University of California at Davis Professor Kathryn Olmsted’s book The Newspaper Axis: Six Press Barons Who Enabled Hitler has won the 2023 Sperber Prize, awarded by Fordham University. The prize is scheduled to be conferred on Nov. 6 at a ceremony open to the public held at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus. The Sperber Prize honors biographies about media figures and autobiographies or memoirs by media figures. This is the 25th annual competition.
Published by Yale University Press, The Newspaper Axis presents an eye-opening look into how the six most powerful media moguls in America and Britain tried to pressure their countries to ignore the fascist threat as Adolf Hitler’s power began to rise in pre-World War II Germany. The media empires of Robert McCormick, Joseph and Eleanor Patterson, and William Randolph Hearst spanned the United States, reaching tens of millions of Americans in print and over the airwaves with their isolationist views. Meanwhile in England, Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail extolled Hitler’s leadership and Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express insisted that Britain had no interest in defending Hitler’s victims on the continent.
The Newspaper Axis shows how these media titans worked in concert—including sharing editorial pieces and coordinating their responses to events—to influence public opinion in a right-wing populist direction, how they echoed fascist and anti-Semitic propaganda, and how they weakened and delayed both Britain’s and America’s response to Nazi aggression.
Fordham Associate Professor of Communication and Media Studies Beth Knobel, director of the Sperber Prize, said that Olmsted wrote a highly important work, making it the jury’s choice among the excellent works that were finalists for the 2023 Sperber Prize. “The Newspaper Axis makes an important contribution to both journalism history and our understanding of the roots of World War II,” Knobel said. “It was a revelation to learn how these six press barons were on the wrong side of history when it came to Hitler. Previous historians had simply never put all the pieces together to show how these newspaper owners were interacting with each other to downplay the Nazi threat. The archival research that went into this book is impressive.”
Olmsted is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, who studies the cultural and political history of the United States since World War I. Her first book, Challenging the Secret Government (University of North Carolina Press, 1996), examined the congressional and journalistic investigations of the CIA and FBI after Watergate. Her second book, Red Spy Queen (University of North Carolina Press, 2003), analyzed the origins and significance of the spy scare of the 1940s. Her third book, Real Enemies (Oxford University Press, 2009), explored the dynamic relationship between real government conspiracies and anti-government conspiracy theories. Her fourth work, Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism (The New Press, 2015), analyzed the conservative reaction to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Newspaper Axis is her fifth book. Professor Olmsted also co-edited a book on the history of the Central Intelligence Agency and has published journal articles and book chapters that highlight her overlapping areas of expertise: conspiracy theories, government secrecy, espionage, counterintelligence, and anticommunism. Olmsted received doctoral and master’s degrees from the University of California at Davis and a BA with honors and distinction in History from Stanford University.
The Newspaper Axis was one of the four works chosen as the finalists for the 2023 Sperber Prize. More than 50 works with 2022 copyrights were considered. The other finalists for this year’s prize were Deborah Cohen’s Last Call at the Hotel Imperial: The Reporters Who Took on a World at War (Random House), Mary Llewellyn McNeil’s Century’s Witness: The Extraordinary Life of Journalist Wallace Carroll (Whaler Books), and Maria Ressa’s How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for our Future (HarperCollins).
The Sperber Prize is given in honor of the late Ann M. Sperber, the author of Murrow: His Life and Times, the critically acclaimed biography of journalist Edward R. Murrow. One edition of that work was published by Fordham University Press, connecting the Sperber family to the University. Through the generous support of Ann’s mother Lisette, the $1,000 award was established to promote and encourage biographies and memoirs that focus on a professional in journalism. The award has been presented annually by Fordham University’s Department of Communication and Media Studies since 1999.
Previous winners of the Sperber Prize include Working by Robert Caro, Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles M. Blow, Cronkite by Douglas Brinkley, Lives of Margaret Fuller by John Matteson, Reporter by Seymour M. Hersh, The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century by Alan Brinkley, Avid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb, and All Governments Lie! The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone by Myra MacPherson. Last year, the winner was Elizabeth Becker, for her biography of three female journalists working during the Vietnam conflict, You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War.
In addition to its annual awards ceremony, the Sperber Prize also hosts a podcast, which features authors whose works were considered for the prize. Seasons One and Two of the podcast are now available on your favorite podcast platform or via RSS.