On Wednesday, June 29, 1955, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee met in the Caucus Room where the flamboyant Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy had held his most sensational hearings in 1953 and 1954. Led by Mississippi Democrat James Eastland and undeterred by McCarthy's political downfall, the subcommittee began an unprecedented investigation of American journalism by delving into alleged Communist infiltration of some of the nation's most prominent newspapers. Committee members saw the daily press as a prime Soviet target for propaganda and infiltration because journalists could often access sensitive information and because they influenced public opinion.
The Eastland committee, as the subcommittee was popularly known, intended to ask selected reporters and editors about any involvement they may have had with the Communist Party, but the actual questioning went much further. The committee asked about their political interests and their personal thoughts and beliefs. Members questioned newspaper editorial policies and hiring practices, areas that were thought to be sacrosanct under the First Amendment.
That McCarthy-era inquest reverberated in the summer of 2005 when a federal prosecutor ordered several journalists to identify the sources whose disclosures had led to the publication of a CIA agent's name. New York Times reporter Judith Miller refused but others complied. She spent eighty-five days in jail and briefly became a symbol of courageous commitment to protecting First Amendment rights, as the media defined them. The core issue was the same as it had been fifty year earlier: government power, exercised in the name of national security, to compel journalists to testify and reveal confidences....
During the 1950s the government tried to compel journalists to name friends and colleagues who were thought to have been members of the Communist Party, although membership was not a crime. As it did a half-century later, the Supreme Court refused to recognize any First Amendment protection for these journalists. Moreover, in both 1955 and 2005 the newspaper industry stood divided on whether constitutional protection extends beyond the publishers' offices to include the journalists who gather the news and serve as a check on the government.
In order to understand better how little has changed in the last fifty years, it is necessary to revisit the 1950s and those journalists who got into trouble when McCarthyism was aimed at journalists, and the First Amendment failed to protect them.