(“CBS’s Don Hollenbeck; An Honest Reporter in the Age of McCarthyism,” by Loren Ghiglione, Columbia University Press, 316 pages, $29.95).
In George Clooney’s important documentary film about the legendary Edward R. Murrow, “Good Night, and Good Luck,” a niche role represents the harassed and ultimately tragic figure of Don Hollenbeck.
In the early 1950s, Hollenbeck was among the more celebrated of national radio-television journalists in the sparkling galaxy of CBS stars. More than celebrated, truly. Because of what he said on the air, Hollenbeck had become an unending target of Cold War vituperation. Political conservatives poured it on. Only weeks after Murrow’s classic 1954 broadcast, heroically spotlighting the cruelty and evil that Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy had cast across America, Hollenbeck, psychologically fragile, ended his troubled life at the gas jets.
I have asked several people in Lincoln if they might recall Hollenbeck’s media work long ago. None could. That’s interesting because Don Hollenbeck may have been the most globally noteworthy — certainly the most politically courageous — journalist to have roots in this city. Today, Hollenbeck’s broadcast scripts and transcripts are housed in the Archives and Special Collections of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries.
Loren Ghiglione’s wonderfully researched tour of Hollenbeck’s dramatic life might constitute several books. The barely known Nebraska element invites local (even gossipy) appeal. There was the shy intellectual from Lincoln High School and reporter for the Lincoln Journal who then never graduated the state university after three years; whose marriage to Jessie Seacrest, party-girl daughter of Journal publisher J. C. Seacrest, was capped by divorce after two years. Young Hollenbeck had to fend off rumors he was not the father of Jessie’s baby girl, a falsehood that may have prompted his own shamed mother to slit her throat with her husband’s razor.
Hollenbeck couldn’t get away from narrow-minded Lincoln fast enough. He did not go so very far. On the strength of his quality reporting work for the Journal, Hollenbeck “landed a $35-a week reporting job in May 1929 at William Randolph Hearst’s Omaha Bee News.” Before the Bee News inevitably folded in 1937, Hollenbeck had resigned to become a staffer at the Omaha World-Herald and after that an Associated Press photo editor.
James Crayhon, who supervised Hollenbeck at the AP, felt he was a “misplaced big-league intellect stuck in a job that required only farm-team mentality. He had much wider capabilities.”
Those were to be richly displayed when Hollenbeck shifted to New York, his ultimate physical and spiritual home. A test voice recording “eventually led to a successful career as a newscaster at NBC, ABC and CBS,” Ghiglione recounts. But there also was the former Nebraskan’s reporting-writing for PM, that famous experiment of a daily metropolitan newspaper without advertising. Long echoes of the yeasty political environment at PM, and Hollenbeck’s own liberalism, came to bedevil him in the McCarthy era.
“World War II proved to be radio’s war, just as Vietnam would prove to be television’s war,” Ghiglione correctly says. Yet it took some time before Hollenbeck gained combat correspondent exposure. Mainly, the Italian front was his theater for graphic radio news reporting.
Personal highs and lows color Hollenbeck’s post-war biography. He was fired by both ABC and NBC but hired, with a three-year contract, by CBS.
“Almost immediately, Hollenbeck established himself as one of the best of CBS’ postwar newscasters. The news team included Murrow, Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, William L. Shirer, Howard K. Smith and Ned Calmer.”
Even their reputations, though, did not stop a nervous corporation from trimming its sails in a time of widespread fear. CBS required employees to sign what essentially were hateful loyalty oaths. If contemporary Americans do not recall loyalty oaths, some in the fading generation certainly do. Those loyalty oaths were yard signs along the highway of intimidation of the McCarthy epoch.
CBS producer Fred Friendly labeled Hollenbeck an “unreconstructed progressive from Nebraska in the George Norris tradition who always went his own way. Anyone who tried to get him to join anything took his life in his hands.”
Another who went his own way, although in the spectacularly opposite direction, was Jack O’Brian, a columnist for the Hearst daily Journal-American. O’Brian became Hollenbeck’s most persistent critic. The two men hardly could have been less alike, personally and in their views.
O’Brian considered himself “the voice of the common folk, champion of decency and fighter against soft-on Communism liberals.” He also regarded Murrow “as an intellectual stuffed shirt.” And while O’Brian did not go after Murrow “as doggedly as CBS expected, he did use his newspaper column to bludgeon the emotionally vulnerable Hollenbeck,” Ghiglione, retired dean of the Medill School of Journalism, informs readers.
Those assaults surely contributed to Hollenbeck’s increased drinking, to his deepening isolation and worries and finally to his suicide.
Dick Herman is a retired Lincoln Journal Star editorial page editor.