The Journalistic Value of Emerging Technologies American Press Reaction to Newsreels during WWII

By McCreery, Stephen; Creech, Brian | Journalism History, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

The Journalistic Value of Emerging Technologies American Press Reaction to Newsreels during WWII


McCreery, Stephen, Creech, Brian, Journalism History


The screen is black. Menacing music begins. Then words appear: "THE CAPTURE OF TARAWA FROM JAPAN," and "Dramatic films of the bloodiest battle in the Pacific in which U.S. Marines win vital Jap base in 76 hours!" What follows is a narrative account of the November 1943 battle of Tarawa, the first World War II American offensive in the central Pacific. Descriptions such as "one of the most heavily fortified Jap airbases" are illustrated by footage of U.S. Navy men reading their Bibles in preparation for the battle "as they approach the hostile shore." Then, naval guns fire, explosions fill the screen, and Marines make their way to shore. The narrator describes the scene: "Using hand grenades and bayonets, (they) push forward inch by inch, wiping out pill boxes and machine gun nests one by one," until "reinforcements arrive, (and) Tarawa and the Gilbert Islands are in the hands of United Nations forces." The result is "more than four thousand Imperial Japanese marines annihilated in seventy-six hours." Images of destroyed Japanese strongholds, dead Japanese soldiers, and liberated Koreans who were enslaved by the Japanese reinforce the impressive victory won by U.S. forces and this "vital blow to Japan." A marching band rendition of Onward Christian Soldiers is edited in for patriotic effect, and the newsreel closes with American construction battalions repairing the destroyed Japanese airfield, turning Tarawa "into a base against Japan!"1

American newsreels during World War II foreshadowed a fundamentally different mode of journalistic storytelling, one in which sight, sound, motion, and emotion worked together to enhance narratives that were, until then, mostly available through the print press. Though newsreels first appeared in European cinemas at the end of the nineteenth century, their boom in popularity during World War II marks a defining moment in media history.' As cinema construction exploded throughout the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, and larger crowds began getting their news from the reels that played before main features, the traditional press could not ignore the impact of this new vehicle of wartime news.3 This study considers how the traditional press reacted to the emergence of these newsreels to understand how this clash of old and new media, at a crucial time -when American reliance on the press was at an utmost high, would have an effect on how we would begin to rely on narrative fact films-and eventually television news-as a primary medium for current events.

Newsreels represented a fundamentally different approach to reporting the facts of war, with the final releases edited and narrated based on a prescribed and regulated system. Governmental control and censorship of every frame of footage meant that American moviegoers who relied on newsreels for firsthand visual accounts of the war effort were seeing only part of the story. Pictures, sound, and motion were the new fodder for an American public eager to witness their soldiers in action-larger than life and with all the excitement they were already used to seeing on the same screens, but with fictional narratives.

At the outset of the United States' entry into World War II, selfcensorship by the press became an understood practice, as prescribed by the Code of Wartime Practices for the American Press, issued on Janmry 15,1942. The document outlined what would be considered improper handling of news dealing with troops, military operations, and equipment, and other potentially sensitive information that could compromise the American war effort. In June 1942, President Rooswelt established the Office of War Information (OWI), whose governmental news bureau cleared about 60 percent of government agency news releases. The bureau operated on a $ 1 million annual wartime budget, with 250 regular employees. Even with censorship and government-generated propaganda through the OWI, coverage of the war by the American press was considered by many to be the most comprehensive ever, with about five hundred full-time American correspondents abroad at the time. …

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