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Whose Side Are You On? John Reed and Journalistic Ethics

by Samuel McIlhagga, 2022 Journalism Fellow

Many of the problems faced by modern journalism in approaching highly ideological conflicts—from protests, to revolutions, to civil war, to invasions—find encapsulation in the career of journalist, poet, communist activist, and writer John Reed (1887-1920). He has, it must be said, been made famous by other people’s depictions of his life, most notably in two films: Sergei Eisenstein’s October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928) and Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981). Reed is, in other words, best known because of media about the October Revolution. After all, he was, present in those heady days. But who was the man himself and how exactly does his story map onto the problems of contemporary reporting?

Primarily, Reed’s career poses the question of journalistic subjectivity, the same issue so often faced by today’s conflict and war reporters. How and when do you insert yourself and your views? What does it mean for one’s work, as a reporter, to be at one moment working against power and then, the next, complicit in a new regime? Did Reed’s personal understanding, and his advocacy for justice, leave his work open to appropriation by a state interested in covering up its own failures? How do we make sure ideological allies and the world’s underdogs are scrutinized to a suitable degree? Why did Reed’s pioneering practice of embedding with revolutionary military units lead to both great and problematic journalism? How do we balance the tools of subjective critique and advocacy with the need for real change and independence?

In the public consciousness, subjectivity in journalism rushed onto the scene in the 1960s with the New Journalism movement of Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson and publications like Rolling Stone. We also
imagine that a combination of activism and journalism is a recent trend, found in American newsrooms like The New York Times, one that is replacing an older and more respected tradition of objective bipartisanship. Reed provides both a positive and negative case for the longevity of both subjective writing and activist journalism going back to the fin de siecle years of the 19th century.

Reed was the scion of a wealthy mercantile family from Portland, Oregon. The product of New England boarding schools and Harvard, he nevertheless struggled with living among the old-money elite on the East Coast. He got his start writing for the Harvard Lampoon and Monthly. He then moved on to freelancing for several glossy American picture magazines while working low-level editorial jobs at The American Magazine. During this time Reed was influenced by “muckrakers”—reform-minded journalists active during the Progressive Era who wrote vividly about urban poverty, factory conditions, child labor, and prostitution. While his politics would begin to fall far to the left of these writers, their practice of on-the-ground reporting and inclusion of subjective emotions would strongly shape Reed’s work. These days, we often think highly charged and combative tabloid journalism to be a characteristic of right-populist outlets like Fox and Breitbart. But it is a tactic with a long “progressive” history.

Reed moved to Greenwich Village, New York in 1911 because it was the then-beating heart of labor and class journalism. By deciding to dwell in this bohemian semi-underworld of artists, thinkers, and activists, however, he separated himself from the subjects he wrote about. This is not a problem particular to John Reed. Even today, journalists are clustered on the coasts of America, specifically in LA and New York. Reed, like many now, would
parachute into emerging situations such as strikes, reveling in the exotic people he discovered in his own country. After being arrested during the coverage of a strike in Patterson, New Jersey, for instance, the Anglo John Reed found himself together in a cell with immigrant strikers:

“What nationalities stick together on the picket-line?”

A young Jew, pallid and sick-looking from insufficient food, spoke up proudly. “T’ree great nations stick togedder like dis.” He made a fist. “T’ree great nations—Italians, Hebrews an’ Germans"—

“But how about the Americans?”

They all shrugged their shoulders and grinned with humorous scorn. “English peoples not go on picket-line,” said one, softly. “‘Mericans no lika fight!”1

While newsrooms have become far more diverse than they were in 1913, matrices of inclusion such as socio-economic background and regional identity have remained difficult to incorporate. The New York Times, for instance, still sends Ivy League-educated journalists from New York to understand the grumblings of the political underbelly of the nation—from Appalachia to Midwestern suburbia. This is not necessarily wrong, and Reed’s reportage on strikes benefits from an outsider's perspective. But the fact that the practice continues unexamined to this day suggests how entrenched educational and geographic inequalities are.

The same year Reed reported on the Patterson strike, he also became a staff writer at The Masses, a beautifully illustrated socialist journal with much in common with today's Jacobin. This move would cement Reed’s status as a practitioner of advocacy journalism. He would write over 50 articles and reviews for the magazine. Yet at the same time, he maintained a foot in the world of mainstream reporting, writing for The Metropolitan Magazine (which was then edited by former US president Theodore Roosevelt). Reed was sent by The Metropolitan to cover the emerging revolution in Mexico—but he struggled to keep his advocacy journalism and reporting separate. Many of his pieces were rejected for being too political.

However, this aporia would soon end. His missives home from the Mexican Revolution made him a celebrity. Reed pioneered an early form of what would later be called Gonzo Journalism. In this role, he was not just an observer but also an active participant in the events covered. His earlier arrest covering a strike perhaps alerted him to the fact that breaking the wall of objectivity between observer and observed had its benefits—exciting prose from the reader’s point of view along with an increased sense of authority (who can write off what another simply sees?).

During this time out of the US, Reed produced Insurgent Mexico (1914). The book’s popularity owed much to the journalist’s spending months living with generals and their soldiers. This connection to the action allowed him to write a colorful and immersive book, presenting the perspectives of illiterate revolutionaries, people who would never normally find their voices in print.

Because Reed was himself a character in the revolution, however, he found it hard to zoom out and present anything resembling a birds-eye analysis. Indeed, in the book, Reed goes through incredibly traumatic bonding experiences with the other men—including owing his life to some of them and burying dead combatants:

Then my heart gave a jump. A man was coming silently up the valley. He had a green serape over one arm, and nothing on his head but a blood-clotted handkerchief. His bare legs were covered with blood from the espadas. He caught sight of me all of a sudden, and stood still; after a pause, he beckoned. I went down to where he was; he never said a word but led the way back down the valley. About a hundred yards farther he stopped and pointed. A dead horse sprawled in the sand, its stiff legs in the air; beside it lay a man, disembowelled by a knife or a sword—evidently a colorado, because his cartridge-belt was almost full. The man with the green serape produced a wicked-looking dagger, still ruddy with blood, fell on his knees, and began to dig among the espadas. I brought rocks. We cut a branch of mesquite and made a cleft cross out of it. And so we buried him.2

During the 2003 invasion and later war in Iraq, embedding became a serious question. There was intense discussion about embedding with the American Army—journalists were accused of being ‘inbedded’ with the forces—sacrificing objectivity for access and protection. Concerns grew that reporters would only be shown what the US Army wanted them to be shown. Reed makes an astounding test case. He followed, bonded with, and wrote about Pancho Villa and his men, noting their exploits and their successes against overwhelming odds. Yet, at the same time, he neglects to mention the mass rapes, extrajudicial executions, and large-scale arsons committed against civilians by Villa’s troops. Did he know?

In Insurgent Mexico, he was clear about trying to follow Villa’s movements:

“I appreciate your hospitality, my General," I told him, "but my work demands that I be where I can see the actual advance upon Torreon. If it is convenient, I should like to go back to Chihuahua and join General Villa, who will soon go south.”3

Were these crimes committed out of sight of nosy American journalists? Was Reed not in Mexico long enough to witness them? Did his ideological priors blind him to what was happening? Or were the crimes of the Mexican capitalist class so immense from his perspective that revolutionary violence blurred normal ethical standards?

This ambiguity would continue in Reed’s reportage on the October Russian Revolution of 1917. During the conflict, he went so far as to pick up a gun, joining the new Bolshevik government as a translator under the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs, even giving speeches at protests he would then report on. Reed made a stark choice. And while most journalists employed by large organizations today would not be able to cross the boundary between witness and fighter so easily, the basic question remains: how complicit do we make ourselves by embedding with one side in a war, by only seeing what we are allowed to or want to? Reed’s book on the Russian Revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World (1919), leads with a quote from Lenin:

With the greatest interest and with never slackening attention I read John Reed’s book, Ten Days that Shook the World. Unreservedly do I recommend it to the workers of the world. Here is a book which I should like to see published in millions of copies and translated into all languages. It gives a truthful and most vivid exposition of the events so significant to the comprehension of what really is the Proletarian Revolution.4

What would we think today about a book published by an American journalist about the Arab Spring in Egypt with a foreword written by Mohamed Morsi? At the same time, can we really accuse Reed of trading objectivity for access to the Russian Revolution? He came as an advocate and wrote most of his pieces for The Masses. Those reading him knew his priors and could adjust their views accordingly. Is there not worth in building up an objective picture of an event through the laborious work of critical thinking, combining various subjective accounts into a jigsaw of reports? Is this not what objective journalism does, one step down, when using contrasting sources? Can the journalist ever really operate as a steely and cold neutral observer? At what point are human passions utilized by ambitious new regimes to produce propaganda? Indeed, Reed was accused of writing propaganda for the communists by another American journalist Edgar Sission, who had his own political motivations for attacking radical US reporters—and forged a conspiracy theory to do it.5

From labor strikes to worldwide revolution—John Reed is a case study in the ethically ambiguous work of reporting on political and human crises: balancing mainstream journalism with advocacy and how embedding practices during war can radically curtail a reporter’s ability to comprehend the whole picture. Reed is an incredibly useful figure for an age increasingly characterized by its own crises—like climate change, income inequality, digitally surveilled wars in Syria and Ukraine, government media interference, and the revitalization of explicitly ideological narratives on the left, right, and liberal center. To operate as a journalist in times of upheaval requires one to find models from previous periods of unrest. We all have to turn to someone to help forge our way. Reed's ethical ambiguity provides the basis required for us to question our own deep moral opacity. He creates an invaluable starting point for our own self-questioning—what do we risk? And how best to risk it in pursuit of the truth?

Samuel McIlhagga was a 2022 FASPE Journalism Fellow. He is a freelance journalist based in the UK.


  1. Reed, John, ‘War in Paterson,’ The Masses, June, 1913, accessed, Marxists.Org, 23rd September, 2022 [https://www.marxists.org/archive/reed/1913/masses06.htm]
  2. John Reed, Insurgent Mexico, 1914, New York, Chapter XI, ‘Meester’s Flight’ accessed at Project Gutenberg [https://www.gutenberg.org/files/48108/48108-h/48108-h.html]
  3. Ibid, Chapter II, ‘The Lion of Durango at Home.’
  4. John Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World, 1919, accessed at Marxists.Org [https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1919/dec/31.htm]
  5. John Maxwell Hamilton & Meghan Menard McCune, The Conversation, ‘Lessons from White House disinformation a century ago: It’s dangerous to believe your own propaganda,’ September 13, 2018, [https://theconversation.com/lessons-from-white-house-disinformation-a-century-ago-its-dangerous-to-believe-your-own-propaganda-102155]