< Upton Sinclair and the Modern Media Campaign


Friday, October 15, 2010

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And now we consider deceptions of campaigns past. Greg Mitchell, the Media Fix columnist for The Nation Magazine, recently reflected on a momentous election. Quote: “Nearly two years after a Democrat promising hope and change entered the White House amid an economic crisis left behind by an unpopular Republican, unemployment remained at century-high levels. Yet, as a midterm election approached, one that might decide whether the President and his programs had much of a future, right-wing demagogues on the stump and in the media accused the White House of imposing socialism on America,” unquote. The election Greg Mitchell is referring to occurred in 1934, one of the most closely watched state races in the country, one that seemed to serve as a referendum on FDR’s New Deal. It was the race for the governorship of California, and seemingly out of nowhere, a Democratic candidate won the primary who might rightly have been accused of socialism. He was longtime muckraker and author and recent socialist Upton Sinclair, and he'd started a hugely popular antipoverty campaign.

UPTON SINCLAIR: There’s no excuse for poverty in a state as rich as California. We can produce so much food that we have to dump it into our bay.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mitchell says that the backlash to Sinclair’s primary win was swift and terrible, ushering in the first modern media campaign. Greg, welcome back to the show.

GREG MITCHELL: Oh, I'm very happy to be here.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So in your preface, you describe Upton Sinclair as a muckraking author, militant vegetarian, erstwhile socialist and scourge of the ruling class. Given those descriptors, how had Sinclair won the primary for California governor in 1934 to begin with?

GREG MITCHELL: Well, he decided he had written enough and decided to change his affiliation from Socialist and entered the Democratic primary. He led a mass movement called End Poverty in California, or EPIC, and managed to sweep the Democratic primary in a landslide with hundreds of thousands of votes, and was the favorite to win in November.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So people knew who they were voting for.

GREG MITCHELL: Oh, absolutely. He was one of the most famous authors in the world. Today we remember him mainly for The Jungle, but at the time he was always in and out of the headlines, getting arrested, and was certainly a famous figure in California and around the country.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: As you describe it, the swiftest response to his winning the primary came from newspaper magnates like William Randolph Hearst and the Chandlers -


BROOKE GLADSTONE: - the family behind The Los Angeles Times, and also Hollywood.

GREG MITCHELL: Well, of course, the newspapers at that time were extremely reactionary throughout the state. They were owned by families that had a lot of money at stake. And, you know, Sinclair, bless his heart, had been one of the leading media critics of his day. We think of Sinclair today as this muckraker, like an investigative journalist or something. He was mainly a novelist, and even The Jungle is a novel. So what the newspapers would do is they would take some outrageous thing that a character in one of Sinclair’s novels said and would pretend that Sinclair had said it himself. So they would put it right on the front page and have him believing in free love and giving away money to everyone and hating the church. So, yeah, the newspapers were in the forefront of the fight.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Los Angeles Times also took shots at Sinclair’s followers.

GREG MITCHELL: Yeah, they called them the “maggot-like horde.”

[BROOKE LAUGHS] And it was so over the top.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The political editor of The Los Angeles Times was a real kingmaker. His name was Kyle Palmer. And you cite this really amazing anecdote when he’s having a conversation with The New York Times’ star reporter -


BROOKE GLADSTONE: - who was in California, a guy named Turner Catledge.

GREG MITCHELL: Turner came out there to cover the campaign in a fairly evenhanded way and was amazed there was no coverage about Sinclair at all in The L.A. Times, except for all the negative shots. And so he asked Kyle Palmer, how can you get away with only covering one campaign? And Palmer said, Turner, forget it. We don't go in for that kind of crap that you have back in New York of being obliged to print both sides. We're going to beat this son-of-a-bitch Sinclair any way we can. We're going to kill him.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Quote, unquote.

[LAUGHTER] Okay, so what was Hollywood’s beef with Upton Sinclair?

GREG MITCHELL: They thought that Sinclair and his former socialistic background was a threat to the movie industry itself. And so the first thing they did was they threatened to move to Florida.

[BROOKE LAUGHS] When that didn't work, they docked each of their employees one day’s pay to be donated then to the GOP candidate. And then finally Irving Thalberg at MGM made these newsreels that presented Sinclair and his supporters in the worst possible light and were actually mainly faked footage. Some of it was shot on the studio lot. They hired actors to portray bums and other Sinclair supporters.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This was the famous humanitarian Irving Thalberg?

GREG MITCHELL: Yeah. He admitted it after the campaign, that he was the one. And I managed to find these newsreels. They were sort of missing to history. They were really the first attack ads on the screen. And people back then got a lot of their news off the newsreels and they thought they were the straight deal.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say that this campaign marked the beginning of media politics. I want you to make that argument for me, because certainly negative advertising did not begin with the gubernatorial campaign of Upton Sinclair.

GREG MITCHELL: There, of course, have been dirty campaigns before this, but campaigns had always been run by political parties and their local leaders. But the Sinclair threat was so great, they turned the campaign over for the first time to what we now call political consultants, to PR people we now call spin doctors. This is the first turning over of a campaign to advertising people. The use of radio and the screen to make attack ads, and national fundraising from all over the country in one state race, all of those things were unprecedented.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was the substance of these smears that made it so unprecedented?

GREG MITCHELL: Sinclair said that if he was elected California would become such a paradise that the unemployed would want to come to California. And, of course, he was just joking about it. But they took that and they made radio dramas around it. They made two of these fake newsreels around it. They plastered it on billboards all over the state.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Horrific images of huddled masses -


BROOKE GLADSTONE: - crowding into California?


ANNOUNCER: Your inquiring cameraman interviewed 30, stated that they were on their way to California to spend the winter and to remain there permanently if the EPIC plan went into effect.


GREG MITCHELL: Hearst owned movie theaters, so he worked with MGM to get these newsreels into his movie theaters. You had all these people on every level of radio, newspapers, movies, advertising, all in the same room, and saying, okay, how can we direct this campaign using all these different tools.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re describing a sort of vertical integration of the political smear.

GREG MITCHELL: That's right, yeah. One of the things that was continually used against Sinclair was that he was a free love advocate, some sort of wild living radical, almost what you might call a hippie, bohemian, and so forth. This was because there were characters in his books who had these traits. He was a vegetarian, you know, which at that time was seen as somehow un-American. So he had some personal traits, but the odd thing was he was such a straitlaced - not in any way a free spirit that they pictured him as. So many people had moved to California from the Midwest and the Dust Bowl; it was a big churchgoing state, so Sinclair certainly was looked down upon by many of those people.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So are you convinced that it was the negative advertising that took down Upton Sinclair?

GREG MITCHELL: I think after coming off his primary win, which was at the very end of August, the EPIC campaign was – it was an incredible mass movement. I mean, they had 800 chapters around the state. They had a weekly newspaper that had two million in circulation. I, I would say that if these new techniques and over-the-top incredible dirty tricks had not been employed, that Sinclair would have narrowly won.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: It strikes me that if lying during a campaign is, is a crime against democracy, then what this campaign of Upton Sinclair teaches us is that crime pays.

GREG MITCHELL: Well, we certainly see to this day the attack ads, you know, this year as much as ever, and there’s all kinds of new money coming into campaigns. One thing that’s different, I would say, is today a lot of the campaign tricks eventually get exposed. We've seen any number of races in recent years that have sort of turned on YouTube videos or some sort of blog exposés. We just saw this fall the rather humorous case of the Republican campaign in West Virginia, which shot a commercial with – supposed to be average folks sitting around a diner and trashing the Democratic candidate. Via the Web and other sources it was discovered that they had sent out a casting call for actors they called “hicky-looking” [LAUGHTER] actors. So, I mean, I thought of the Thalberg hiring of bums for the newsreels. This commercial was dropped in West Virginia because it had been exposed. It’s a neck-and-neck race, so I guess we'll see what happens.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Greg, thank you so much.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Greg Mitchell writes the Media Fix column for The Nation, and a new edition of his book, The Campaign of the Century, is out now.