War with Mexico! America's Reporters Cover the Battlefront

By Sweeney, Michael S. | Journalism History, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview
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War with Mexico! America's Reporters Cover the Battlefront

Sweeney, Michael S., Journalism History

Reilly,Tom, and Manley Witten, eds. War With Mexico! America's Reporters Cover the Battlefront. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010. 360 pp. $39.95.

Tom Reilly, the founding editor of Journalism History, spent much of his life documenting combat journalism in the Mexican-American War but never got around to putting his findings into book form. After his death in 2002, Manley Witten, a colleague and a friend at California State-Northridge, agreed to fashion the book from sixteen boxes of Reilly's collected documents.

Reilly would have been happy with the result, War With Mexico! And as someone who researches and writes extensively about the history of wartime journalism and censorship, this reviewer is, too.

Not only does the book fill a hole in the scholarship about the development of war correspondence, but it also is a smart, thought-provoking, and easy read. Perhaps most engagingly, Reilly and Manley have added more evidence that, as Ecclesiasticus said, there is no new thing under the sun. Fundamental elements of modern war correspondence appeared in the 1840s in this very first war covered by professional reporters. These include confusion over journalists' roles as observers vs. military supporters or partisan cheerleaders; officers' love-hate relationships with those who could elevate or destroy their careers; the need for independent observers to act as a check on military accounts of battle; and the difficulty of writing objectively about something as large and foggy as a battle in which no single participant could see more than a tiny window of action.

Here, too, is the tragic cost of such independent coverage: At least twenty-five riders in the express service that carried dispatches from the Mexican interior to the coast were "captured, killed, wounded, or tortured" by guerrillas.

Reilly and Witten took pains to compile lists of war correspondents, the papers for which they worked, and those papers' political affiliations, all of which are valuable additions to the canon of war correspondence history.

They also make a case for identifying the first full-time professional, civilian war correspondent as Christopher Haile of the New Orleans Picayune, a fact that deserves greater recognition in journalism history. The paper sent him to cover the northern battlegrounds in May 1 846 because American demand for war news had outstripped the supply being provided by occasional writers from the field. Even though there was a lull in combat in the late spring and summer, he jumped into the task with enthusiasm. Like the more famous Crimean War correspondents of the 1850s, he detailed the privations and hardships of camp life as well as the impact of poor equipment and logistical problems. He dug into officers' accounts of battle to re-create events to fill the voracious appetites of his readers, mostly extolling the virtues of American soldiers.

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