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How Media Politics Was Born
To keep Upton Sinclair from becoming governor of California in 1934, his opponents invented a whole new kind of campaign
September/October 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 6
Virtually every newspaper in the state lashed out at Sinclair. An editorial cartoon in Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner pictured Sinclair as “The Fourth Horseman,” racing to catch up to Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. Following Whitaker and Baxter’s lead, the Los Angeles Times printed a box on the bottom of its front page every day, featuring an out-of-context Sinclair quotation.
On October 1 Sinclair complained at a rally: “I don’t know what there is left for them [the Times] to bring up unless it is the nationalizing of women.” Two days later a Sinclair statement on cooperative child care appeared in the Times under the heading NATIONALIZING CHILDREN. Instead of presenting his program, Sinclair spent most of his time trying to correct what he called “a million lies.” He was discovering the wisdom in Mark Twain’s observation that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its boots.
To distract the candidate even further, the Republicans took another ground-breaking step. They hired Lord & Thomas, one of the first and most prominent national advertising firms, to direct an advertising struggle against Sinclair. Lord & Thomas had sold Lucky Strike cigarettes and Pepsodent toothpaste to the public; maybe, the GOP hoped, it could sell Frank Merriam as the answer to the Sinclair menace. Besides handling all the paid advertising—including the use of thousands of billboards to display twisted Sinclair quotations—Lord & Thomas may have had its own dirty-tricks squad. Sinclair charged that EPIC’s phones were tapped and some of its mail was stolen. “We hired the scum of the streets to carry placards: Vote for Upton Sinclair,” a Lord & Thomas manager later admitted.
The conscription of public relations agents and national advertising firms was an effective innovation for California Republicans. But the idea that had perhaps the greatest impact, both in the 1934 campaign and long afterward, was the manipulation of moving pictures. The Hollywood Reporter called this ploy “the most effective piece of political humdingery that has ever been effected.”
Extremely conservative to begin with, the Hollywood studio bosses were incensed when they heard of Sinclair’s plan to impose a special new tax on the film industry and to let out-of-work actors take over abandoned sound stages to make their own movies. The heads of several studios threatened to move their entire operations to Florida if EPIC became a reality. Joseph Schenck, the president of United Artists, went so far as to inspect sites in Florida. But when some of the studios began building new facilities in Hollywood, it became apparent that they were bluffing. If Hollywood meant to defeat Sinclair, the moguls would have to take more direct action.
And so, under the leadership of Louis B. Mayer, most of the studio bosses asked their employees, from stenographers to stars, to donate money to the Merriam campaign. Many workers feared that if they did not contribute, they risked losing their jobs. The levy generated half a million dollars for the anti-Sinclair campaign, an enormous sum for a statewide race in the 1930s. Several stars, including Katharine Hepburn, James Cagney, and Jean Harlow, rebelled. When the screenwriter Dorothy Parker spoke up for Sinclair, she was told, “You’re cutting your own throat.”
But Mayer and the movie establishment knew that to defeat Sinclair they would have to reach the masses beyond Hollywood with the message that he was a dangerous radical, and they would have to do it in a novel, exciting, and at the same time subtle way. Variety had issued a call: “With theatres available to provide Sinclair opposition, so far as propaganda is concerned, let the picture business assert itself.”
With only weeks remaining until the November election, an MGM director named Felix Feist, Jr., took a camera crew from Hearst Metrotone News (one of the leading newsreel companies of the day) up and down the state, filming interviews with prospective voters. Feist was following direct orders, it was later revealed, from MGM’s “boy wonder” producer Irving Thalberg. The raw film was processed through MGM’s lab, edited down to a few minutes, and added to the Metrotone newsreels, which were sent free of charge to theaters throughout California twice a week.
Louis B. Mayer and the movie establishment knew that to defeat Sinclair they would have to convey the message that he was a dangerous radical, and do it in a novel, exciting, yet subtle way.
Because newsreels had heretofore maintained a nonpartisan stance in election races, these shorts, based on an innocuous inquiring-reporter format, had an enormous effect. Well-dressed couples and prim, elderly ladies invariably endorsed Merriam. Disheveled, wild-eyed citizens with thick accents stood up for Sinclair. One man observed that Sinclair was “the author of the Russian government, and it worked out very well there, and it should do so here.”