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

Secrecy vs. The Story

Alan Dower's story exemplifies the pith of the declaration by the British Ministry of Defense during the war to recapture the Falkland Islands from Argentina in 1982: "The essence of successful warfare is secrecy; the essence of successful journalism is publicity."

Therein lies the perpetual tension between authority and the war correspondent. President John F. Kennedy, after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, put it this way: "Every newspaper now asks itself with respect to every story: ‘Is it news?' All I suggest is that you add the question ‘Is it in the interest of national security?' " But it was Kennedy, too, who told Orvil Dryfoos, publisher of The New York Times, that if the newspaper had played up the projected invasion, it might have saved him from making a terrible mistake.

Conceivably, America might have been saved from an even more terrible mistake if the newspapers had been privy at the time to the deliberations of Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson over Indochina. That story did not emerge until 1971, when Daniel Ellsberg gave Neil Sheehan of The New York Times 7,000 pages of secret government documents, the record of how three succeeding presidents, lacking in candor, took the country step by step into the quagmire. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, by then the publisher of the Times, took a considerable risk in deciding to publish the "Pentagon Papers," as the documents came to be called, and in fighting the restraining orders secured by President Richard Nixon. The case is often misunderstood. Nixon was not defending his own policies in Vietnam. The papers were about preceding Democratic administrations. Nixon was arguing Kennedy's case for national security on policymaking. The Supreme Court's 6-3 ruling in favor of publication gloriously endorsed the people's right to know. Earlier, U.S. District Court Judge Murray Gurfein had vindicated the role of the war correspondent when he declared: "The security of the nation is not at the ramparts alone. Security also lies in the value of our free institutions."

The relationship of journalism to government is complex, one of dependence and antagonism. Without the cooperation of the armed services, which controlled access and communications, the American press could not have hoped to cover Vietnam. The British press had even less hope that it could cover Britain's attempt to repossess small islands in a battle zone 8,000 miles from London. Yet without a sympathetic press, the British government could not hope to sustain support at home for an apparently insurmountable task, and win the propaganda war.

The Persian Gulf War, in 1991, offered the same exchange, a measure of access in return for a measure of official control. In both the Falklands and the gulf, the media fundamentally supported armed intervention but complained furiously about the restrictions on what they could report. Of the restrictions, former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite protested: "What are they trying to hide?" British reporter Robert Fisk argued for "rational censorship," but on the condition that the press "should be free to go where it wants when it wants, to see, hear and photograph in the public interest." Gen. Colin Powell rebutted the press complaints: "The image of World War II's legendary Ernie Pyle, filing stories from European foxholes and Pacific beachheads, was thrown in our faces by our critics. Yet, press coverage of Desert Storm was unprecedented. Of the 2,500 scheduled journalists overall, 1,400 crowded the theater of operations at the peak. Compare this figure with 27 reporters going ashore with the first wave at Normandy on D-Day." For all the complaints, said Powell, the gulf correspondents had much more freedom than their predecessors: "Of the 1,350 print stories submitted by press pool reporters, one was changed to protect intelligence procedures."

In the 1982 Falklands war, the precursor for Gulf War procedures, the compromise between publicity and security was to give berths on Royal Navy ships to 29 correspondents, and to have at least one civilian information officer to act as liaison between the military and the press. The "minders," as the intermediaries came to be called, had a thankless task. There was a total lack of knowledge and sympathy between the military and the media. The journalists thought the navy obstructive and the minders ineffectual. Both in the South Atlantic and in London, censorship sometimes imposed unnecessary delays and made crass deletions for tone and taste. After the shooting was over, the press was angry to discover it had been used to feed misinformation to the enemy. ("We did not tell a lie — but we did not tell the whole truth," was the official gloss.)

The Royal Navy, for its part, found the journalists arrogant and intemperate. Correspondents with the task force heading to the Falklands became angry when they were not allowed to report that helicopter operations had been grounded by fog. It seemed absurd for the weather to be "classified." On that particular day, as it happens, the fog was confined to barely 40 miles of the South Atlantic, a fact that would be known to Argentinean defenders. Reporting the grounding would have given away the position of the task force, rendering it vulnerable to attack by Argentina's submarines. The navy protested that a Sunday Times reference to influenza in Port Stanley implicitly revealed Britain's ability to read enemy radio traffic. The newspaper had never thought of that point and promised to blur things in the future.

The history of war reporting suggests that correspondents and editors do not willfully betray operational secrets. Peter Preston, the editor of The Guardian, spoke for the industry when he advised his reporters that there would be no bonuses for producing a scoop that got somebody killed. "It is not necessarily a question of patriotism, it is a sense of realism that you don't want to put the lives of your fellow countrymen at risk." Still less do reporters want to put their own lives at risk. The responsibility of the Falklands correspondents increased, an officer noted, in direct proportion to the danger to which they were exposed. Overseeing America's invasion of Panama in 1989, Gen. Powell became angry with bureau chiefs and network executives in New York who whined that their correspondents were in danger in the Marriott Hotel and should be rescued. Powell said no. They were safe and there were 35,000 other Americans he had to worry about. But the press pressure got to be too much for Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who ordered Powell to go to the "rescue." The 82nd Airborne Division took casualties doing this errand. Three GIs were wounded — one seriously — and a Spanish photographer was killed by American fire. Powell asked that national security adviser Brent Scowcroft stop orders from the sidelines just because of press flak. "We could not, in a country pledged to free expression," Powell later wrote, "simply turn off the press. But we were going to have to find a way to live with this unprecedented situation."

I believe relationships between untutored media and suspicious military are likely to get worse, largely for generational reasons. A postwar study of the Falklands conflict by British journalists Derrik Mercer, Geoff Mungham and Kevin Williams concluded that the journalists' troublesome ignorance of military affairs in general, and the Royal Navy in particular, was characteristic of a generation that had not served any time in the military, unlike correspondents in earlier wars. The Persian Gulf War in 1991 witnessed a similar phenomenon: many of the younger reporters had little experience covering the military; most had never worn their country's uniform. In the Suez War of 1956, the reporters with the fleet and the editors at home had either served in World War II or been postwar conscripts; the World War II reporters were of the same generation as the military men and identified easily with them.

Two other factors will increase the likelihood of tension. Limited wars are so short there is no time for mutual trust to develop. Ernie Pyle captured the difference between then and now when he wrote to his wife in 1945 explaining why he had to go to the Pacific, having survived the war in Europe. "I've been part of the misery and tragedy of it for so long... I feel if I left it, it would be like a soldier deserting."

Secondly, that older generation of war correspondents had recent memory or personal experience of disasters from careless reporting.

The classic blunder of inadvertence making the case for censorship occurred in 1942 when the Chicago Tribune reported the Battle of Midway in a way that could have prolonged the war with Japan. The story has been much garbled over 50 years, so it is worth setting the record right, with acknowledgements to the interviews by Richard Norton Smith for his 1997 biography of Tribune publisher Robert McCormick ("The Colonel"). One of the closest kept secrets of World War II was that the U.S. Navy had broken much of the Japanese naval code. It was foreknowledge of the Japanese fleet movements that enabled Adm. Chester Nimitz to ignore a feint and concentrate his carriers near Midway to win a decisive victory.

No American correspondents were at Midway, but a colorful Tribune reporter, Stanley Johnston, was with the carrier Lexington when it was sunk in the preceding Battle of the Coral Sea. Johnston was a giant Australian, a champion sculler and a World War I hero. He had been recommended for a Victoria Cross for his valor at Gallipoli and in France. When the Lexington was hit, he made heroic efforts to rescue badly burned sailors from the ship's hold. He was very popular when transferred to another ship for transport back to the United States, and spent much of the time in the quarters occupied by the Lexington's executive officer, Cmdr. Mort Seligman.

Johnston, writing his account of Coral Sea while in Seligman's cabin, noticed a blue-lined paper that had the names of Japanese warships in an order of battle. He copied the list and later took this "dope" with him into the Tribune offices. His editor, Pat Maloney, was interested mainly in the Coral Sea account, but he accepted a sidebar on the Japanese order of battle at Midway, which Johnston hurriedly wrote. Johnston wouldn't reveal his source, but assured Maloney he had checked the list against the authoritative reference, "Jane's Fighting Ships." Maloney rewrote the first two "muddy" paragraphs, then wrote a headline that was not justified by Johnston's text:


Maloney did not clear the story with censors, convincing himself that there was nothing in the guidelines to suppress news about the movement of hostile ships. And then, to protect Johnston's real source, Maloney attributed the story to "reliable sources in naval intelligence" and put on it a fake Washington, D.C., dateline.

The Navy was appalled. The Japanese had only to read the Tribune to realize that such knowledge could only mean that their codes had been compromised. President Franklin D. Roosevelt — a bitter enemy of McCormick — initially was disposed toward sending Marines in to shut down Tribune Tower. He was talked out of that, then considered trying McCormick for treason, which carried a death penalty in wartime. It ended up with the attorney general taking the Tribune men to a grand jury. But there was no cooperation from the Navy, which rightly was concerned that a trial would mean disclosing the code-breaking. The grand jury refused to indict. The Japanese missed the Tribune blunder — as they also missed the false charge by columnist and broadcaster Walter Winchell that the Tribune knowingly had based its story on a decoded Japanese message.

I don't think any professional war correspondent today would intentionally betray that kind of secret, or do what "Billy" Russell did in the Crimean War when he disclosed the number of English guns moved to the front, their exact positions, and that there was a shortage of round shot. Maybe he presumed the Russians were not readers of The Times. The Russian commander at Sebastapol, as it happened, said later that he never learned anything from The Times that he did not already know from his spies. But far more frequent than such journalistic excesses have been the excesses of censorship and harassment of the press — not to save the lives of men but to protect the careers of military brass and politicians. The public has no "need to know" the date and route of a troopship sailing, but it does need to know when scandals are being covered up. Reporters in Vietnam were beaten up by Ngo Dinh Diem's police thugs and television equipment was destroyed, because journalists exposed the corruption and incompetence of the regime. In World War I, censorship was used to conceal that American doughboys in France suffered because of chronic shortages of equipment, and that men returning from the front lines in the winter of 1917-18 were dying from pneumonia for want of dry clothing and warm housing. Heywood Broun returned home to the New York World office to reveal the equipment scandal. Thus breaking his correspondent's pledges cost him his accreditation and his paper a fine of $10,000. But censors blocked Westbrook Pegler's attempt to alert the public to the cause of the death rate from pneumonia. The commanding general, John J. Pershing got the United Press reporter recalled from the front ostensibly because of his youth and inexperience: at 23, Pegler was the youngest correspondent at U.S. headquarters.

Many more men would have died needlessly at Gallipoli, Turkey, in World War I if an enterprising correspondent had not broken his word. Keith Murdoch was a 29-year-old Australian parliamentary reporter who wangled his way to Gallipoli on a mission to report back to the government on the postal arrangements for Australian troops. He persuaded Gen. Ian Hamilton to let him visit the battlefront where British, Australian and New Zealand troops were trapped under Turkish shellfire. He promised not to impart military information to anyone "unless first submitted to the Chief Field Censor." But while at Gallipoli he talked with Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, an experienced war correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, who convinced him that the British and Australian governments had to be told that Hamilton was presiding over a disaster. Murdoch agreed to go back to London with an uncensored message from Ashmead-Bartlett. But in Marseille, British officials arrested Murdoch. He had been betrayed by The Guardian's man at Gallipoli and had to hand over the dispatch. Undeterred, Murdoch recounted all of the dispatch he could remember in a private letter to Australia's prime minister — who leaked it to British political leader David Lloyd George, a critic of the Gallipoli campaign. British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith demanded his own copy. The upshot was the dismissal of Hamilton and the evacuation of the beachhead.

Did Murdoch do the right thing? I think he did, but it is an agonizing decision for a correspondent when men are under fire and his honor is at stake. In January 1944, 50,000 American and British troops were led into near-disaster in Italy by poor generalship at Anzio. British and American correspondents thought Anzio could be a repeat of the Allied escape from Dunkirk in 1940. Did the public have a right to know? Prime Minister Winston Churchill thought not. He ordered the closure of radio transmitters and, in addition to security censorship, a blackout on discussions of military policy. Correspondents and newspapers in both countries protested. But there were cheers in the House of Commons when Churchill defended his suppressions: "Such words as ‘desperate' ought not to be used about the position in a battle of this kind when they are false. Still less should they be used if they were true."