UP's Bickel Sympathetic With Russian Revolution

Here's one of the "Gems from Wire Service History" compiled by the late Unipresser Richard Harnett of San Francisco:



Karl Bickel, who was president of United Press from 1923 to 1935, was very sympathetic with the Russian revolution. He visited Moscow several times and was welcomed there.

The Soviet news agency Rosta (later called Tass) had its U.S. bureau in the UP New York office on Park Row. Bickel was a good friend of Kenneth Durant, the Rosta bureau chief. In 1927, on the recommendation of Durant, Bickel hired Eugene Lyons, who was then an employee of the Russian agency, to be UP's correspondent in Moscow. UP wanted someone sympathetic towards the Soviet.

Lyons went to Russia feeling very positive about the Communist government. His dispatches reflected this. He did not report on the negative things he saw, such as great hunger, failed policies and government by terror. Like the other American correspondents in Russia, he was aware that his stories went through Soviet censors who could make his reporting and his life difficult. All American reporters in Moscow at the time avoided offending the government. As Lyons said later, there is a difference between news and truth, and newspapers wanted news, not necessarily truth.

About five years after going to Moscow, Lyons had a "minor war" with the Russian woman who worked as his secretary-interpreter in the bureau. He fired her. She complained to Bickel, who ordered Lyons to put her back on the payroll, which he did. But he told her to stay away from the bureau. She again complained and Lyons was adamant that if she stayed he would leave.

That dispute was still simmering when Lyons obtained a scoop on Russian military activity which offended the Soviet government. Again he got into serious trouble with Bickel because some Russian officials were annoyed. The UP president sent European Manager Ed Keen to Moscow to inform Lyons that he was being recalled.

Lyons described Bickel as "a thoroughgoing liberal by nature." He said of the UP president that "the Russian revolution touched his imagination from the very beginning. He watched its evolution with sympathy which sometimes bordered on enthusiasm."

When Lyons got back to the United States he was sent out on a speaking tour by UP. His talks were generally favorable to the USSR. But in private conversations he told some of the negative stories he had picked up in his six years in Russia. These stories got back to his former associates at Rosta and he was ostracized by the Left Wing.

Shortly Lyons had left UP. In his memoir Assignment in Utopia, he does not say whether he was fired or quit.


While president of UP, Bickel made annual trips to Russia, helping Tass set up a wire operation, even providing the teletypes. He sent known communist-leaning reporters like Lyons to Moscow for UP with the idea of ingratiating UP with the Revolution. He also found time on those trips to pick up hundreds of Orthodox religious icons which the Communists were selling as firewood. He paid about 10 cents a bundle and gathered one of the largest collections of icon art outside Russia. He sent the stuff home by the truckload as "home furnishings." The relics are now in a museum in Florida of which Bickel was the principal benefactor.

Bickel, who was married to a wealthy banker's daughter, became very rich while working for UP.

He left UP gracefully in 1936 but behind his departure was a disagreement with Roy Howard about radio news. Bickel favored selling to broadcasters, in fact he wrote a book about the future of news on the airwaves. Howard, on the other hand, went along with most publishers who thought news was something that could only be printed on paper. The newspaper people didn't want UP and The Associated Press providing news to radio. When Bickel left, Hugh Baillie, his successor, did begin selling broadcast. AP, on the other hand, put a double-page ad in Editor & Publisher touting the fact that they would never never sell news to radio.

Bickel was also a personal friend of Charles Lindbergh and, at the time Lindy's baby was kidnapped, Bickel counselled him on how to handle the press. In fact, Lindy came into the UP office several times in disguise to talk to Bickel, unbeknownst to the news desk. Bickel never informed the news desk about what was going on in the story.

After his retirement, Bickel spent a great deal of time promoting the Ringling Brothers museum in Sarasota, Fla.

Bickel got into the news business in 1906 when, after the great San Francisco earthquake, he hiked from Stanford University where he was a student and volunteered to help the local newspaper (San Francisco Examiner). Apparently, that's where Roy Howard spotted him and made one of his better personnel buys.