Honoring Reporters and Recorders of World War II A National Portrait Gallery Exhibit Showcases Journalism's Critical Role with Photos, Artwork, Videos, and Cartoons

By Leslie Albrecht Popiel, Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 5, 1994 | Go to article overview

Honoring Reporters and Recorders of World War II A National Portrait Gallery Exhibit Showcases Journalism's Critical Role with Photos, Artwork, Videos, and Cartoons


Leslie Albrecht Popiel, Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


BY 1939, five major daily newspapers had fully-staffed European offices and over 700 Associated Press, International News Service, and United Press reporters were overseas: The print, photo, and radio reporting of World War II was responsible for bringing the war home to the American people.

"It is hard to recapture the flavor of that time for generations with a different view of patriotism and national purpose, and a far more negative view of warfare as a national undertaking than was prevalent in the 1940s," writes Alan Fern, director of the National Portrait Gallery. Indeed, reporting the war was part of this national undertaking.

For the generation now reaching adulthood - too young to remember even the Vietnam War - timely war reportage has become the realm of television.

"Up-to-date" now is equated with live coverage, as seen during the Gulf war. In light of modern media, it may be difficult to grasp the pivotal role newspaper correspondents played in shaping the public's sentiment about World War II. "Reporting the War: The Journalistic Coverage of World War II," an exhibit of artifacts, photos, paintings, posters, videos, and cartoons, succeeds in capturing the flavor of that time, and journalism's role in the war.

The wartime sacrifices the public was asked to make were far-reaching during World War II: shortages of food, clothing, appliances - not to mention a national draft. "One of the fundamental components of this exceptional national discipline was the role of the press and the other communications media in keeping the American public informed about the war, so that they could understand why they were being made to undergo such considerable sacrifices," Mr. Fern observes.

Many reporters and their editors found it difficult to maintain their integrity (and to maintain their restraint in wanting to scoop other papers) while refraining from publishing information useful to the enemy. Often, exact locations, accurate casualty reports, names of ships, and the size of fleets and troops could not be reported.

Between the Office of Censorship (which encouraged self-censorship) and the Office of War Information, the government tried to maintain security.

Foreign censorship also thwarted many reporters, who became frustrated when they could not report a complete and honest story.

William Shirer, a radio correspondent for CBS in Berlin, had promised himself that he would only stay as long as he could report enough of the story to make the truth. Eventually, German censorship eliminated so much of his broadcasts that he resigned. Shirer recalls on video receiving a telegram from CBS radio management: "`Shirer, we want you to remain in Berlin even if all you do is to broadcast Nazi communiques.' Well, I picked up the phone immediately through Geneva and said, `You've got to get somebody else to read Nazi communiques.

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