Military and the Press: An Uneasy Truce

Military and the Press: An Uneasy Truce

by Michael S. Sweeney

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Because news is a weapon of war—affecting public opinion, troop morale, even strategy—for more than a century America's wartime officials have sought to control or influence the press, most recently by "embedding" reporters within military units in Iraq. This second front, where press freedom and military imperatives often do battle, is the territory

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Because news is a weapon of war—affecting public opinion, troop morale, even strategy—for more than a century America's wartime officials have sought to control or influence the press, most recently by "embedding" reporters within military units in Iraq. This second front, where press freedom and military imperatives often do battle, is the territory explored in The Military and the Press, a history of how press-military relations have evolved during the twentieth and twenty-first century in response to the demands of politics, economics, technology, and legal and social forces.

Author Michael S. Sweeney takes a chronological approach, considering freedoms and restraints such as the First Amendment, court decisions, and government and military directives that have affected the press during World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the more recent conflicts. He explores the ongoing themes of wartime censorship and propaganda, as well as operational security in the battle zone. In chapters addressing the recent shift in military strategy in dealing with the press, Sweeney discusses new forms of control—from embedding journalists and discouraging unaccredited "unilaterals" to developing the news agenda through a barrage of briefings, sound bites, and visuals and appeals to patriotism that border on domestic propaganda. With profiles of a few specific journalists—from Richard Harding Davis covering the Spanish-American War to Christiane Amanpour reporting from the conflicts in Bosnia and Iraq—this deft blend of journalistic history and analysis should serve as a call-to-arms to a public not always well served by a military-press standoff.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"For anyone teaching media history or free expression courses, The Military and the Press . . . is highly recommended."  —Journalism History 

"His [Sweeny's] tracing of the long, fitful relationship between the military and the media is excellent."  —Military Review

"A well-researched and written book that treats a difficult subject even-handedly . . . both casual readers and serious students of wartime press coverage should find the book valuable."  —Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly

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Northwestern University Press
Publication date:
Medill Visions of the American Press Series
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5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)

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By Michael S. Sweeney
Northwestern University Press
Copyright © 2008

Michael S. Sweeney
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2299-4


"After reading this over I ought perhaps to say that the position of the real correspondents is absolutely the very best.... Generals fight to have us on their staffs and all that sort of thing, so I really cannot complain, except about the fact that our real news is crowded out by the faker in the rear." -Richard Harding Davis at Rough Riders headquarters, Cuba, to his brother Charles, June 29, 1898

For the best American war correspondents-and Richard Harding Davis was among the best-the twilight of the nineteenth century seemed to promise a golden dawn for the twentieth. The rebellion in Cuba and the brief Spanish-American War that followed had been good for most journalists. The American army fighting in 1898 accredited up to seven civilian journalists per publication. As many as five hundred reporters and photographers covered the war. They observed, wrote about, and photographed much of the offensive, including actual combat.

"I expect to make myself rich on this campaign," Davis wrote his family before going to Cuba to cover the invasion. He was right. The Times of London paid him the princely sum of $400 a week, plus expenses, while he also earned ten cents per word from Scribner's magazine for everything he could send the editors.

In securing his own fame and fortune, Davis also popularized the Rough Riders and their flamboyant leader, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt. Davis's nationalistic and heroic narratives helped construct the colonel's identity as the perfect man for the age: active, athletic, and decisive. "Roosevelt, mounted high on horseback, and charging the rifle-pits at a gallop and quite alone, made you feel that you would like to cheer," Davis wrote of Roosevelt's charge during a battle near San Juan Hill.

The close relationship that blossomed between Davis and the Rough Riders helped create the mythology surrounding Roosevelt. Whether it was proper for a journalist to get so close to the soldiers he covered was not a question given serious attention in the American press.

Davis enjoyed the freedom to wander and to report. William Shafter, commanding general of the army in Cuba, allowed correspondents into the thick of fighting and considered press access crucial to maintaining public support for the war. "I recognize that, with a people like ours, it may be better to risk the injury their news even under censorship may do than cause the dissatisfaction their exclusion would give rise to at home," Shafter wrote in a popular American magazine six months after war's end.

Not that censorship posed much of a problem for enterprising journalists. Although the navy cut the telegraph cable linking Key West and Havana, and censors controlled crucial telegraph offices in New York, Washington, D.C., and Florida, correspondents could ship handwritten reports in private dispatch boats to the mainland or an island such as Jamaica or could submit short cables to military scrutiny. Given the one-sided nature of the battles, the censors usually had little to delete. Most reporters supported the war outright and silenced themselves out of a sense of patriotism, or they avoided sensitive topics they knew would fall under the censor's blue pencil.


Within six years, however, press-military relations changed dramatically and permanently. Davis, writer Jack London, and other American correspondents who traveled to Korea to cover the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 expected conditions for reporters to be much the same as they had been in Cuba. London looked forward to imitating his hero, Stephen Crane, who had reported for the New York World during the Spanish-American War. London said he wanted to be "right in the thick of it," living dangerously and filing thrilling stories to press baron William Randolph Hearst's newspaper syndicate in America. Instead, the Japanese subjected correspondents to the most severe censorship the world had seen to that point.

Journalists were not permitted within four miles of combat. They were not allowed to wander without a military escort, print anything that might disturb morale, file any information to the telegraph without getting a censor's stamp of approval, or attempt to circumvent the censorship system by leaking news through unofficial channels. Unfortunately, the official channel wasn't much of a pipeline. A Japanese army spokesman gave out news once a day to one representative of the press, who was expected to share with his colleagues. This restrictive system, the origin of the modern press pool, eliminated competition among reporters and ensured that everyone who read the news got the same sanitized version. "This was like standing outside the inclosure and having a man on the fence tell you who has the ball on whose fifteen-yard line," wrote one American correspondent.

Reporters criticized Japan's press control for creating boring news-or no news at all. But what the correspondents condemned, the Japanese military celebrated. By eliminating any potentially negative news, the Japanese army increased morale on the home front and built confidence among foreign investors. The plan worked so well that it created a new paradigm for press-military relations: Just as news could be a weapon of war, so too could orchestrated silence and carefully controlled propaganda.

The new tactics of wartime press control spelled doom for the freewheeling Davis and his peers. Between 1898 and 1904, Davis had witnessed the role of war correspondent change from independent yet supportive observer to what he called "a prisoner and suspected spy." Japan had buried the war reporter, he said, and he predicted future armies would copy its methods of controlling and exploiting the press for propaganda value. Thus, at the dawn of the twentieth century, the parameters of the press-military-government relationship had been set. It could be free and open, as in Cuba, or closed and controlled, as in Korea.

Or anything in between.


In the same way government and military strategists constantly replay the last war to find better ways to conduct the next, likewise journalists and their military overseers scour the record as they try to build upon the lessons of the past. From the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, the first hostilities covered by full-time professional journalists, to the most recent international conflicts, the news media and military have pursued their own agendas, each hoping to gain from the other.

For the journalist, war sells the news. But news gathered from battlefields and wartime governments also has the higher goal of fulfilling the press's modern role as the Fourth Estate. News provides American citizens with information to help them make informed decisions about their leaders. For the soldier, however, news is primarily a tool or a weapon. Information shared through the mass media can bolster military and civilian morale, raise enlistments, boost the armed forces' budget, undermine the enemy's confidence, and hasten the end of conflict. Or it can compromise battlefield security, wreck the civilian base of support, and topple the government leadership directing the war effort. From the military point of view, a reckless press can turn victory into defeat.

For officials in government, who decide when and where to go to war, news provides information that ideally contributes to intelligent military decisions. However, as the first rule of having power is to stay in power, politically elected and appointed leaders also seek to shape information in the press to serve their own interests. During most of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the press and military observed an uneasy truce. Journalists and soldiers generally cooperated during wartime, although conflicting interests kept their relationship in flux. When their aims brought them into conflict, the press lost most of the battles. After all, journalists carry notebooks while soldiers carry guns.

In World War II, the press, military, and government acted in relative harmony despite the functioning of the largest federal bureaucracies of censorship and propaganda in American history. The reasons behind the general success of their relationship thus merit two chapters in this book, compared with one for most other wars. In the conflicts since World War II, tensions have become more apparent. Methods of press control have grown to include the reinstatement of press pools and new restrictions on access to combat, governments producing their own publicity to avoid traditional news editing, and self-censorship for overtly patriotic and economic reasons.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, however, the pendulum swung toward a more open and trusting relationship-at least on the battlefield. Journalists who had been denied access to the front lines in previous wars found themselves in the thick of fighting. They enjoyed as close a view of combat as anything Richard Harding Davis experienced in Cuba. Still, some observers feared the press and the military had grown too close, objecting that their embrace would impart the same kind of patriotic, positive spin that shaped dispatches from the Spanish-American War. And critics of the administration in Washington worried about whether the press that traditionally had acted as a check on government had grown too timid or too ossified to challenge the rationale for going to war in the first place.

As a new century unfolds, America has come full circle. From censorship to access to the danger of losing its independent voice, the press is grappling with issues that surfaced more than a hundred years ago. The critical issue for the press in the decades ahead will be whether it can fulfill its traditional role as the public's neutral and skeptical observer or will acquiesce to growing pressure to conform to government and military agendas. For the military, the issue remains whether it can trust the American news media to disseminate accurate, important, and timely information without compromising security. If they do not reach some permanent understanding, America's news media and armed forces may find themselves at a tipping point in their relationship.

In this book I examine the evolution of American press-military relations and the uses of news in wartime. As I recount our history and look toward our future, I focus on the following questions: How have the news media portrayed America's armed conflicts, and how have these portrayals affected the conduct of war? How has news coverage of war interacted with public opinion? How have the three central actors-government, military, and press-shaped their relationship? Finally, what should the American press do in modern warfare, and what might the future hold?


The American press and military have grown up together. Like siblings, they have experienced both harmony and discord. If the past is prologue, the future will have more conflict and coercion than calm.

The first American newspaper, Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, set the tone in 1690 by carrying war news in its first and only edition. Publisher Benjamin Harris wrote about the abduction of two children by Indians, rumors about the king of France sleeping with his son's wife, and a militia's expedition against the French and Indians in Canada. The Massachusetts governor and members of the colony's ruling council shuttered Harris's paper. Some feared the loose cannon of an unfettered press. Others objected to his paper's violent and salacious content. Still others saw unacceptable political intrigue in the possible alliance of Harris and the fiery cleric Cotton Mather.

The American press did not experience explicit military censorship until 1725, during one of the periodic Indian wars. A Massachusetts Order-In-Council issued on May 13 of that year declared, "The printers of the newspapers of Boston be ordered upon their peril not to insert in their prints anything of the public affairs of this province relative to the war without the order of the government."

Censorship has continued, in some form, in every war the United States has fought. Those who argue that a free press strengthens the nation by exposing its mistakes to public scrutiny have opposed wartime censorship, with varying success. During the Revolutionary War, anti-British papers took an active role in supporting combat. They relayed crucial information of battles to an eager public, stirred up political passions, and helped unite the thirteen colonies into one nation. One of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Francis Hopkinson, considered a supportive press crucial to military victory because "by influencing the minds of the multitude, [it] can perhaps do more towards gaining a point than the best rifle gun or sharpest bayonet."

Colonial printers had no reporters. They gathered news through letters, official proclamations, and clippings from other papers-including those published in enemy-held territory. They occasionally printed news of troop movements, which raised security concerns for America's leaders, but such news apparently did little to affect the course of the war. More influential were the publications that sought to boost colonial morale or sow doubts among the British and their loyalist supporters. Printers such as Isaiah Thomas, publisher of the Massachusetts Spy and a member of the Sons of Liberty (a secret network that had fought the odious Stamp Act), aimed to raise public confidence in the Revolution through spirited and opinionated accounts of battle.

"On the nineteenth day of April, one thousand, seven hundred and seventy-five, a day to be remembered by all Americans of the present generation, and which ought and doubtless will be handed down to ages yet unborn ... the troops of Britain, unprovoked, shed the blood of sundry of the loyal American subjects of the British King in the field of Lexington," Thomas wrote.

The breakdown in British authority freed most colonial papers from the restrictions of licensing by the crown. Patriotic newspapers joyfully publicized their support for independence without immediate fear of retaliation. Thomas Paine's "Crisis" essays, urging Americans to stand fast during their initial setbacks to the British army, first trumpeted their opening line, "These are times that try men's souls," in the pages of Pennsylvania newspapers. Among the loyalists, printer James Rivington accused the American rebels of having lost their sense of direction and predicted their defeat by the better-equipped and better-financed British. Rivington scoffed at reports of the key British defeat at Saratoga in 1777. The rebels had made up the story, he said, "with a view to inlist men." Rivington could spread his loyalist views because he published in New York, which was safely in British hands for most of the conflict. Two years earlier, however, the Sons of Liberty had exercised an effective form of censorship by destroying his press to silence him.

Other printers faced reprisals if their opinions offended whichever army occupied their town. John Mein, who published the Boston Chronicle, tried to be nonpartisan as relations with the British became difficult. However, neutrality and objectivity-qualities that mark most modern, professional journalism-did not exist in colonial newspapers. Given the push and pull of public debate, particularly in Boston, those qualities probably were next to impossible to achieve. Mein's paper grew openly pro-British as he publicly opposed Sam Adams's Sons of Liberty. A mob attacked his paper and he fled to England.


Excerpted from THE MILITARY AND THE PRESS by Michael S. Sweeney
Copyright © 2008 by Michael S. Sweeney. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Michael S. Sweeney is associate professor of print journalism at Utah State University and author of Secrets of Victory (North Carolina, 2001), on censorship in World War II, and From the Front (2002), a narrative history of wartime journalism published by the National Geographic Society. He lives in Logan, Utah.

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