Lessons from Past Wars for Journalists Covering the War on Terrorism Today

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Mr. Hess is a senior fellow at the Brookings INstitution. Mr. Kalb is a senior fellow at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

What follows is an excerpt from The Media and the War on Terrorism, edited by Mr. Hess and Mr. Kalb.

MARVIN KALB We are going to be talking about what lessons journalists learned from wars past. How can those lessons be applied to the current struggle against global terrorism? I would like Dan Schorr to think back to World War II and find, if you can, what lessons could have been extracted by journalists covering that kind of a war that could perhaps be applied to today.

DANIEL SCHORR On D-Day Charles Collingwood was taken to Omaha Beach to report live on CBS the invasion of Normandy. In those days to do that he had to carry a sixty-pound battery pack on his back that would transmit a signal for him to one of the ships at sea, which would then boost it to London. The BBC circuit would then take it to New York, and it would go on the air live. But he couldn't have a return feed, because there wasn't enough energy to do that.

So he was told, At this precise moment you start talking and you will be heard live, talk for fifteen minutes, then sign off and go back to Ed Murrow in London. I listened to the tape of this several years later. The trouble was that he was on a section of beach where there was not very much activity. Yet he had to start at a given moment. He started talking. You could see the planes overhead, ships at sea, boats are landing; you began to feel he was straining to fill time because there wasn't very much action there.

Then you heard Collingwood saying, with a little lift in his voice, "Now, it's very difficult for me to give you an overall picture of what's happening here, but I see a navy officer approaching. Let me find out whether he knows something more. 'Excuse me, Commander. I am Charles Collingwood at CBS News. I wonder if you have any idea of what the whole picture is on this beach.'" The answer to which was, "Beats the shit out of me, Charlie, I'm the NBC correspondent."

The relevance of this is that he was in an army uniform. The NBC correspondent was in a navy uniform. All of this betokened the fact that in World War II correspondents knew which side they were on. They were a part of something called the war effort. ...They would go and ask, "Would it be harmful if I reported this? Would it be harmful if I reported that?"

And it is important to remember that because that is an era of history where the press and the military worked closely together, being sure of the rectitude of what they were doing and why they were doing it, and that got lost somewhere. It survived some during the Korean War, during the Vietnam War. It began to collapse when they found out that the government thought nothing about managing the news because they felt that we have to win this and it's our job to manage the news, and if we lie to you that's lying in a good cause and managed to undermine the trust on which the relationship between the press and the military has to be if it's ever to work. And ever since that time it's been going very rapidly downhill.

TED KOPPEL Let me pick up where Dan Schorr left off because there is kind of an evolutionary scale here in terms of the technology and how the technology has had an impact on the way that things are covered.

When I was in Vietnam in 1967, it was just at the very beginning of satellite technology in terms of its use in journalism. Most of the time, which is to say about 98 percent of the time, we would do a story out in the field on film. We would hand the film bag to anyone who might be heading back to Saigon. In Saigon it would be met by a courier who usually would have to keep it overnight because it would arrive, let's say, at 5:00 or 6:00 in the evening and there wouldn't be another flight out until the next morning. Then it would be flown probably to Tokyo, from Tokyo to Los Angeles, from Los Angeles to New York, where it would be picked up by a motorcycle courier. It would be taken into ABC, NBC, CBS. The film would then be processed, edited, and put on the air. Perhaps as much as three days might elapse between the time that the story was written and the time that it got on the air. So you had to write it with that in mind. It had to be a story that could survive for at least three days.

When young people today are covering--whether it be a war or any event--that is deemed worthy of live coverage, which I suppose in the era of twenty-four-hour cable networks means anything that moves--in these days a journalist has to be prepared to go on the air instantly, around the clock. Now that may seem like an evolutionary step forward. In point of fact, it's half a dozen evolutionary steps back, because they rarely have time to go out and do any reporting. They are almost chained to that satellite relay point, wherever they may be.

STANLEY KARNOW You remember Churchill's remark in wartime: "Truth must be protected by a bodyguard of lies." If you pardon my name dropping, I was sitting in the Ritz Bar in Paris with Hemingway one time, and he said, "Every reporter needs a built-in shit detector."

Let me illustrate a couple of points of how the reporter begins to learn his niche, his profession--craft, I should say.

About 1962 Kennedy decided to send helicopters to Vietnam, but he wanted to do it secretly. It would have been a violation of the Geneva agreement. I am sitting on the terrace of the Majestic Hotel in Saigon, which is right on the river, with an army public affairs officer. And as we're sitting there an aircraft carrier comes around the bend of the river with its deck covered with helicopters. I say, "Hey Joe, look at that aircraft carrier." He said, "I don't see no aircraft carrier."

One more. One day we were bombing, secretly bombing, Laos. And one day I went over to the American embassy because I knew the embassy was targeting the bombing, to find out where the targets were. I saw a source of mine, and I said, "Listen, can you tell me what the targets are?" He looks at me and says, "Tell you what the targets are? Come on, I can't even discuss the whole question of bombing. It's completely off the record." I said, "Come on, everybody knows it's going on. Give me an idea of where these targets are." "I can't do that." Finally, I wheedled and wheedled, and he says, "All right." He goes to his safe, he opens it up, he takes out a copy of Newsweek with a map of the bombing targets. It's that secret. He says, "You can't take that out of the office." The point is that eventually you become skeptical. Skeptical, to put it

One of the lessons, by the way, that the military likes to believe they learned in Vietnam is you can't have a war without censorship. In Vietnam, if you wanted to go on a military operation you went down to the black market in the street and you bought yourself a fatigue uniform and boots and a helmet and everything. You could even buy guns in the black market, although journalists shouldn't carry guns, and you went out to the airport, you got on a helicopter, and you went to an operation. Nobody was censoring what you wrote, the pictures were going out. Actually, you really weren't journalists in those days; you were historians.

Reprinted with permission by the Brookings Institution Press.

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M.J. Socolow - 9/30/2003

Re: Daniel Schorr's D-Day anecdote:

1. Charles Collingwood landed on Utah Beach, not Omaha, and he was carrying a recording device, not a live transmitter. (A.M. Sperber, "Murrow: His LIfe and Times," p.241)

2. Four of the five transmitters (essentially the size of a truck) sent as part of the invasion were destroyed on D-Day. NBC's John MacVane found the surviving one on June 7th, but was not allowed to broadcast live to the US (unclear as to why; he was very upset to miss "the scoop of the war'). He fractured his ankle two days later, and Bill Downs of CBS News offered the first live report from Normandy (unclear the precise day - I think June 8th or 9th). (Edward Bliss, Jr. "Now the News" pp.154-158).