Snapshots

The Bureau and the Journalist: Victor Riesel’s Secret Relationship With the FBI

It was one of the darker moments of the era. On May 8, 1970, four days after a quartet of students were shot dead on the Kent State University campus, a demonstration of high school and college students protesting the escalation of the Vietnam War in the Wall Street area of New York were attacked by construction workers. By all accounts it was vicious. One report described workers chasing students into nearby Pace University, “The workers smashed windows and beat students in the lobby. One student was taken away apparently in convulsions. The workers threw wooden wedges, pipe joints and rocks through the windows apparently angered by an antiwar banner some students had draped over the facade of the building.”1

News of the attack went out worldwide. In its aftermath, supporters of the war sought to drive home a message: The students had gone too far and these hardscrabble workers were justified in doing something about it. One of those sounding off was columnist Victor Riesel. In a piece called, “Counter Violence is on the Move” he wrote:

The construction trades union men marched on City Hall. They’re hard. I’ve seen them in action. They’re tough. And they were bitter mad. They hit the young people, lashed at the demonstrators as the nation now knows. They invaded a nearby college. But they carried no lead pipes. The carried no urine or human feces in cellophane bags as did the 1968 Chicago young peace demonstrators.2

Riesel’s column was an open endorsement of violence against antiwar demonstrators, one that fit the narrative/polarization pushed from the highest levels of government at the time – the hardworking silent majority finally standing up to spoiled, intellectual, privileged youth. This incident now sits decades in the past, but an astute observer of the Occupation of Zuccotti Park in the fall of 2011 will see its ghost in the way unfriendly tabloids, right-wing television and hostile radio commentary took aim at the Occupy Wall Street movement. In that respect, a closer look at the work of Victor Riesel is instructive: exemplary of the way a certain type of journalism undergirds the repressive forces of the state.

Who was Victor Riesel?

Victor Riesel was a New York journalist who covered the labor beat as a syndicated columnist from the 1940s until the early 1980s. At the height of his career he was carried in nearly 350 newspapers – giving him a direct voice to the mainstream in the US. He is perhaps best known for an incident in 1956, when he was attacked on a Manhattan street by a man who threw sulfuric acid in his face, blinding him. This was in response to a column Riesel wrote claiming that a Long Island union had mob connections. At the time of his death, Riesel was described as a dogged journalist with little mention of his hard-right politics. His New York Times obituary described how, “Despite his blinding, Mr. Riesel never stopped inveighing against gangster infiltration and other corruption in labor unions that had stirred his emotions since his youth.” Curiously absent in this denouement, was his role in promoting the blacklist during the McCarthy era,3 his personal and partisan friendships with Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan,4 and his close association with the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover.

Hoover and His Contacts

For nearly 50 years J. Edgar Hoover occupied the top position in the FBI. During that time he assembled a list of contacts in the press to be called on when he needed to get the FBI’s position out, or in other ways needed their assistance in furthering the bureau’s work. In 1975-76 the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, known by its chairman’s name Frank Church – the Church Committee -issued several reports. One of those reports detailed how the FBI went about using the press in targeting radicals:

Typically, a local FBI agent would provide information to a ‘friendly news source’ on the condition ‘that the Bureau’s interest in these matters is to be kept in the strictest confidence.’ Thomas E. Bishop, former Director of the Crime Records Division, testified that he kept a list of the Bureau’s ‘press friends’ in his desk.

Riesel died in 1995 and his papers are now housed in New York University’s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. Among those documents is significant correspondence with labor unions, appointment diaries for his years as a reporter, notes and drafts of columns. They also contain something else. Three file folders of correspondence with various FBI officials from the 60s and 70s. Included among them are several pieces of correspondence from Thomas E. Bishop. In other words, Riesel was one of those FBI “friendly news sources.”

READ THE ENTIRE ARTICLE HERE: The Bureau and the Journalist: Victor Riesel’s Secret Relationship With the FBI.

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