Mary McNeill
Mary McNeill

538. Wallace Carroll blazed a trail for a generation of journalists

Imagine having a college class taught by a revolutionary journalist, one who was on the front lines of history multiple times at some of the most incredible moments of the 20th century, and not realizing until later who you were learning from. 

That’s what happened to Mary McNeil, a former editor and writer for Congressional Quarterly. When she was a student at Wake Forest, she took a class from Wallace Carroll. 

“He had retired and had been editor and publisher of the city paper in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He had retired and taken on the role of lecturer at Wake Forest University and taught a course on the First Amendment,” she says. “We didn’t know anything about his background because he never talked about himself. We just knew he was special and you wanted to do your best for him, you didn’t want to appear stupid. That was all we knew.” 

More than 30 years later, on a trip to London, McNeil came across her former professor’s name in a book called Citizens of London, “about three Americans working in London in the late 1930s, working to help bring the U.S. forward to support the British against Germany. His name kept popping up all over this book. I never knew he had been in London or what his role had been. It was like unpeeling an onion.” 

What McNeil learned inspired her new book, Century’s Witness: The Extraordinary Life of Journalist Wallace Carroll. 

“He was a reporter for United Press beginning in 1929, spent 14 years in Europe as a foreign correspondent for UP, covering hunger riots in London in the early ‘30s, then Paris, then became a diplomatic reporter covering the League of Nations from 1934-38,” she recounts. Carroll witnessed first-hand the rise of fascism and, in 1939, he was appointed bureau chief in London just as the war was beginning. By the end of 1941, Carroll traveled to the Arctic Circle to cover the Soviet Union, just as the Nazis invaded. 

“He was one of the first journalists to the front lines to cover and to cover that part of the war,” she says. Quickly, Carroll had to leave the Soviet Union, traveling east through Asia and eventually landing in Pearl Harbor — just days after the Japanese attack, making him one of the first reporters to provide information on what happened. 

Eventually, Carroll returned to the U.S., where he was asked to work for the Office of War Information, “frankly the propaganda arm of the U.S. government. He was charged with overseeing all of the information flowing into Europe to support the Allied cause,” making him the counterpart to Josef Goebels, better known as Hitler’s propaganda minister. 

All of that would be enough to have an incredible career. But Carroll wasn’t done. In 1955, he was called to be part of the Washington bureau for the New York Times, a job he kept until 1963. He left because “he didn’t like the way they were editing his articles,” McNeil says. From there he went back to the Wall Street Journal because he was able to write independently and without too much oversight from owner Gordon Gray, heir to the Reynolds tobacco fortune. 

Of course, that puts Carroll in the middle of the Civil Rights movement and the environmental movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, with Carroll winning a Pulitzer in 1971 for environmental reporting. 

“The overriding thing was, within the community, he was absolutely seen as the best, most respected writer of the time,” McNeil says. “People today — Donald Graham, who has written a nice review of the book; George Will, Norman Pearlstine, all these folks, in a way, knew him and followed his model. He was more than just a globe-trotting journalist. He influenced a whole generation of journalists in the way reporting should be done.” 

Mary McNeil, a former editor and writer for the Congressional Quarterly, talks to It’s All Journalism host Michael O’Connell about her new biography of Wallace Carroll and what today’s journalists can learn from this pioneering editor’s life.

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