Journalists and War

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Depending on whose view you share, having the media involved in military matters can be problematic or beneficial. History, ancient and modern, is replete with battlefield accounts of bravery and cowardice as well as foolishness and brilliance. To be sure, most leaders have understood the importance of putting a good face on their military deeds: Myths needed building, empires needed strengthening, elections needed winning, and armies and armadas needed treasure and public support so that they could keep on marching and sailing. To do all that, stories had to be told.

Although satellite phones, laptop computers, and advanced telecommunication technologies now make it possible to report wars in real time from far-flung locations, the idea of “embedded” reporters is nothing new. According to noted historian and Hoover Institution senior fellow Victor Davis Hanson, the idea of reporters traveling with the military dates back to the Peloponnesian War.

“The closest we have to modern embedded reporters are ex–military men like Thucydides or Xenophon who were exiled and then ‘attached’ themselves to both friendly and hostile forces,” he says. “The result is that we have a wonderful blow-by-blow description by Thucydides of the Battle of Mantinea (418 b.c.) and by Xenophon of Coronea (394 b.c.). What is similar to our own generation of reporters is the level of detail and poignancy. What is clearly different is that they were veterans and so took the occasions to explain to their readers larger tactical issues. And they were, of course, historians—unlike our own journalists.”

According to Hanson, having the standing of historians gave their accounts greater perspective and credibility. In today’s world of 24-hour news cycles and overnight ratings, readers and viewers are ill served by a constant drive for more, not necessarily better, information. “Given today’s training of journalists, and the fact that a Geraldo Rivera or Ashley Banfield will just as likely be reporting on a murder case in Modesto, California, a few hours later, we just don’t have military historians who report on battles that they have witnessed.”

Recent Tensions

Jumping ahead two millennia, civilians were still following armies and navies into battle, putting pen to paper and translating action into words. Journalism had taken form, and the public eagerly devoured newspaper accounts of war, foreign and domestic. America’s experiences with military-press relations, however, have been tension filled, foreshadowing a legacy of mutual distrust that exists today. The following highlights present a brief glimpse of their relations during the wars leading up to the Vietnam conflict.

• During the Revolutionary War, General George Washington fretted about how he and his troops could conduct business if colonial newspapers loyal to the crown undermined their efforts. Sympathetic newspapers that were more eager to sell stories about Continental Army movements than they were about keeping secrets equally vexed him.
• Throughout the Civil War, tensions between the two establishments increased. Union general William Tecumseh Sherman placed the blame for the loss at the battle of Bull Run squarely on the shoulders of newspapers in New York and Washington, D.C., which published battle plans for all to read—prior to the battle. President Abraham Lincoln later issued a warning to the more than 500 reporters embedded with Union troops: Spill the beans and risk military justice. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton actually went so far as to seize newspapers for being too informative in reporting information about the military.
• Journalism, notably “yellow journalism” such as the type promulgated by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, has long been credited with helping propel the United States into the Spanish-American War of 1898. Reports of supposed Spanish atrocities, stories rallying popular support for the Cuban Revolution, and the outcry over incidents such as the sinking of the battleship Maine led to a war that had American forces ranging far from American shores.
• During World War I, anti-espionage and sedition laws greatly curtailed the ability of journalists to report on events. Access was severely limited—perhaps to the greatest extent in U.S. military history—and military officials viewed reporters suspiciously. For many, the Fourth Estate wasn’t that far from the Fifth Column. The government censored reports and produced propaganda.
• During World War II, which is still considered the high-water mark for modern war reporting, journalists reported from every theater. Censorship was part and parcel of the experience, but the trade-off was almost unlimited access. Tensions arose from time to time, particularly over criticisms leveled at esteemed leaders such as Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton. Eisenhower, in particular, understood that the “personal touch” would go a long way toward easing tensions between the military and the press. His efforts to cultivate reporters paid handsome dividends for the Allied commander during the war and later as a presidential candidate.
• Five years after the end of World War II, North Korea’s attack on its southern neighbor caught the world off guard—including the press. In the confusion that marked the war’s early days, fingers were unjustifiably pointed at an uncensored press, often accused of giving away information to the enemy, as the source of many United Nations forces’ troubles. Eventually, General Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of U.N. forces in Korea, imposed censorship. Among those subjects covered by his edicts: absolutely no criticism of his leadership.

Measured against History

So what does all the tension, grief, accomplishment, and failure of modern U.S. military-media relations add up to when measured against previous history?

“The telecommunications revolution has given us wonderful pictures and real-time descriptions, but the skills to master such a craft—personal appearance, glibness, energy, perseverance—are not necessarily those conducive to analysis,” Hanson says. “Few write well or talk carefully, much less have any historical perspective. I don’t see any Thucydides among our journalists or commentators.”

About the Author

More from Hoover Digest