Truth on the Battlefield

By Rather, Dan | Harvard International Review, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview
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Truth on the Battlefield


Rather, Dan, Harvard International Review


Between News and the Notional Interest

Reflecting on the evolving interplay between those who wage war and those who report on it, I'm reminded of the speculation, indulged in by more than one historian, on what effect television cameras and correspondents might have had on the pointless slaughter of World War I. Would all that tragic futility--the long and bloody stalemate in the trenches that defined so much of that struggle--have been cut short if it had been beamed into the world's living rooms on a nightly basis? It is a question built around a romantic vision of electronic journalism, that visual images (buttressed by trenchant voice-over scripts) of what was truly taking place on the killing fields in Europe could have changed the course of history.

As far as "what if?" scenarios go, this one is certainly pleasant to contemplate. It is most gratifying to believe that the craft I have chosen for my life's work could have saved millions of lives at a critical juncture in world history. Whether the conjecture has enough merit to be defended is a question best left to others. Far be it for me to second-guess historians, even when they are indulging in fantasy.

History is tricky, whether one is superimposing the present on the past or applying the lessons of the past to the future. As Stanford historian James J. Sheehan has written, "History often seems to lie just beyond our reach. But at the same time, it is all around us, shaping the way we view the world and insinuating its lessons for the future. And this can be dangerous."

We cannot know how today's journalistic technology would have affected World War I any more than we can know the degree to which our experiences with past wars will prove relevant to combat and to its coverage in the future. What I can assert with absolute certainty is that back in the 1950s, when I was a young reporter just starting out in my hometown of Houston, Texas, there was no idle speculation about how the power of television coverage could have brought an earlier end to World War I. At the time, television was still a new and cumbersome medium--one that had neither the technology nor the resources to cover combat on a daily basis. As it struggled through its early years, television's reporting of major events from distant locations closely resembled the superficial style of the newsreels that were a staple at movie theaters in the 1930s and 1940s (Oscar Levant once quipped that a newsreel is a "series of catastrophes that ends with a fashion show").

Yet revolutionary changes did occur. As the 1950s drew to a close, the time was fast approaching when television would muscle its way into the forefront of serious daily journalism. But nearly a decade would pass before the phrase "living-room war" would enter America's national vocabulary.

Partners in War

For my generation, the world war that had the most direct and telling impact was not the first but the second. For those of us who were born during the early years of the Great Depression, World War II was a dominating presence in our lives as we passed from childhood into adolescence, with a legacy that remains strong to this day. As I moved through my years as an apprentice at radio and television stations in Houston and on to the fast track of network journalism at CBS, many of my older colleagues had been involved in World War II, as either combatants or correspondents. It was only natural, I suppose, that I would be influenced by these more seasoned reporters and by the values and attitudes that had been shaped, at least in part, by their experiences in World War II.

Of all the dynamics that defined reporting during the war, perhaps the most startling was how thoroughly the guidelines of objectivity; long regarded as the sacred pillar of journalistic integrity; were suspended. When it came to the overall purpose of the war, the US correspondents (and their Allied counterparts) were no less committed to the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan than were the commanders who led their troops into battle.

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