The War Correspondent Romance Vs. Reality Propaganda Vs. Professionalism Secrecy Vs. The Story First Draft Vs. Final View
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First Draft vs. Final View

Truth! It was the isolationist senator from California, Hiram Johnson, who coined the epigram, "The first casualty when war comes is truth." It is an elusive value in the best of circumstances. In war it is a hostage to chaos and to uncontrollable passions and prejudices — "the spirit of ruthless brutality" that President Woodrow Wilson said war releases even among civilized men.

A well-informed war correspondent of integrity, writing talent and good judgment may be on the spot, and trying to tell a straight story, in its context, but, as well as official obfuscation, such a "first rough draft of history" has to survive the preconceptions of editors and competitive jealousies. Four big stories serve to illustrate what good correspondents may be up against as well as bullets: the Russian civil war ending in the Bolshevik Revolution, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb and Vietnam.

Russia: Only a handful of correspondents and newspapers emerge with credit in reporting the overthrow of the czar, the violent civil war and the intervention by Allied troops against the triumphant Bolsheviks. Too many newspapers did not tell the public what was happening, but what newspaper editors and political leaders fervently wished were so — that in 1917 there was no danger of the Russian army deserting the cause; then that the czar was safe; then that Bolshevism would soon perish. The Allied intervention in Russia was so underreported that even today many Americans do not know that 5,000 Polish-Americans from Michigan and Wisconsin joined British forces in Archangel, while 7,000 others went to Siberia to link up with Japanese troops in an attempt to smash the revolution.

In an article for The New Republic in 1920, Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz examined coverage of the Russian Revolution in what was by then the country's greatest newspaper, The New York Time, and concluded it was "nothing short of a disaster." According to Lippmann and Merz, "the news columns were profoundly and crassly influenced by the hopes of the men who ran the paper. On the essential questions, the net effect was almost always misleading." Between November 1917 and November 1919, the Times reported on no fewer than 91 occasions that the Bolshevik regime was on the verge of collapse. Official censorship was not to blame. "The chief censor and the chief propagandist were hope and fear in the minds of reporters and editors," whose contribution to public understanding at a time of supreme crisis "was about as useful as that of an astrologer or alchemist." The same criticism could be made of the statesmen — including Woodrow Wilson — the military missions, the diplomats and much of the press around the world, including London's Times. But a rough draft of history did emerge from the bravery and independence of four journalists — John Reed of The Masses, Morgan Phillips Price of The Guardian, Arthur Ransome of Britain's Daily News and Frazier "Spike" Hunt of the Chicago Tribune.

The work by the colorful Hunt, who was alone in predicting that the Bolshevik Reds would win, is a brilliant exception to the time. He horse-sledded almost 1,000 miles from Archangel up frozen rivers and snowbound forests to reach American outposts, then sneaked out a 5,000-word cable via Norway that helped to have the isolated U.S. troops recalled from a foolish mission. Then he traveled in an armored train with Siberian peasant Red soldiers and learned enough to predict that the Bolsheviks would win. The crowning achievement, though, was John Reed's. He was passionately on the side of the Bolsheviks, attended their riotous, marathon meetings, ate with them, slept with them, and argued with them in the wild and menacing confusions in Petrograd. But he was too great an artist and reporter to pump out propaganda. Here is Reed going into a soldiers' and workers' meeting in Smolny Palace in 1917:

It was cold and at the outer gate the Red Guards had built themselves a bonfire. At the inner gate, too, there was a blaze, by the light of which the sentries slowly spelled out our passes and looked us up and down. The canvas covers had been taken off four rapid-fire guns on each side of the doorway, and the ammunition-belts hung snake-like from their breeches. The long, bare, dimly illuminated halls roared with the thunder of feet, calling, shouting... . There was an atmosphere of recklessness.

Reed's "Ten Days That Shook the World" remains a masterpiece of reporting for vivid portraits and insights. He sees Lenin "a short stocky figure, bald and bulging, a leader purely by virtue of intellect; colorless, humorless, uncompromising and detached, without picturesque idiosyncrasies, but with the power of explaining profound ideas in simple terms." He sees Leon Trotsky "standing up with a pale, cruel face, letting out his rich voice in cool contempt." He is prophetic: "In the relations of a weak government with a rebellious people there comes a time when every act of the authorities exasperates the masses, and every refusal to act excites their contempt." He saw it happen.

And yet Reed was a pariah. His anti-war views and radical politics made him suspect in the eyes of U.S. authorities. His writings in the left-wing Masses twice led to trials on charges of sedition. Although acquitted on both occasions, when he returned to the United States from Petrograd his papers were seized and held by the government for more than a year.

The Holocaust: Sigrid Schultz was not a fine writer like Reed, but she was a superb news-gatherer. On Aug. 23, 1939, the world was in what Time called a state of "stunned surprise" when Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin signed a nonaggression treaty; Shultz wasn't. As Berlin bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune, she had learned the identity of an astrologer Hitler sometimes consulted. She interviewed the astrologer, discovered that Hitler was speaking cordially about Stalin and surmised correctly that Hitler was seeking a rapprochement in order to further his larger plans for conquest in Europe. Her story had run on July 13 and attracted virtually no attention. In 1940 she divined a bigger truth, that Hitler had begun murdering Jews and building concentration camps. Tribune publisher Robert McCormick, a staunch isolationist, believed such sensational stories could propel the United States into the war. Schultz's story never ran.

The atomic bomb: At the end of World War II, after two atomic bombs had been dropped, Gen. Douglas MacArthur placed southern Japan off limits, which meant that the press was not allowed to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. London Daily Express reporter Wilfred Burchett, an Australian with strong left-wing views, managed to get to Hiroshima on a Japanese train. What he saw gave the lie to the official accounts. He noted that a month after the bombing, people who were unhurt at the time were dying of what he called "the atomic plague." That, of course, was radiation sickness. U.S. authorities denied there was any such thing and accused Burchett of being influenced by Japanese propaganda.

During the development of the atomic bomb, project director Gen. Leslie Groves secretly hired William L. Laurence, a highly respected science reporter with The New York Times, to act as the project's official historian. Laurence eagerly accepted the job — his scientific curiosity and patriotic zeal perhaps blinding him to the notion that he was at the same time compromising his journalistic independence. After the bombing, the brilliant but bullying Groves continually suppressed or distorted the effects of radiation. He dismissed reports of Japanese deaths as "hoax or propaganda." The Times' Laurence weighed in, too, after Burchett's reports, and parroted the government line.

It was left to John Hersey to bring the truth to light in a way that could not be denied. Born in China, son of American missionaries, Hersey covered the war in Europe and the Pacific. He was assigned by The New Yorker magazine to write about what happened at Hiroshima. He decided to model his report on Thornton Wilder's "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," dramatizing the significance of the bomb for mankind by the stories of six survivors from exactly 8:15 a.m. on the August 6, 1945. Hersey's 1946 account raised reporting to the level of literature and created waves that still ripple. "Hiroshima," like "Ten Days That Shook the World," is a classic that lives beyond its headlines.

Vietnam: This was not the first uncensored war. But it was the most open war. The South Vietnamese regime was restrictive, but the U.S. government allowed reporters to move freely in combat zones and took them there in military transport. It did this even for foreign reporters known to be hostile. Correspondents accredited to U.S. forces agreed to refrain from disclosing 15 categories of information (troop movement, casualties and the like) but their dispatches did not require military vetting. Gens. William Westmoreland and Winant Sidle have testified that the system worked well. Hundreds of reporters went to Vietnam, but from 1966 onward, accreditation was withdrawn only on four occasions.

The legend persists, however, that the press opposed U.S. war efforts. President Richard Nixon said the war "was the first in our history during which our media were more friendly to our enemies than our allies." Westmoreland protested that a lack of censorship leads to confusion and when you add television to that "you have an instrument that can paralyze this country."

It was not quite like that.

The trio of young war correspondents usually singled out for attack — The New York Times' David Halberstam, the AP's Malcolm Browne and UPI's Neil Sheehan — were not critics of America's intervention. They were wholly committed to saving South Vietnam from the communists; their exasperation was with the regimes in Saigon, which they thought would lose the war. The correspondents cheered the battle successes; they identified with the gung-ho officers in the field; until 1967, they argued against withdrawal. Like the rest of the press corps and Washington journalists, they reported the war within the framework of Cold War ideology rather than nationalist revolution. So did television. What disquieted them at first, and then maddened them, were the little deceptions of the U.S. government, the hubris of its generals and the corrupt incompetence of the South Vietnamese establishment. John Mecklin, the U.S. official in charge of press relations in the early years, has written that U.S. information policy was "a long and sorry tale of deception and sometimes arrogance" and the worst feature of it was that the political-military bureaucracy deceived itself into "telling headquarters what it wants to hear." The correspondents did a real service here.

There are legitimate criticisms of the performance of the war correspondents and their sponsoring news organizations. There was too little analysis; like the administration, they did not understand the difference between the insurgency in Malaya and Vietnam, differences in social and ethnic structure that doomed the "Strategic Hamlets" relocation program on which so much ink — and blood — was spilled. They did not question President Kennedy's artful dodges. They did not expose President Johnson's evasions and subterfuges; stenographic, not investigative, energies were brought to the coverage of the crucial Gulf of Tonkin incident, LBJ's erroneous justification for a wider war. But the press cannot be indicted for lack of patriotism or empathy with the grunts. Until 1968 the editorials in The Washington Post were so supportive that LBJ said they were worth 50 divisions. Daniel C. Hallin ("The ‘Uncensored War' "), who made an exhaustive study of press performance, writes: "In the early years before the Tet offensive and the subsequent shift in American policy from escalation to de-escalation, most news coverage was highly supportive of American intervention... and despite occasional crises, Kennedy and Johnson were usually able to ‘manage' the news very effectively." Even in the later Nixon years, coverage was "not nearly so consistently negative as the conventional wisdom now seems to hold." Reporters continued to be patriots in the sense of portraying the Americans as "the good guys."

The chasm that opened between government and press was a crack in the ground in 1961. William Prochnau ("Once Upon a Distant War") described the world the journalists inhabited — where wounded men were denied Purple Hearts because America was not at war; where the U.S. napalm strikes they saw had not happened because Washington had said the flaming jelly was not being used. Stanley Karnow, on one of his periodic visits for Time magazine, had a drink with a military information officer at the Majestic Hotel overlooking picturesque Saigon harbor. Karnow was astounded to see an American aircraft carrier nosing its way through the junks and sampans to make delivery of 40 American helicopters lashed to its deck. "My God," said Karnow, "look at that carrier!" The officer replied: "I don't see nothing." When the story ran, the Defense Department asked for an investigation to "track the source of the leak." Karnow concluded that the efforts at secrecy were aimed more at fooling the American public than the Viet Cong guerillas who watched everything that moved. At the battle of Ap Bac in 1963, Neil Sheehan burrowed into the mud as incoming shells exploded right where he had been a moment before; he was close enough both to the action and the chief American military adviser to know how and why it was a shameful defeat for the better-armed South Vietnamese, while the generals were telling Washington of a victory.

The cracks kept widening. The correspondents became more skeptical, more critical, sometime perhaps to exaggerate what went wrong, and high-level officials in the U.S. Embassy and military command whistled more loudly in the dark the tune that Washington wanted to hear. What Washington did not want to hear was The New York Times' Gloria Emerson describing the panic-stricken rout of the South Vietnamese army in Laos in March of 1971.

The correspondents had another battle — with their editors at home. Halberstam was in trouble at The New York Times for failing to appreciate the purity of prose the copy desk admired, then got into a scrap with the head office in the early 1960s about a six-part series in the competing Herald Tribune by Marguerite Higgins of World War II and Korea fame. Higgins, briefed by the commanding general in Vietnam, contradicted almost everything Halberstam had reported and the head office wanted to know, in not so many words, whether he was slanting his copy. Halberstam was right, but what saved him was President Kennedy's appeal to the Times' publisher to pull him out of Vietnam.

The Times had quite good coverage of the war. Time magazine had the worst. It mutilated the copy of Charles Mohr to fit the notion that all was going swimmingly well. Then the autocratic managing editor, Otto Fuerbringer, ambushed the entire press corps: "The newsmen have themselves become a part of South Vietnam's confusion, [their] reporting prone to distortions... . In the camaraderie of the Hotel Caravelle's eighth-floor bar, they pool their convictions, information, misinformation and grievances. But the balm of such companionship has not been conducive to independent thought. Many of the correspondents seem reluctant to give splash treatment to anything that smacks of military victory. When there is defeat, the color is rich and flowing." Fuerbringer was writing propaganda, not journalism.

Television dominated the output of national news in the late '60s, reaching twice as many people. In author Michael Arlen's phrase, Vietnam was "the living-room war." There is no conclusive evidence that overall TV had a greater effect, proportionately, than any other news medium. Television was much more cautious than print, especially before the Tet offensive of 1968. Broadcast journalists were more reliant on the military for their information than the newspaper correspondents were, and while the soldiers supported the war, so did the networks. What little was presented of the anti-war case often was cast in less-than-flattering tones. A typical report began: "While Americans fight and die in Vietnam, there are those in this country who sympathize with the Viet Cong." (Peter Jennings, ABC, Oct. 22, 1965.)

But the potential power of television was demonstrated in August 1965. Morley Safer of CBS went on a routine patrol and filmed the torching of the village of Cam Ne by Marines applying Zippo lighters to thatched roofs. The Marines were telling the peasants in English to get out of the way of the fire, but they stayed at risk until Safer intervened to ask that his Vietnamese cameraman be allowed to speak to the villagers in their own language. Safer's report was forceful: "The day's operation burned down 150 houses, wounded three women, killed one baby, wounded one Marine and netted four old men who could not answer questions put to them in English... .There is little doubt that American firepower can win a military victory here. But to a Vietnamese peasant whose home means a lifetime of backbreaking labor it will take more than presidential promises to convince him that we are on his side."

Safer's report was heard on CBS before it was seen; in those days it took time to ship film. The report immediately was slapped down by the Pentagon, which said a couple of houses had been burned accidentally. The arrival of the film at CBS gave the lie to that defense. It also provoked a certain anxiety among top CBS brass, but it was aired and had a big impact. An angry President Johnson telephoned Frank Stanton, the head of CBS, and said Stanton had just "shat on the American flag." But in context of the times, the Safer report was an exception. Television, until the 1968 Tet offensive, was mainly routine glosses from Saigon without analysis or commentary.

Tet changed everything. It was a military defeat for the Viet Cong; the guerrillas attacking the U.S. Embassy in Saigon did not penetrate the chancery as was erroneously and sensationally reported. But, as Hallin remarks, the coverage of Tet gave the public a more accurate view of the overall course of the war through the inaccurate view it gave of the outcome of that particular battle. The celebrated disavowal of faith shortly afterward by Walter Cronkite ("the most trusted man in America") was what the more morose opinion-formers were saying in the White House and Pentagon.

The conventional wisdom that television alarmed the public with gory images is not borne out by the research. Only about 22 percent of film showed combat. Network policy was to avoid showing casualties or suffering. Fred Friendly of CBS attests that those policies shielded the public from the true horror. Arlen finds that even after 1968, "there was a nearly total absence on the nightly news broadcasts of any explicit reality of the war — certainly of any of the blood and gore or even pain of combat."

But it is a libel that the television crews covered the war from the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon. They did go into the bush with the troops, exposed to danger by the encumbrance of their gear. Many were wounded, and nine network employees — correspondents, cameraman and soundmen — died.

Is journalism worth dying for?

Reuters reporter Kurt Schork thought not. "War reporting is a job, is a craft — not a holy crusade. The thing is to work and not get hurt. When that is no longer possible, it is time to get out." What drove Schork was not the chance of a front-page lead and certainly not the fame of a byline (many of his stories carried the agency byline). He was moved by the idea that he could document history. He was, as his friend Charles Lane wrote, a man of moral clarity, and in Bosnia, Kurdistan, Chechnya, East Timor, Kosovo and Sierre Leone, he found himself confronted by evil. He was outraged by the equivocations of the Western powers that doomed so many people in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995, but he did not merely vent. He channeled his anger into the pursuit of more facts, more documentation of atrocity, more first drafts of history. But he did take more risks than he was willing to acknowledge.

In the spring of 2000, when Schork arrived in Sierra Leone, twelve reporters — 11 of them nationals — had died in a civil war. He teamed up with another idealist believer, Associated Press cameraman Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora. Schork had abandoned a career as a corporate lawyer because he believed it was his destiny to portray the sufferings of innocent people trapped in war. On May 24, Moreno and Schork were driving on a lonely road when they were murdered in a rebel ambush. They were the 13th and 14th correspondents to die in a stupid little war.

Is journalism worth dying for?

Is history worth dying for?

Schork and Moreno had made little contribution to the news from Sierra Leone, even less to its wretched history. Their deaths served neither history nor journalism. But their lives did more than that. They were remarkably dedicated to truth and to common humanity, as were the lives of many of the correspondents who died before them. They served their ideals with a skill and courage that will be an inspiration to all who follow their professional paths — now, I think, to all of us who so easily forget the sacrifices that may lie behind the headlines.