Parasol in Hand, Service News, Teetered Down Editorial High Wire in Search for Will O' the Wisp Impartiality

"Strange Fruit," Gilbert-Poor Affair, and Political Advertising Became Causes Celebes for Voiceless Wartime Paper; Editorial Page Highlight of Crime Comeback

After the Great Exodus of the spring of '43 (when the future was viewed in terms of khaki and navy blue and what-the-hell), it got so quiet in the, little redbrick building on the one-way cowpath, 14 Plympton Street, you could hear a split-infinitive drop. Most of the Crimeds had gone off to the wars, leaving behind them something they'd started as a weekly to serve naval and military personnel, something they now hoped whole be able to publish the news of the whole University twice a week; something called the Harvard Service News.

In the beginning, the Service News was put out largely by V-12ers and NROTC students, and its columns were well-padded with special features written by Radcliffe Waves, and Graduate School Communication officers. Most of its advertising came from purveyors of uniforms, its news was army and navy news, and it had no editorials.

Not having an editorial policy forced the Service News to walk a tight-rope carrying a fine silk parasol. Franklin D. Roosevelt '04, president of the Crime in 1904, once said that he'd like to see a straight news sheet in New York City-- one carrying all the news but no editorials. In retrospect, the Service News provided a testing ground for that project, and the test wasn't entirely successful. Practically any newspaperman will admit that complete impartiality is unattainable, and a few instances will illustrate that the Service News, occassionally slipped off its tight-rope.

Get this straight: the idea of not having an editorial page in the Service News didn't come from University Hall, and it didn't come form the U. S. Navy either. In a memorandum constituting the Service News in the spring of '43 the editors of the CRIMSON recognized that 'maintaining the independence of the Service News from the Army and the Navy will be a difficult task, especially since cooperation with the Services is to vitally important," and therefore decided that it would be dangerous for the HSN to publish editorials.

This decision was based on the anticipation of a younger, less responsible student body a greater turn-over in the paper's staff and a definite desire to keep Service News policies and standards instinct from those of the CRIMSON.


The Service News was strictly a service news in the summer of '43, when it first became the University's only newspaper. But tucked in among columns by and for army and navy trainees--The Lucky Bag, Scuttlebut, Ward Room Topics, Specialist's Corner, Creating a Ripple, and the like-- was an irregular bylined feature called "Passing the Buck." Written by the Service News' first editor, Robert S. Landau '45, who later was killed in naval action in the invasion of Lingayen, Gulf, the Philippines, the column attacked a "back-handed diatribe" in the Boston Herald, demanded resumption of gridiron hostilities with Yale, and said other things which made people wonder whether the Service News was us voiceless as it pretended.

After that first summer there was a metamorphosis into an artificial situation: the paper was being put out mostly by civilian students, and it was being read largely by military and naval personnel. Editors were out of touch with their readers. There came a point where most of the stories were of no interest, or very little interest, to the majority of readers, who were appeased with drivel written by their own representatives. To wit, this is from Scuttlebut:

"They're telling around that most of the local mugs will be billeting at the Commander in a surprise merger with the Supply Waves!!! . . . Now, pleeaassee don't quote me, pal, but I heard a fellow behind me in our first class this morning, and he was bumpin's his gums, giving all the gang the row-down . . . Oh, yeah, all the classes are gonna be held in Memorial Hall, too . . . At least, that's my latest info on it." Scarcely "CRIMSON standards."

Obviously though it was perhaps not obvious to FDR '04, a paper can editorialize by varying its emphasis, by playing some stories big and burying others. To come to a case in point-one of a series of causes celebres.

This is what might be considered a hair-line case. In March, 1944, the big news in Boston, and in all the literary tea circles, was the banning by the Watch and Ward Society of "Strange Fruit." There wasn't much of a Harvard angle, but the whole business was too hot to pass up altogether.

The only way into the scrap that the Service News could find was a review of the book by F. O. Matthiessen, professor of History and Literature, and chairman of the committee of Cersorship of the civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts Professor Matthiessen reviewed "Strange Fruit," saying that it was "thoroughly shameful for such book to be banned in Boston at the very time when we need to examine every phase of our American race problems . . ."

Then there were objections. People said that the review had been solicited, with full knowledge of what Professor Mattiessen would way, and that its publication constituted an editorial position. So at the last moment, but with Professor Mattiessen's approval, the review was turned into a letter to the editor. The tight rope trembled violently, but the silk parasol saved the day.

A cause celebre that received national publicity was the "Gilbert-Poor Affair." "The evening was warm," Time magazine said later. "The Yard, as ever on such spring evenings, was restless. Two Harvard freshman strolled down to the Charle's grassy banks. They were Peter Varnum Poor, son of the famed Painter Henry Varnum Poor, and craig Philip Gilbert, son of a Manhattan lawyer. A group of high school boys shouted at them, but they paid no attention.

Strange Doings

"The group closed in. One of them asked the freshman: "Are you Jews?" Poor and Gilbert made no answer, tried to hurry on. Two pursuers blocked their path, insisted: "Are you Jews?" "No," said poor. He was not-Gilbert was. They quickened their pace. When Poor, to cover his nervousness, reached into his pocket for matches to light a cigaret, one of the gang yelled: "They have a knife!" Seven or eight boys leaped on the two Freshmen. Badly mauled, both spent the night is Stilman Infirmary."

What received a column and a half in Time merited one inch in the Service News. On June 6, a streamer atop the masthead on page one said, "Allied Armies Invade Continent, German Radio Claims"; and under the 12-point head, "River Front Police Reinforced," was the story: "In view of the recent disorders on the Charles River front, the Metropolitan District Police and University Yard Cops will hereafter give additional protection in that area, it was learned from Dean Hanford's office yesterday."

Why wasn't the story covered? Time said, "Harvard hushed it up," and went on to charge censorship of the Service News by Dean Hanford. Gilbert and Poor submitted a letter of protest to the paper asking "intelligent citizens" to join in a campaign against anti-Semitism in Cambridge. The Service News didn't publish it, leery about soiling its linen. But there was no pressure from University Hall.

Here is a case where lack of coverage represented editorializing just as much as did a slanted, or weighted, news story. The paper certainly fell off the fine high wire then; the parasol didn't help a bit.

Political advertising caused a little flurry in the fall of '44, when the Harvard conservative League inserted an ad telling people to "Vote For Dewey." The name "Dewey" referred to the moustached man now serving as governor of New York State and then a Republican candidate for President. The Navy demanded that all its papers be picked up and taken out of circulation.

All of this makes the opposite page look reassuring. Toss in another column in width, a few more inches in length, more frequent publication, United Press service, and the rest, but the editorial page makes the big difference between the Service News and the CRIMSON.