12 Mar. 1938; “Columnists on Parade: VII. Heywood Broun,” 21 May 1938; “Columnists on Parade: IV. Dale Carnegie,” 19 Mar. 1938). Marshall did produce a generic overview in “Columnists on Parade,” Nation, 26 Feb. 1938, 246–47. See also Silas Bent, “Personal Journalists,” Saturday Review of Literature, 12 Dec. 1936, 3–4, 14.

12 Kahn, World of Swope, 267–68.

13 Schudson, Discovering the News, ch. 4; Emery, Michael and Emery, Edwin The Press and America: An Interpretive History of the Mass Media, 6th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1988), ch. 14.

14 Heald, Morrell Transatlantic Vistas: American Journalists in Europe, 1900–1940 (Kent, Ohio, 1988).

15 Steel, Ronald Walter Lippmann and the American Century (Boston, 1980), 275. The quotation comes from an interview Steel conducted with Lippmann early in the 1970s, and apparently represents Lippmann's memory of a conversation between himself and Reid, Ogden I found no documentary confirmation of this arrangement in the Reid Family Papers at the Library of Congress. However, when Lippmann's “Today and Tomorrow” first appeared, 8 Sep. 1931 the New York Herald Tribune editorial for that day stated: “A scrupulously fair presentation of news and a wide-open door for the expression of every variety of opinion are the standards by which a reader is entitled to test the greatness of his newspaper.” Quoted in Luskin, John Lippmann, Liberty, and the Press (University, Ala., 1972), 90.

16 Steel, Walter Lippmann, 276.

17 Ibid., 231.

18 Ibid., 296–97.

19 Sinclair, Upton The Brass Check: A Study of American Journalism (Pasadena, Calif., 1920); Seldes, George Lords of the Press (New York, 1938); issue entitled “W. R. Hearst, the Public Press, and Freedom in the Schools,” The Social Frontier: A Journal of Educational Criticism and Reconstruction 1 (Feb. 1935). See especially Dewey, John “The Crucial Role of Intelligence,” ibid., 9–10. Harold Wechsler provided this reference.

20 Winfield, Betty Houchin FDR and the News Media (Urbana, Ill., 1990), 2777; see also White, Graham J. FDR and the Press (Chicago, 1979).

21 Ickes, Harold L. ed., Freedom of the Press Today (New York, 1941); idem, America's House of Lords: An Inquiry into the Freedom of the Press (Westport, Conn., 1974), 65–66.

22 Ickes, America's House of Lords, 6566.

23 Winfield, FDR and the News Media, 127–28.

24 Ibid., 103–11.

25 Culbert, David Holbrook News for Everyman: Radio and Foreign Affairs in Thirties America (Westport, Conn., 1976), 1617.

26 Ibid.

27 Ickes, America's House of Lords, 129; Emery, and Emery, The Press and America, 356–59.

28 Reid, Helen Rogers Speech File, file 13575, D287, Reid Family Papers. See also her speech, “Education through Newspapers,” made to the General Federation of Women's Clubs, 18 Nov. 1937, file 13568, D287, Reid Family Papers.

29 Referring to a conversation she had with Ogden Reid in the fall of 1940, following her declaration of support for FDR, Thompson stated: “that night you took the stand-point that in coming out for the President, I had violated a tacit agreement made when I joined the Tribune, namely that I would not write in contradiction to any major line of policy of the paper. You based your recollection of such an agreement upon a conversation that took place in your home shortly before I started writing. My own recollection which, I confess, is vague, was that we expressed at that time mutual satisfaction that our viewpoints on most political matters so generally coincided. It would seem to me that one could hardly make such a commitment unless he was to become part of the general editorial board…. Nothing to that effect is in my contract, nor in any written agreement that I have ever had with you.” Thompson to Helen and Ogden Reid, 8 Jan. 1941, file 13048, D254, Reid Family Papers.

30 See, for example, Reid, Helen Rogers to Woodward, Ruth M. 20 Nov. 1940, file 13049, D255, and Reid, Helen Rogers to Nehrbas, Robert Esq., 12 Nov. 1940, file 13048, D254, Reid Family Papers. In 1944, when Roy Howard failed to renew Westbrook Pegler's contract with the Scripps-Howard chain, he cited readers’ unwillingness “to accept as something apart from the paper's policy the opinions of independent writers.” Quoted in “The Columnist,” Editor and Publisher, 26 Aug. 1944, 34.

31 Villard, Oswald Garrison The Disappearing Daily: Chapters in American Newspaper Evolution (New York, 1944), 7077.

32 American Society of Newspaper Editors, Problems of Journalism—also called Proceedings: 1925 (pp. 105–12), 1929 (pp. 67–68), 1939 (pp. 24–34), 1940 (pp. 47–48), 1941 (pp. 73–78), 1947 (pp. 116–17, 131–37), 1948 (pp. 52–54, 85), 1951 (pp. 115–36).

33 Wallace, TomColumnists’ Freedom Is Hooey,Editor and Publisher, 30 Dec. 1944, 22.

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34 O'Connor, Heywood Broun, 182; Luskin, Lippmann, 98–100.

35 Correspondence between FDR or his staff with Thompson, Lippmann, Krock, Arthur Sulzberger, Arthur Hays Ogden, and Reid, Helen and McCormick, Anne O'Hare particularly over the matter of individual interviews may be found in President's Personal Files, nos. 82, 657, 897, 2915, 6650, and 7213, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York. For some of FDR's sarcastic comments about columnists and interpretation of the news, see President Roosevelt's Press Conferences (New York, 1972), 8 Aug. 1937, 21 Oct. 1938, 18 Apr. 1940, and 5 June 1940. See also Krock, Arthur Memoirs: Sixty Years on the Firing Line (New York, 1968), 183–84.

36 For material on Dorothy Thompson's effectiveness during FDR's 1940 and 1944 campaigns, see correspondence in President's Official File 4818, Roosevelt, Franklin D. Library. For information on her contributions to one speech in particular, see Samuel I. Rosenman, Working with Roosevelt (New York, 1952), 247–53. Rosenman believed that this speech, delivered at the Convention Hall in Cleveland, Ohio, 2 Nov. 1940, was the best one FDR ever made because it was pitched above the usual political battles. Thompson's telegram and various drafts of the speech may be found in Franklin D. Roosevelt Speech File #1335, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.

37 Ickes, House of Lords, 96121. “Columnists and Calumnists” was initially a speech delivered to the Newspaper Guild of New York City, 11 Apr. 1939, and broadcast over the CBS radio network. For Heywood Broun's reaction to the speech, see his column “Shoot the Works: May the Tribe Increase” in the New Republic, 26 Apr. 1939, 333.

38 Watkins, T. H. Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes, 1874–1952 (New York, 1990), 840–42, discusses Ickes's career as a columnist. Was it intentional that “Man to Man” first appeared in the New York Post on April Fools’ Day, 1946? When the Post failed to print some of his columns, Ickes, like his fellow columnists, took his work elsewhere—in spring 1949, “Man to Man” began appearing in the New Republic.

39 “The Press and the People: A Survey,” Fortune Magazine, Aug. 1939, 6465, 72–78; “Pundits’ Progress,” ibid., Jan. 1940, 90–92. Research for the surveys was conducted by Roper, Elmo Lynd, Robert S. and Lynd, Helen Merrell Middletown in Transition (New York, 1937), 375–81.

40 Kurth, American Cassandra, 331.

41 Lasch, ChristopherJournalism, Publicity, and the Lost Art of Argument,Gannett Center Journal 4 (Spring 1990): 111. I thank Heffron, John M. and Westbrook, Robert for this reference.

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42 Baughman, James L. The Republic of Mass Culture: Journalism, Filmmaking, and Broadcasting in America since 1941 (Baltimore, 1992), 18 and 32–33. Baughman does not discuss the role of columnists. Steel, Walter Lippmann, 502–20. For Thompson's view that the Shirer case represented diminished public interest in politics and foreign affairs, see her undated letter to John Gunther, folder January–June 1947, box 2, series II, Thompson Papers. Thompson was not, however, entirely candid with her old friend Gunther. In a letter thanking George Sokolsky for his concern about her dismissal from the New York Post, she expressed resentment at the journalistic defense of Shirer, when her own case had received so little attention from colleagues. Thompson to Sokolsky, 27 Mar. 1947, box 2, series II, Thompson Papers.

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