The Extraordinary Life of Wallace Carroll—Reporter, Foreign Correspondent, and Editor

From a Wall Street Journal review by David M. Shribman of the book by Mary Llewellyn McNeil titled “Century’s Witness: The Extraordinary Life of Journalist Wallace Carroll”:

No student enrolled today in journalism school—and few if any on the faculty—would recognize the name Wallace Carroll, the reporter and foreign-correspondent-turned-editor who was an emblem of excellence from the days before World War II to the bitter denouement of the Vietnam War.

Then again, Carroll (1906-2002) would not recognize the profession he so revered—it feels like a vanished world. During the postwar decades, newspapers and news magazines flourished, with the quality of the reporting, though hardly flawless, rising above the wilder and looser standards of an earlier generation. Today more than two in five Americans say that they have little or no trust in the information they get from journalists. And even after years of broad and precipitous readership decline, the total weekday circulation of locally focused newspapers—print and digital—fell by 40% between 2015 and 2020, according to the Pew Research Center.

All the more reason to take notice of “Century’s Witness,” a biography of Carroll written by Mary Llewellyn McNeil, his onetime Wake Forest University student and a former editor and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Along with chronicling the glory of newspapering’s golden years, Ms. McNeil offers enthralling tales of entrepreneurial reporting and cautionary tales about the practice of journalism.

Carroll was old when he died (95) and old-fashioned in his prime. He was not, to be sure, merely a “five-W’s-and-an-H” journalist, the onetime formula for a news story that has fallen out of fashion so dramatically that readers need to be reminded that the term referred to who, what, where, when, why and how. At the New York Times and, later, the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel, he tried to explain the “why” of things with elegance and balance, giving what Ms. McNeil calls “extraordinary attention to detail” and displaying “an absolute commitment to accuracy, fairness, and finding out what was really going on.”

Even in middle age Carroll was something of an Old Testament sage, a philosopher of journalism. He warned against watering down journalism to appeal to a mass audience and worried that local newspapers might fail to keep a close enough, and skeptical enough, eye on elected officials. He also spoke with concern about what he called the “tyranny of objectivity,” arguing that the accuracy he prized should be pursued with a prudent sense of context, lest reporters end up serving as a mouthpiece for demagogues. It was Sen. Joseph McCarthy who prompted this particular concern. “The senator understood the deadly virtues of the American press much more clearly than we do ourselves,” Carroll wrote, exploiting “our rigid ‘objectivity’ in such a way as to make the newspapers his accomplices.”

Carroll may have been saintly, but he was not infallible. He was, by our lights and perhaps even his, too chummy with the people he covered—admittedly a difficult problem to manage given his prior relationships with such figures as Richard Helms (a deputy director at the CIA and later director) and Charles “Chip” Bohlen (a top Truman aide and later an important diplomat). Though an early admirer of Winston Churchill, he underestimated the war-making skills of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (he “had a rather narrow idea of what warfare was about”), the ability of the Soviet Union to resist the Nazi onslaught and the savagery of Joseph Stalin. And he overestimated the threat posed by Japanese-Americans during World War II, even posting a dispatch suggesting that fifth columnists had helped the Japanese plan the Pearl Harbor attack. In 1942-45, he zipped in and out of government service, taking positions at the U.S. Office of War Information.

Ms. McNeil dutifully takes us through Carroll’s passage from rising United Press star (at various foreign posts) to James Reston’s deputy in the Washington bureau of the New York Times and all the way to two stints in Winston-Salem. During the Spanish Civil War, Carroll managed to hitch a ride on a broken-down DC-3 to fly beyond Franco’s lines to territory held by the republicans. In the wartime Soviet Union, he spent days at the front. When the Surgeon General’s report linking smoking with cancer appeared in January 1964, it rocked Winston-Salem and the tobacco industry. Still, Carroll—then editor and publisher of the Journal and Sentinel—“didn’t hold back on covering the story,” Ms. McNeil writes. He even ran an article showing how much higher smokers’ mortality rates were compared with nonsmokers’.

The irony of Carroll’s life is that his influence was greater than the stories he wrote and edited: They were mostly ephemeral, meant to last a day, but his impact lived on in the journalists he hired, including Charles Collingwood, Howard K. Smith, Tom Wicker and Marjorie Hunter. That modern readers need to be told who they were—the first two were giants of radio and then television, the latter two eventually top New York Times reporters—is an indication of how swiftly the journalism universe turns over and of how in reporting, as in the cosmos, stars flare and die out. One of those stars was Carroll’s son, John, a beloved editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader, the Baltimore Sun and the Los Angeles Times. (John Carroll died in 2015, at age 73.).

If I may end on a personal note: When I joined the Washington bureau of the New York Times in 1981, Carroll had been gone for 18 years. I never met the man, though hardly a week passed without hearing his name and feeling his legacy, often expressed in a conditional phrase: what Wally Carroll would have done. Somehow I ingested those lessons, as did so many of my bureau colleagues—five of us became executive editors—and when it came my turn to run a newsroom, some of those Wally Carroll values came tumbling off my lips, too. It wasn’t until “Century’s Witness” that I understood the origin of the way I sought to practice journalism.

David Shribman, former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, teaches in the Max Bell School of Social Policy at Montreal’s McGill University.

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