A veteran reporter looks back to a time when the stakes were really high—and vet military men actually trusted newsmen.
One week in August 1942 several stories on the British war effort appeared on the wires of the Associated Press, written by an AP reporter based in London named Drew Middleton.
What the readers did not know was that Middleton had spent part of that week not in England but under enemy fire in a boat off the coast of France, watching an Allied commando raid on a German strongpoint.
The Germans didn’t know either, which was the point.
Middleton, now the military correspondent of The New York Times , recalls that British censors told him he had been chosen to cover an important story, the details of which they would not disclose. To do this, he would have to write in advance several articles that could be released while he was away. The important story was the famous raid on the German fortress at Dieppe. Twenty-two Allied correspondents were part of the press pool on that secret operation, and if they all had disappeared from view during a single week, the Germans might have thought something was afoot. So Middleton and the others were asked to provide, in the most accurate sense of the term, “cover stories.” Secrecy was assured, and the public learned of the Dieppe raid later, through the press.
During the German air attacks on London during the war, Edward R. Murrow made live radio broadcasts from the rooftops. This raised a problem of censorship, because Murrow might inadvertently describe secret military installations. The problem was solved when a British censor was sent to the rooftops to stand next to Murrow during the broadcasts. If Murrow began to describe something militarily sensitive, the censor tapped him on the wrist and Murrow changed the subject. Secrecy was assured, and the world got Murrow’s story of the London bombing.
Throughout the war, Gen. George C. Marshall, chief of staff of the U.S. Army, held regular meetings with influential members of the Washington press. Marshall told them all the bad news and all the good news, every bit of it off the record, because he felt that an informed press would lead to a better-informed public and more support for the war. During all those years there was never a disclosure. Secrecy was assured, and the public got a balanced view of the war.
World War II was an officially declared war. The Korean “police action” was not. And in Vietnam the U.S. Congress never was asked to declare war.
Relations between the press and the American military deteriorated when the United States began to engage in undeclared wars of uncertain popularity. The Ernie Pyles who had written sympathetically about World War II were replaced by the David Halberstams and Seymour Hershes who wrote accurately but critically about Vietnam.
There was no military censorship in Vietnam, because no legal basis for it existed in an undeclared war. Instead, members of the press received credentials that could be revoked if the reporting damaged military security. About two thousand credentials were issued to members of the world press. Only six were revoked. A senior U.S. Army historian has written that there was not a single instance in Vietnam of a tactical military operation jeopardized by a premature disclosure in the press.
Yet there are American officers today who are bitter about the press coverage of Vietnam. Many of them believe that the uncensored coverage—especially by television, which brought pictures of the fighting into American living rooms every night—helped erode support at home. And fear of another “living-room war” has had its effect in other conflicts.
When Great Britain sent a task force to invade the Falkland Islands in 1982, the British government invoked ironbound censorship that delayed any bad news from the South Atlantic. No living-room war on the telly for the British.
The Israeli government, during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, imposed censorship that many journalists thought was more political than military.
And in 1983, when the U.S. government invaded Grenada, it simply kept the press away for the first crucial days of that operation. The decision was made by the Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger. It had the enthusiastic support of many high-ranking officers. But a national poll taken by the Louis Harris organization after the invasion showed that two-thirds of those questioned believed that the press should have been there from the start; a similar majority believed that keeping the press out might have made it easier for the government to hide unpleasant facts.
The government said the press was kept away for its own safety, an argument that most journalists rejected as insulting. The risk of covering troops in combat is part of the tradition and responsibility of American journalism. Hundreds have died over the years covering American battlefields.
The government also said so many reporters and camera people would have wanted to cover the story that it would have been impossible to accommodate them all. Journalists replied that a small press pool would have preserved the principle of public access to an important American military action; the 1942 Dieppe raid was a large operation involving thousands of troops, and the public got the story from a press pool of twenty-two, at a cost of only one correspondent wounded.
Panels have been established by the press and the government to study the implications of the Grenada press ban. There is much to consider.
Some military leaders are learning that popular wars against hated enemies may be an obsolete conception. And the technology of war coverage, involving instantaneous electronic communication, may soon make control of war news almost impossible. The old techniques of field censorship no longer work in conflicts in which journalists from many countries are able to cover the news on both sides, as in Lebanon and Central America today.
Everyone should be worried that some distinguished democratic governments have responded to these new realities by abusing the traditional relationships among the military, the press, and the public. For its part, the press must be more understanding of the hostility it has aroused in the military, more willing to explain its needs and obligations, and less rigid in its arguments about absolute protection under the First Amendment. And governments must realize that a free press is trustworthy. During the hostage crisis in Iran, a number of American journalists, including this correspondent, learned that some American diplomats had escaped to the nearby Canadian Embassy and were hidden there. The story never appeared. Secrecy was assured. The public was told only when the Americans were safe. It can be done.