If you can’t say something nice…



His name was Francis James Westbrook Pegler, but he was best known as Westbrook Pegler, his byline. I am old enough to have read some of his syndicated columns. He was notorious for attacks on public figures including Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman as well as John F. Kennedy.

In 1938 Time Magazine said of Pegler: “…Mr. Pegler is invariably irritated, inexhaustibly scornful. Unhampered by coordinated convictions of his own, Pegler applies himself to presidents and peanut vendors with equal zeal and skill. Dissension is his philosophy.” (As quoted by Wikipedia)

Pegler attacked fellow writer Quentin Reynolds, a World War II war correspondent (like Pegler had been in World War I) and a prolific author. (I read a number of his 25 books as a child—his style was generally appropriate for young readers.)

Without going into much detail, Pegler and Reynolds became literary enemies and Pegler wrote several pieces attacking Reynolds with negative and generally untrue allegations of his conduct. This led to a libel suit on behalf of Reynolds, decided in 1955 against Pegler and the Hearst Syndicate.

Pegler in his column called Reynolds “yellow” and an “absentee war correspondent”. Reynolds was awarded $175,001, at the time the largest libel judgment ever. The trial was depicted in a Broadway play, “A Case of Libel,” also adapted for television. (I saw it on television, but had earlier read about the libel suit.) Language can be very dangerous and can be used as a weapon. Quentin Reynolds was damaged but not ruined by Pegler’s accusations and his career did largely recover. Pegler was subdued but not silenced and went on to criticize other public figures.

Both are now long gone. Quentin Reynolds died in 1965 and Westbrook Pegler in 1969. They are likely best known for the libel case. I would call Westbrook Pegler a “curmudgeon with a typewriter”, an attack journalist subdued but not silenced by the libel suit. Large publishers have deep pockets, but libel damages reputations and more.

Journalists and writers can best learn from the case by being careful about what they say or write. My best advice is the old saying, “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.”

(An added note: Professionally and personally I try never to resort to namecalling or personal attacks of any kind.)

WARREN DOMKE is a columnist for the Pleasanton Express.

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