When the president declares war on the media, dubbing it the “enemy of the people,” the first instinct of its defenders is to take to Twitter to emphasize how many reporters have sacrificed their lives in reporting the news. The second is to hark back to two eye-catching events: the Vietnam War, when uncensored media reporting exposed the lies about how the conflict was being waged; and the Watergate scandal, when the Washington Post helped to uncover the massive attempt to cover-up the Nixon administration’s illegal bugging of the Democrats.
Yet, on close inspection, World War II offers a much more instructive example, not only for reasserting the necessity of a vibrant free press, but also for convincing critics of this basic fact.
Even the media’s staunchest adversaries tend to laud its role during World War II. According to popular myth, the 1940s were a time when America’s “golden generation” of reporters didn’t carp or criticize. Rather, legendary figures like Ernie Pyle, Walter Cronkite, and Ed Murrow patriotically joined the “team,” helping to forge a domestic consensus that endured until Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were destroyed.
When the legend is stripped away, a much more intriguing story emerges. There can be no doubt of the bravery of these World War II reporters. They flew on bombing missions to Germany and landed on the D-Day beaches in Normandy, they froze during the Battle of the Bulge and sweltered on Iwo Jima and Okinawa—and all the time they were armed with little more than their typewriters.
Only rarely, however, did these reporters become meek mouthpieces for official propaganda. Some saw their job as investigating the reason for critical shortages in weapons, supplies, and troops. Others sought to expose obvious military mistakes, from friendly-fire incidents that killed hundreds of GIs to ill-planned offensives that threatened disaster. Even Ernie Pyle, who spent much of his time writing about the average soldier’s daily battle to survive, could be a thorn in the military’s side, exposing false official claims that an easy victory would soon be achieved.
When these reporters did pull their punches, their motive was invariably to avoid handing sensitive information to the enemy. But they only knew what information was sensitive because officials, rather than angrily dismissing their criticisms, still decided to take reporters into their confidence. General Dwight Eisenhower, in particular, made a habit of briefing his correspondents before major operations, justifying his candor with a shrewd insight: “Every once in a while I like to tell you fellows something [strictly off the record], because you might hear it from somebody else, and if I tell you, it shuts you up!”
The result was a healthy relationship between the two sides, although it was rarely harmonious. Generals, like politicians, rarely relish having their mistakes aired in public. Nor do correspondents cherish having their hard-won copy being eviscerated by a censor.
These tensions existed even when the stakes were as a high as in World War II. The difference then was not that the reporters were more patriotic. Instead, senior officers were prepared to take the media into their confidence, treating them as allies, not enemies. Crucially, senior officers were also prepared to listen to well-documented critiques of their blunders, recognizing that there is often a good reason for the media’s contentiousness: even the most well-oiled machines—which America’s World War II military surely was—make mistakes, and that these can only be rectified when they are exposed. Which is the main job of a vigorous free press.
Featured image credit: “Into the Jaws of Death—US Troops wading through water and Nazi gunfire” by Robert F. Sargent. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.