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A Hearst executive once told A. J. Liebling that "the public is interested in just three things: Blood, money, and...sexual intercourse." Hearstlings Lait and Mortimer have taken that creed to heart. They have written long and loud about what's wrong with America, always with at least one eye on the public interest.
Confidentially, say Lait and Mortimer, the U.S.A. stinks. The Mafiais around every street corner, with a slot machine under each arm. The Communists are pushing dope. Legislatures can be bought at a hundred dollars a man. Youth is "unbridled and hopped-up." "Greedy groups and misguided ninnies" are turning America--"man's bravest dream"--into a "nightmare." Luckily, Lait and Mortimer have been Johnny-on-the-spot, grubbing under every available rock for their case against the country.
It is a shoddy case. The authors name some names and print some telephone numbers, but fact after fact hangs on the rawest form of hearsay, and the turn of many a phrase suggests that the co-authors worked with libel lawyers squatting alertly on their laps. Too many of the statements have no substantiation at all. this, for example, is part of the Lait and Mortimer pocket survey of the nation's colleges:
University of Washington: "Many students at this institution have graduated from muggles to hard stuff. Many girls come to class with their arms scarred.... This university is also noteworthy for its extremes of homosexualism among undergraduates, often a manifestation of...outright Communist alignments...in so many instances that it cannot be coincidence, all these traits are perceptible in the same individual."
University of California (Berkeley) "...the U of C is a bed of sexual perversion, left wing teaching and narcotic addiction, with plain, old-fashioned love-making regarded as corny."
Harvard: "...so gay you can hear the swish across the River Charles..."
University of Wisconsin: "...Alma Mater of so many Reds, is now lavender, where swishes of both sexes stop lolligagging for their other pet pastime--getting up petitions against Joe McCarthy."
University of Virginia: "...deep pink..."
University of North Carolina: "...the Commies literally stole the campus--what was left after the crooks got theirs. Homos were a big thing there, too..."
Southern Methodist: "It is not unknown to see SMU students letting nature take its full course in the back of automobiles, in daylight, on the college campus."
This is what the two Hearstlings, showing uncommon restraint, call "hot journalism." It is not even that. The boys' candor comes at the sacrifice of coverage; they leave big areas of corruption severely untouched. One piquant example is their soft-pedaling of the numbers racket. The omission may stem from the fact that the newspaper Lait now edits (The New York Daily Mirror) prints daily figures from which enterprising readers work out numbers results.
Far worse than the coverage of these reporters with their self-styled "Unique will and skill and guts" is the level of their research. Within the sidelines of the libel laws they make about every charge that can be made, always tailoring their material for that crucial, reader-pleasing evidence of Communism, New Dealism, Socialism, "Homosexualism," and the Mafia. They shift into overdrive when it is imposible to check them. One of the passages which will probably titillate historians in years to come is their version of what former New York Mayor William O'Dwyer was doing on Dec. 7, 1941. It seems O'Dwyer was just wrapping up a first degree murder indictment against his predecessor, La Guardia, and Sidney Hillman. The phone rang. It was President Roosevelt. Roosevelt told O'Dwyer that since the war had just broken out, O'Dwyer had better drop the charges to make sure Italians and labor unions helped along with the war effort. O'Dwyer obeyed. What makes this especially good stuff from the point of view of U.S.A. Confidential is that three of the parties involved are dead and therefore in no position to bring libel suits, and the fourth is conveniently south of the border. The boys' hot journalism tends to cool on second look.
Lait and Mortimer sum it all up very well themselves. "We are reporters, not reformers...we have demonstrated that we are not sloppy workmen at our trade." There is no questioning that. The boys are as proficient a pair of mudslingers as have sniffed around in a long while. "We have nothing to sell but books," they say. That is true, too, but maybe a little less so. For while Lait and Mortimer will no doubt sell carloads of books, they may some day find, along with Mr. Leibling's Hearstling, that they have long since made a tie-in sale of their souls.
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