1956 November 26

Three NY Times Employees Indicted for Contempt of Congress


The Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (the Senate counterpart to the House Un-American Activities Committee) had begun hearings on alleged Communist influence in the news media on January 4, 1956. On this day, three New York Times staff members were cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions about their political beliefs and associations. The Times had told them they would be fired if they took the Fifth Amendment. At this time, the Supreme Court had not yet affirmed a First Amendment right not to answer questions at a Congressional hearing. The Times employees included Alden Whitman and Robert Shelton. Shelton was twice convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to answer the committee’s questions, but both convictions were overturned on appeal.

Contempt of Congress indictments became a heavy weapon against alleged subversives during the Cold War. While it had rarely been used before World War II, HUAC issued 21 contempt citations in 1946, 14 in 1947, and 56 in 1950. All other House Committees in those years issued a total of only 6 contempt citations. See, for example, the contempt citations against the Hollywood Ten (October 28, 1947), folk singer Pete Seeger (August 18, 1955), and the playwright Arthur Miller (June 21, 1956).

Robert Shelton’s experience had a strange and enormously beneficial effect on his career. The Times did not fire him, but transferred him to cover popular music, which it evidently regarded as less politically sensitive than his previous assignment. Covering the New York City folk music scene in the early 1960s, he wrote a famously laudatory review of the then-unknown Bob Dylan, and the review is generally credited with bringing Dylan to prominence. Years later, Shelton wrote a biography of Dylan.

Alden Whitman continued to write for the Times, and specialized in obituaries. See his collection of published obituaries, below. In 1979 he was given the prestigious George Polk award for his distinguished career in journalism.

Read: Robert Shelton, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan (1986)

And read: Alden Whitman, Come to Judgment (1980)

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