Matthew Cecil, Director of WSU’s Elliott School of Communication, has just published a book about the relationship between former FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, the Bureau itself and the media. Although it’s been more than 40 years since Hoover’s passing, there are still lessons for journalists and the public to learn by taking a close look at the director’s actions and his legacy.
Cecil says that he's wanted to write his new book, Hoover’s FBI and the Fourth Estate, for years. Cecil sifted through 5,000 pages of documents in writing the book, all made available to him via the Freedom of Information Act. He was looking for connections Hoover had with the press and for the power he held over journalists and news outlets during his nearly 50 year reign as director of the FBI. Cecil says that Hoover took great care to craft the image he wanted the media to have of him.
“The FBI gained complete control over how it was portrayed in the media and ultimately it exercised a lot of its power—and it was a powerful agency—in order to maintain that image and essentially to drown out critics,” Cecil says. “The sad story for those of us who are journalists is that journalists were complicit in that.”
These issues of access and bias continue to present challenges to reporters, and Cecil’s book serves as something of a cautionary tale about what happens when those two concerns can’t be separated.
“When I hear journalists talking about objectivity,” Cecil says, “I know what they really mean is trying to maintain some kind of distance if they can. But the way it comes out and the way it’s used, it’s almost used as this absolute: ‘We can truly be a blank slate and judge these things we find.’ Well, of course that’s impossible."
Cecil says that Hoover and the FBI had such a good grasp on their image and on the press that, in the eyes of some reporters, neither the organization nor its director could do any wrong. Some members of the press elevated Hoover’s status.
“These people worshiped J. Edgar Hoover. Many of these journalists who were friends of the Bureau just immersed themselves. They wanted to be FBI agents.”
Hoover created an air of romance around the Bureau. There was a television series with scripts and actors vetted by Hoover and his men and a long line of articles that portrayed the agency in nothing less than a favorable light while dissent and dissenters were quickly squashed.
This, Cecil says, is part of his book’s relevancy: that the power that Hoover wielded with the press of his day continues to be a major concern between today’s leaders and those who report on their actions or inaction.
“This books speaks to the power of government to control the agenda and to control information and essentially the powerlessness of journalists many times to do anything about it. We all want to believe that our government officials are doing the right thing, we all want to believe in the intelligence agencies keeping us safe, of course we do. But I think that there’s room in this discussion for a little bit of democracy. I hope that reading my book might give people an idea that it can go too far and that Hoover is a really good example of that.”
Hoover’s FBI and the Fourth Estate by Mathew Cecil is published by the University Press of Kansas.