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They Followed The Fight

March 2023
1min read

Reporting the War
The Journalistic Coverage of World War II

by Frederick S. Voss, Smithsonian Institution Press, 218 pages .

The cover of this book shows the painter Floyd Davis’s group portrait of famous war correspondents assembled in the Bar du Scribe in Paris in 1944. Ernest Hemingway grins hugely over his red wine at the The New Yorker ’s tiny Janet Planner, while behind them are clumped a couple of dozen other reporters, photographers, and field artists. Many of them are profiled in Frederick Voss’s text; Voss is the curator for the National Gallery, whose recent World War II art exhibition this book accompanied. Voss presents an entertaining gallery of the major figures who, in word and picture, brought Americans their war—or at least what Army censors allowed them to send of it.

Thirty-seven reporters were killed covering the war, but still a large gulf remained between reporters and fighters. “Under some circumstances,” the Life magazine field artist George Biddle told his diary in 1943, “reportage becomes, if not an act of sacrilege, at any rate a breach of taste.” This feeling haunted more than one of the correspondents following the Allied troops; Ernest Hemingway apparently solved the moral problem by conflating press and combatant: he joined French Resistance night raids around Rambouillet and made his Paris hotel room a Resistance clearinghouse for dynamite, guns, and other lethal supplies.

Voss recognizes the primacy in this war of photographers—whose images of GIs handing out chocolate and Americans crawling ashore at Normandy are bound to stir memories—but the book also contains chapters on radio newscasters (“If I’ve offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald,” Edward R. Murrow said, “I’m not in the least sorry . . .”), women reporters, the African-American press, and more. Alas, Voss fails to mention A. J. Liebling, whose New Yorker dispatches included some of the finest writing of the war— and who’s there in the scene at the bar.

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