Professor exposes Hoover, FBI through book


Matthew Cecil, associate professor for the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications (Photo by Kenzie Clayton)

Jordan Smith

Matthew Cecil, associate professor for the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications, is writing a scholarly book to expose J. Edgar Hoover’s corrupt interactions with the press.

Cecil has been actually writing the book, “Molders of Public Opinion: The Press, Public Relations and J. Edgar Hoover’s War on Crime and Dissent,” for six months. In order to obtain the FBI files on reporters, over the course of 15 years, he used the Freedom of Information Act, FOIA, which is why it has taken so long.

Through FOIA, he has obtained more than 300 FBI files, which equates to about 100,000 pages.

“It takes a really, really long time, but I think of it as a treasure hunt. Every little notation, signature, or underlined passage on a document means something,” Cecil said. “Once you get good at reading those documents, you get a pretty clear idea of what the FBI was up to and how it went about doing its work.”

Cecil has been studying those FBI files so closely he can now identify Hoover’s handwriting among others on the files just by looking at it.

To get his work noticed, Cecil first began publishing scholarly journal articles. These illustrated interesting stories where journalists didn’t act like journalists. According to Cecil, examples of this include most of the FBI’s “friends” in the news media. Several Pulitzer Prize winners allowed Hoover’s public relations staff to review and edit their news stories prior to publication.

“FBI public relations staff changed facts, rewrote quotes and removed information that wasn’t flattering to the Bureau. That is just not journalism,” Cecil said. “They had no personal ambition or drive in their work and they harmed democracy in the process.”

Kinsey Gustafson, a sophomore journalism student from Sturgis has heard of one of these incidents, the story of Ray Tucker, a journalist while Hoover was in the FBI. Tucker hinted about Hoover’s sexuality in print, and, after doing so, the FBI did an investigation on him, leaking information about his personal life. After this incident, other journalists were too scared to do any further reporting or investigating about Hoover.

“The resources [Hoover] had to scare away the press were abundant, but that doesn’t necessarily make it right,” Gustafson said.

Cecil’s interest in the book began when he was in high school, working at The Ram restaurant in downtown Brookings. Posted on a wall are newspaper clippings about two robbers of The Ram in 1938, which was then used as a bank. He wrote a paper about the robbers in college and later wrote a master’s thesis on the subject. When he got the FBI files to write the thesis, he became interested in Hoover’s dealings with the press.

Then, 17 years ago, Cecil came across a story that really sparked his interest. He discovered that FBI officials concocted a fake story after they shot and killed a fugitive in St. Louis in the 1930s.

“The FBI officials wanted to make sure the shooting fit the “heroic” FBI story. The truth was they had shot the guy in the back as he ran away,” said Cecil. “The new story the FBI concocted and then told to the media and under oath at a Coroner’s Inquest, had the fugitive pulling his weapons and threatening the agents, who responded by shooting him. In that story, the shooting was justified. It was a total fabrication.”

After that, Cecil said he began to wonder about how the FBI used public relations to spin the truth and how journalists would take their statements as fact without challenge or question.

Cecil’s work is well supported by his colleagues, including Mary Arnold, the department head of mass communications and journalism.

“Dr. Cecil brings [a special piece] to research on Hoover. His area of scholarship has a far-reaching impact on journalistic aspects of how journalists themselves were targeted by Hoover’s public relations efforts,” Arnold said.

Arnold said, through Cecil’s book, the public would soon see how the FBI manipulated the media.

“Journalists turned stories into the FBI for editing,” said Cecil. “They were feeding their ambition and doing anything they could to get [ahead].”

While doing research on this book has taken years, there are still hours of work ahead of Cecil before the idea of a published book becomes reality. Cecil said the book could finish and be published within a year to a year and a half.

“There’s still a lot left to do. I still have to finish two-thirds of a book. The next step is to find a publisher which I hope to do this summer,” Cecil said.

Arnold is planning to hold a Fillbrandt Forum revolving around Dr. Cecil’s work, in particular his use of FOIA requests to get the FBI files, correspondences, letters, etc.

The Fillbrandt Forum is a meeting held in the journalism department each year and is sponsored by an endowment from the Fillbrant Family. The meeting is held in cooperation with the South Dakota Newspaper Association, as Casey Fillbrandt was the first general manager of the SDNA. At the meeting this year, Arnold plans to discuss the movie “J. Edgar,” as well as the process of collecting information on a case study throught FOIA.

“It is cool that he is at the point of his research going to a book,” said Arnold.  “Not many professors get to that step, and it is exciting to watch the process unfold.”

Both Cecil and Gustafson understand that a part of journalism is about exposing corrupt information and informing the public of the news, no matter the consequences.

“The purpose of the book is to show how J. Edgar Hoover was complicit in civil liberties excesses, and how the journalists let Hoover get away with it, or helped him in doing so,” said Cecil.

Gustafson said scaring away the press does an injustice to public awareness, because without the press, the public cannot be as informed.

“The point of being a journalist is finding the story the world should and wants to know about,” Gustafson said.