If the American media and military were any more different, they might have trouble coexisting within the same political culture. The media favor freedom and full disclosure. The military prefers discipline and secrecy. They’ve been getting along fairly well since September 11, but if the war in Afghanistan drags on, that won’t last. Here’s some historical perspective.
War reporting barely existed before the 19th Century. But rising literacy increased demand for war news and new technology — the railroad (1825) and the telegraph (1837) — made it easier to supply. By the time the Civil War began in 1861, New York had 17 newspapers, making it the media hub of the nation. The biggest papers, such as the Herald and the Tribune, spent huge amounts covering the multifront conflict. The Lincoln Administration seized control to the telegraphs and tried to censor news detrimental to the Union cause.
Lincoln had reason to worry. Confederate generals routinely perused northern papers for intelligence. The “copperhead” press opposed the war, referring to Lincoln as “honest ape.” Nine of New York’s 17 papers favored slavery, and only five remained faithful to the Union cause throughout the war. Even loyal papers were critical of the war effort. An editorial in the Times on July 9, 1861 called the War Department a “hotbed of wickedness and corruption,” asserting that “the very name of the Army conveyed with it the idea of possible infidelity and dishonor.”
Some northern generals, such as McClellan, curried favor with the press to advance their careers. Others, like Sherman, tried to exclude reporters from the action, regarding them as little better than spies. Secretary of War Edward Stanton threatened to have a Tribune reporter shot for refusing to turn over a dispatch. Twenty papers were suspended in the north during the conflict. Some of the 500 reporters covering the war showed great enterprise, but many were chosen for their telegraphic rather than journalistic skills.
Relations improved in the Spanish-American War, mainly because it was won quickly. The war wouldn’t have happened at all, except for the fact that Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal were locked in a circulation battle that led them to fabricate stories of atrocities in Cuba. The Journal took credit for causing the conflict, asking on its masthead, “How do you like the Journal’s war?” Historian W.A. Swanberg later described the coverage as “the most disgraceful example of journalistic falsehood ever seen.”
But relations deteriorated when the Army found itself waging a counter-insurgency campaign in the newly-acquired Philippines a year later. Reporters accused the military of war crimes and “ultraoptimistic” assessments. The Army commander heavily censored dispatches and accused journalists of “conspiracy against the government.” Relations were poisoned for a generation; when World War One began, many generals still resented how the Filipino Insurrection had been covered, and it influenced their treatment of reporters. (Next: the 20th Century)
Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D., is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute and teaches in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program.
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