Let The People Know

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The reporters who covered the war for northern newspapers were an unusual lot. They came on the scene, really, before they were ready. The concept of the newspaperman as an unbiased chap who is simply trying to tell an accurate story of important events without regard for any other considerations had hardly begun to dawn on the journalistic profession in 1861; yet here, suddenly, was a tremendous convulsion which raised the public hunger for unadorned news to a height it had never reached before. The modern reporter overnight became a necessity. Since he did not then exist it was necessary to invent him, even though the inventors hardly realized what they were doing.

Emmet Crozier describes this process in Yankee Reporters: 1861–65 , and contributes one of the best in the recent series of books which have been devoted to the subject. As a veteran newspaperman and a war correspondent of wide experience, Mr. Crozier is well fitted for the task. If, at times, he seems to feel that the Civil War reporters were always right and that the Union generals they had to contend with were always wrong, a brief glance at some of the generals involved makes the point of view understandable.

The war correspondent in the i86o’s had an exceedingly tough job. The physical facilities for proper performance of his work were almost entirely lacking. The army had no idea of the importance of providing news for the people back home, although it could not exist unless those people understood what it was up to. Quite typical of the reaction of the higher brass was William Tecumseh Sherman’s angry ouburst. News? asked Sherman. Why, every soldier in the army wrote regular letters to the folks back home; that was all the news anybody needed. Sherman used to threaten to hang reporters, and once or twice he came tolerably close to carrying out the threats.

Yankee Reporters: 1861–65 , by Emmet Crozier. Oxford University Press. 441 pp. $6.

If the reporters had trouble with the generals, they also had trouble with themselves. They would gaily print news of immense value to the enemy, they would retail camp gossip by the column, and they were not above pronouncing judgment on the skill, patriotism, and intelligence of the generals about whom they wrote—especially if those generals had made things a little tough for them. They were woefully underpaid, many of them were excessively inaccurate in their reports, and all in all most of them fell far short of modern standards of reportorial competence.

But with all of their faults, they finally did an important job. Out of their work came the new idea of the place of the news reporter, an idea which is essential to the working of democracy. Out of it, too, came enlightenment for the American people.