Commentary: The New York Times journalist who secretly led the charge against liberal media bias

There have always been journalists willing to flout ethical standards and employee guidelines to surreptitiously pursue a political agenda.

This Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012 photo shows the New York Times building in New York. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

The Washington Post reporters who turned the tables on Project Veritas and exposed the group’s sneaky plan to discredit the newspaper represent journalism at its best. But that story broke just weeks after BuzzFeed News revealed that such nefarious plots aren’t always thwarted.

Buried deep in an investigation of Breitbart News and the alt-right, BuzzFeed published emails showing that right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannapoulos had “hidden helpers” working at left-leaning websites who fed him news tips and contributed to his political efforts.

In one example, a senior writer at Broadly, a Vice website devoted to women’s issues, targeted New York Times columnist Lindy West and encouraged Yiannopoulos to “please mock this fat feminist.”

It is tempting to blame this lack of professionalism on the volatile economy of online journalism, where small websites open and close frequently and young writers change jobs often. But actually there have always been journalists willing to flout ethical standards and employee guidelines to surreptitiously pursue a political agenda.

In fact, the revelations in the BuzzFeed report pale in comparison to the efforts of a rogue journalist from the 1950s. He worked at the nation’s most prestigious newspaper, the New York Times, yet he was secretly participating in one of the first conservative campaigns to denounce the “liberal media.” His political activism has been a well-kept secret - until now.

John G. Briggs, Jr. was a respected classical music critic and cultural reporter for the Times. But he had a second professional life that he hid from his bosses in New York. Writing under a pseudonym for a prominent South Carolina newspaper, the Times journalist delivered fire-breathing, race-baiting and occasionally anti-Semitic screeds attacking the “liberal” press and its alleged communist ties.

I discovered Briggs’ journalistic alter ego while researching my book, “Newspaper Wars: Civil Rights and White Resistance in South Carolina.” In 1955, Thomas R. Waring, conservative editor of the Charleston News and Courier, accused northern editors of erecting a “paper curtain” to shut out the segregationist view on civil rights. Briggs wrote to Waring to enlist in the editor’s campaign to “pierce the paper curtain.”

A southerner by birth, Briggs detested the Brown decision outlawing school segregation, and he agreed with Waring’s view about liberal bias in the northern media. Coverage of southern affairs in the New York press is “loaded with bias,” Briggs wrote to Waring. “Talk about Dr. Goebbels and his ‘thought control.’ The so-called ‘liberals’ could give lessons to Dr. Goebbels.”

Waring published Briggs’ letter, identifying the author simply as a “Newspaper Man” who worked in a northern newsroom. Later that month, Briggs and Waring concocted a pseudonym, and Briggs began sending in regular columns.

Under the byline of Nicholas Stanford, the Times critic excoriated the biggest names in the media business, including his own employer. Briggs claimed northern editors were “liberal hypocrites” who shaped the news to fit their worldview. He said they ignored black crime, bowed to the NAACP and supported “unchecked immigration.” Some, he argued, were even communist sympathizers who did Moscow’s bidding.

Briggs’ criticism generated hurt feelings in northern newsrooms. The executive editor of The Washington Post, James Russell Wiggins, wrote to Waring to dispute the charge of liberal bias. When Briggs suggested white southerners boycott McCall’s magazine and its advertisers, freelance journalist William Peters confronted Waring in the editor’s Charleston office and demanded to know Nicholas Stanford’s identity. Later, the Associated Press asked Waring the same question. But the editor never revealed the name of the Times journalist writing for his newspaper.

Like the rogue journalists discussed in the BuzzFeed report, Briggs served as a newsroom spy and fed Waring tips about the alleged liberal slant at the Times. In early 1956, when editors were planning an ambitious investigation of segregation in the South, Briggs gave Waring a heads up. He called the project a “typical Times push” in which the newspaper would deploy “money or manpower” to try to overwhelm potential critics through the “sheer massiveness” of its coverage.

After the series ran, Briggs shared newsroom gossip about editors allegedly trimming quotations that were critical of NAACP lawyers who represented Autherine Lucy, an African American woman trying to integrate the University of Alabama. “By the time a piece of copy goes through the process,” Briggs wrote to Waring, “it may be taken for granted that there is no deviation from the official line.”

Over time, Briggs’ letters to Waring and his columns in the newspaper grew nastier. He denounced the liberal columnist Murray Kempton using a racial epithet. He described Puerto Rican residents of West Harlem as “vermin.” And he aimed a steady stream of vitriol at Jews. A “clean sweep” of Jews from newsrooms would eliminate communist influence in the media, he told Waring. In one column, he raised doubts about the Holocaust. He contended that the “whole question of concentration camps and six million Jews allegedly murdered therein has had gingerly treatment in the U.S. press.”

In 1959, Briggs stopped writing for the Charleston newspaper, and the next year he left the New York Times to take a public relations job in Philadelphia. If his work for Waring and the News and Courier played a role in his departure, neither the Times nor Briggs ever said so publicly.

Briggs was not the first or the last journalist to go rogue to pursue political goals, as the BuzzFeed report attests. But his relationship with Waring was more than a juicy bit of newsroom gossip. Their alliance in the mid-1950s is significant because of its role in nurturing the “liberal media” claim when the argument was new and had yet to gain traction.

Anti-New Deal conservatives laid the groundwork for the rise of “liberal media” claim in the 1940s. But Waring’s “paper curtain” argument in 1955 highlights the role the Brown decision played in generating anti-media rhetoric in the South. By the early 1960s, Southern Democratic voters had been reading and hearing the “liberal media” claim from local commentators like Waring and Briggs for years. They proved to be a receptive audience when Arizona senator Barry Goldwater and others used anti-media rhetoric to help grow the conservative wing of the Republican Party in the South.

After Briggs’ death in 1990, obituaries quoted former colleagues who recalled his knowledge of music and his professionalism in the newsroom. None mentioned his secret life as segregationist press critic and early recruit in the growing conservative war against the “liberal media.”

By the 1950s, impartial and objective journalism had become the norm in mainstream U.S. newspapers and broadcasting. But that does not mean political activism disappeared entirely from major American newsrooms. The story of John Briggs shows how it moved underground, out of the public’s sight. And the BuzzFeed revelations suggest that it still exists there today.

Bedingfield, a professor in the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, is the author of “Newspaper Wars: Civil Rights and White Resistance in South Carolina, 1935-1965.”