The Media And The Military

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As before, American correspondents, who arrived overseas after posting ten-thousand-dollar bonds to ensure their deportment, had to concern themselves with access. The United Press’s Westbrook Pegler, twenty-three years old and the youngest accredited reporter in France, tried to get an interview with the American commander, Gen. John J. Pershing. The interview consisted in its entirety of Pershing’s saying, “Pegler, get the hell out of my office.”

There was much news to sit on during the war, and the military fell into the practice of restricting information on the basis of the security of the troops when the question was really about the comfort of the commanders. Pegler tried to break a story about the number of American soldiers dying of pneumonia because of inadequate supplies of heat and clothing. Pershing wrote the United Press saying Regler was too young to understand the uses of war and asking that he be replaced. He was.

Correspondents were expected not simply to report the war but to be part of the public relations team supporting its execution. Frederick Palmer, a veteran war reporter for three American news agencies, later said he was “cast for the part of a public liar to keep up the spirits of the armies and the peoples of our side.” In an interesting parallel to Peter Arnett’s reportage from Baghdad for CNN, Palmer, for a time, went to Berlin and reported from there. Since just about everyone has made some kind of remark concerning the propriety of Arnett’s telecasting from the enemy capital, I might as well throw in mine. Arnett was doing what every good reporter tries to do. He got as close to the story as he could and reported it as well as he could under trying conditions. I cannot imagine there was a American war correspondent in Europe during World War II who would not have reported from Berlin if he could have gotten there.

Palmer later turned down a forty-thousand-dollar-a-year job as a war correspondent to become chief censor for the American forces for a major’s pay of twenty-four hundred dollars. He’d had more combat exposure than any officer in the American Expeditionary Forces, having covered a number of conflicts, including the Greek-Turkish War, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine insurrection, the Boxer Rebellion, the Russo-Japanese War, and the American incursion into Mexico. But trying to organize and discipline the unruly American press corps, he found, “was worse than war.”

The press did not become noticeably warmer to the military in the months and years after the 1918 armistice, but the immense unifying shock of Pearl Harbor changed that along with everything else. America had never entered a war with such a sense of common purpose. The years between 1941 and 1945 represented the high-water mark of cooperation between the military and the media, and the two worked together as closely as they ever were likely to do. It started at the top. The Army’s chief of staff, Gen. George C. Marshall, one of the most close-mouthed men in American military history, routinely briefed top members of the Washington press corps, giving them the latest war information with the bark on it. The sessions were for background only, but the reporters gained valuable insight into the conduct of the war. Ten days before the invasion of Sicily, Gen. Dwight Elsenhower filled in some thirty American reporters on the assault planning down to identifying the specific divisions scheduled to hit the beaches. The press justified the confidence. There were no security breaches at any of these top-secret conferences, and as the invasion progressed, the field reporters in Sicily agreed, at Elsenhower’s personal request, to sit on the most colorful story of the campaign: the famous slapping incident when Gen. George Patton struck a soldier said to be suffering from shell shock. The story was later broken in Washington by Drew Pearson, a popular political gossip columnist, who was not privy to the agreement made in Sicily.

The same spirit held through the Korean War. Members of the press were briefed several days ahead of the spectacular surprise amphibious landing at Inchon.

Like a great many things in American life, cooperation between the military and the media began to unravel in Vietnam. Here, as in the Civil War a century earlier, America found itself deeply and violently divided about its national purpose. The correspondent John Chancellor put succinctly the lesson of those years: “Relations between the press and the American military deteriorated when the United States began to engage in undeclared wars of uncertain popularity.” Of all the myths of our times, none is more pervasive than the one deeply held within some levels of the military that “the press lost Vietnam.” This is simple nonsense. Even though military censorship did not officially exist in Vietnam (in an undeclared war, there was no legal basis for it), there is no record of any operation compromised as a result of press coverage. Out of more than two thousand sets of press credentials issued during Vietnam, six were revoked for damage to military security.