Sentinel under Siege: The Triumphs and Troubles of America's Free Press

By Stanley E. Flink | Go to book overview
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10
THE BLOODIEST WAR

There are natural tensions built in between the press and the military, and the same natural tension is built in between the press and the Congress, or the press and business. It is just the role of the press. It's part of the checks and balances system in this country. It's very, very important, by its very nature, and the role that it plays is basically being intrusive in a free society -- as opposed to being a mouthpiece, as it is in a totalitarian society.

-- General Bernard Trainor, former military correspondent, New York Times; retired director, National Security Program, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard

The Civil War propelled expansion in the newspaper business, but it did not inspire much, if any, growth in the sense of responsibility or the ethical awareness of publishers, editors, or reporters. For them the contest would be won by gains in circulation; accuracy, fairness, and compassion were neither necessary nor particularly desirable. The few correspondents who tried to understand the cosmic issues of preserving a nation, freeing slaves, and reviving the constitutional vision were disheartened, repelled, and outraged by the quality of the men who had so inadequately and mendaciously reported on the brutal aspects of the Civil War. The inhumanity of tactics that led to senseless slaughter; the overcrowded, undersupplied prisoner-of- war "death camps"; the too frequently incompetent and egomaniacal leadership; and the cynical profiteering among suppliers were scarcely touched. Years later on the floor of the Senate, Hiram Johnson intoned, "The first casualty of war is truth."1

British author Phillip Knightley borrowed Johnson's phrase for the title of a searing study of war coverage, from the Crimea to Vietnam, called The First Casualty.2 In a carefully documented chapter on the Civil War, Knightley concludes that there were a paltry number of brilliant and authentic accounts filed by a handful of courageous and thorough journalists, but these were conspicuous exceptions. There were, however, many re

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