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Libel, in Fact

Libel, in Fact

The careers of two national figures intersected in 1964 as one judged the other...but was the judgment ethical, or even legal?

Ralph Ginzburg did the judging, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater was judged.

In 1964, Senator Barry Goldwater was running against then-President Lyndon Johnson for the US Presidency. Four years earlier, Goldwater had published The Conscience of a Conservative, a book on his political philosophy that garnered him a national reputation.

In New York City, Ralph Ginzburg, a former editor at Esquire magazine, had just begun publishing a new magazine with national aspirations named Fact.

Fact was a glossy, visually elegant magazine - it was also wild and edgy. Ginzburg's first issue of Fact called TIME magazine a "Weekly Fiction Magazine." Its second issue alleged America's newspapers had "suppressed the truth about cigarettes and cancer for twenty-five years." Its third skewered Detroit's safety record -- one year before Ralph Nader published "Unsafe at Any Speed." The fourth issue attacked Bobby Kennedy.

The fifth issue of Fact, "September/October" was released during the final lengths of Senator Goldwater's 1964 race for the presidency. The magazine issue raised a number of concerns about Goldwater's character.

First a digression for artistic reasons: The cover of Fact was created by highly regarded designer Herb Lubalin (who, among other achievements, went on to design the ITC Avant Garde typeface). His work is revered by many in the graphic arts community today.

The Lubalin-designed covers of Fact (click here and scroll down to learn more) were gently off-white, with only text, no pictures. The September/October cover stated in lowercase, sizable letters, "fact:" and then in a smaller font: "1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater Is Psychologically Unfit To Be President."

The special issue was entitled, "The Unconscious of a Conservative: A Special Issue on the Mind of Barry Goldwater" (the title included a wordplay on Goldwater's own book title, The Conscience of a Conservative).

The first article of the issue, "Goldwater: The Man and the Menace...", provided a feature-length view of Goldwater's life and career, with plenty of interpretation of his personality by the author (the magazine's editor, Ginzburg).

The writing often appeared careful and attentive to its sourcing. A key section, for example, concerned whether Senator Goldwater had suffered from "nervous breakdowns":

It was Mrs. Goldwater who brought public attention to the fact that her husband had had two nervous breakdowns - one after the birth of their first child, the second after the birth of Barry Jr. The reference appeared in the May, 1964, issue of Good Housekeeping, in a profile of Mrs. Goldwater written by Al Toffler...Senator Goldwater has said that his wife used the term "nervous breakdown" loosely during this interview, and denies that he ever had a nervous breakdown (Parade, 8/23/64). His physician, Dr. Leslie R. Kober of Phoenix, is even more forceful: "Barry Goldwater never suffered a nervous breakdown in 1937, 1939, or at any other time...A few times he has been physically exhausted from his work, but so has everyone" (Parade). To be charitable, let us say that his physician must be awfully forgetful. Because there are three other sources that testify to the fact that Goldwater has had nervous breakdowns...

Ginzburg goes on to quote further supporting evidence for the nervous breakdowns from (1) Toffler in a second article, (2) a biography of Goldwater by Wood and Smith, and (3) Goldwater's son, as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Ginzburg wove such reporting into an argument that Goldwater was a politician who, in the midst of the cold war, found a perfect stage for his concerns. Those concerns, Ginzburg added, arose from Goldwater's problematic, even paranoid, psychopathology:

On the free-for-all stage of American politics all his aggressions, hostility, all his fears and delusions of persecutions, all his infantile fantasies of revenge and dreams of total annihilation of his adversaries found a perfect platform.

Goldwater's problems, Ginzburg argued, grew in part out of an upbringing that rendered the Sentator "...a man who obviously identifies with a masculine mother rather than an effeminate father...".

This was 1964, psychiatric assessment and labeling were loose ("unreliable," in the technical argot). There was wide latitude in clinical judgment, and many clinicians made diagnoses rather freely and according to their own training and preferences. Understanding was less good than today, and mental health professionals were sometimes preoccupied with the weaknesses in a person's thinking to the exclusion of their patient's psychological strengths.

The question: "How different is this type of judgment from judgment today, when journalists and others still toss about psychiatric labels and psychological evaluations?

There are a couple of differences. I do think that matters have tightened up somewhat and that the public is better educated. For example, when the journalist Todd Purdum traveled Alaska to report on then-Governor Sarah Palin, he reported that at least a few people in Alaska thought Palin seemed narcissistic to them. At least one of those who used the narcissim label said (according to Purdum) they had looked up the symptoms in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association to check their hunches!

Perhaps in terms of psychiatric labels, we have become a bit more accurate over the decades (as have the professionals).

Yet many of us are still using harsh language. The moral realm remains the same, with some calling others cowards or hypocrites or untrustworthy. So perhaps things haven't changed all that much.

In regard to the Fact coverage, Ginzburg later was accused -- and convicted -- of libel against Senator Goldwater. Some of the parts I quoted above were considered supportive of the libel claim. Given the times, however, those quotes by themselves might not have been enough to make the case... there was more about Goldwater in that issue of Fact.

More on that issue of Fact in a future post on the law and ethics of judging.


[See the cover at]

New York Times obituary:
My discussion of the coverage of the first year of Fact makes reference to the following issues:

(a) Ginzburg, R. (Ed.). (January-February, 1964). Fact, 1 (1), p. 2; (b) Ginzburg, R. (Ed.). (March-April, 1964). Fact, 1 (2), Front Cover; (c) Ginzburg, R. (Ed.). (May-June, 1964). Fact, 1 (3), Front Cover; (d) Ginzburg, R. (Ed.). (July-August, 1964). Fact, 1 (4), Front Cover; (e) Ginzburg, R. (Ed.). (September-October, 1964). Fact, 1 (5), Front Cover.

Also, I disucss the article: Ginzberg, R. (1964, September-October). Goldwater: The man and the menace. Fact, 1 (5), 3-22. The quote, "It was Mrs. Goldwater...", is from pp. 9-10 of the article, "The Unconscious of a Conservative..."; The quote "On the free-for-all stage...," is from p. 15, and "...a man who obviously..." was from p. 15 of the same. I refer indirectly also to Boroson, W. (1964, September-October). What psychiatrists say about Goldwater. Fact, 1 (5),24-64.

Related Web Sources

See another of the striking covers of Fact, by acclaimed graphic designer and Ginzburg collaborator Herb Lubalin.

Copyright (c) 2009 by John D. Mayer

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