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Century's Witness profiles a little-known giant of journalism

"This is Trafalgar Square," said reporter Edward R. Murrow as air raid sirens wailed through the streets of London. "One single beam sweeping the sky above me now," he continues, describing a quiet procession of people heading for the nearest bomb shelter.

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Mariner Media
The biography of Wallace Carroll is the history of a man and a country in the 20th century.

Journalists like Murrow brought the drama of World War II across the Atlantic to America. Among them newspaper reporter Wallace Carroll who worked for United Press International.

“He went to Europe when he was 22 years old, six months out of college," says author Mary Llewellyn McNeil. "They sent him to London, to Paris and then he went on to become the diplomatic reporter at the League of Nations.”

McNeil met Carroll at the start of her own career. He was a professor at Wake Forest where she studied journalism. She liked and respected him but had no idea he had covered many of the major stories of the 20th century. Later she would learn how he reported on the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, the blitz and the Nazis’ invasion of the Soviet Union. His bosses begged him to leave London for Russia.

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Mariner Media
Author Mary Llewellyn McNeil spent five years researching and writing a biography of her former journalism professor Wallace Carroll.

“So he gets on a boat and goes up to the Arctic Circle and was one of the first to get into Moscow," she says. "Then he has to make his way east to get home, through Asia by camel and boat and train, and he lands in Pearl Harbor.”

Just in time to report on the Japanese attack there. After the war he worked at the New York Times’ Washington Bureau, and in 1949 he became editor of the Winston Salem Journal where he oversaw coverage of the surgeon general’s report warning Americans that smoking could kill.

"In 1964 half of all American males smoked and 41% of females smoked, so this was a huge bombshell," McNeil says.

Carroll knew that, and he understood there were enormous economic implications.

“The R J Reynolds Tobacco Company pretty much ran Winston Salem," the author explains. "It was, by far, the biggest employer. He said, 'Well this is going to get me in trouble with business leaders, but I’ve got to run all these stories.'"

Not so for other papers in the region according to author McNeil.

“I looked at what the editor of the Richmond Times Dispatch did, and it was a completely different thing. They didn’t run very much on this. Phillip Morris basically went whole hog on trying to undermine the surgeon general’s report.”

The civil rights movement also exploded on his watch – Carroll supporting the Supreme Court’s order to desegregate schools while promoting a non-violent response in his community.

“While he supported the desegregation efforts, he was very careful in what he said. Again, the Richmond paper was a totally different story. Their editor, in fact, said: “We will fight this in any means available to us. We will not allow our Southern civilization to be destroyed!”

Even in retirement, Carroll found himself at the center of another big regional story – organizing the public to oppose Appalachian Power’s plan to dam the New River. Mary McNeil spent more than five years researching and writing the biography of Wallace Carroll, and she hopes his remarkable example will help future journalism students to fulfill his vision of reporting as a public service essential to our democracy.
Author Mary McNeil will speak at 4 p.m. Saturday, February 4th, at the New Dominion Bookstore on Charlottesville’s downtown mall.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief