BASED ON THE BOOK, WAR NEWS: Blue & Gray in Black & White, by Brayton Harris




by Brayton Harris

Military and the Media.

First, my credentials. As a now-retired professional military public affairs specialist, I served - among other assignments - as the "accreditation and support" official, on the staff of General Abrams in Saigon, for all journalists in Vietnam, 1969-70. As a historian, I'm a student of military-media relations, and "WAR NEWS Blue & Gray in Black & White: Newspapers in the Civil War" is a fairly comprehensive study of the topic.

That said, FYI:

The first attempt to send professional journalists to cover armed conflict - the Mexican War, 1848. A consortium of newspapers (largely from New York and New Orleans) put five men in the field; their efforts were spotty and have largely been lost, but they demonstrated one truth: free enterprise and initiative will trump bureaucracy, any day. Using a combination of a proprietary pony express, steamboats, railroads and the telegraph (only available over a very short distance), they were able to get their reports to Washington well before official Army reports. The government was not amused; several editors were arrested for violating postal regulations.

The first real "confrontation" between the military and the media was in the Crimean War, when William Howard Russell of the London Times exposed gross incompetence within the British high command - and brought down the government. He proved that an unfettered journalist is a burden to the military in the field, anathema to a government at home, but essential to a free society.

During the Civil War, the "war correspondent" came of age - some, better than others. Newspapers were highly partisan (not just North and South - and some Northern papers supported the South -- but politically as well) and coverage was usually slanted to match editorial positions. Impact? Newspapers might be credited with triggering the secession, with starting the war, with forcing un-trained military units into bad strategy, with revealing details of planned operations, and with playing favorites among commanding generals (journalists needed support in the field - food, forage, access to the mail and the telegraph; the Army was not required to provide it).

Newspapers also delivered a running report of the war (more or less accurately), revealed mistakes and incompetence, but, above all, served as cheerleaders - both North and South - no matter how hopeful or hopeless the news of the day. Interesting to note: many general officers (North and South) wanted nothing to do with reporters, and Jefferson Davis never held a press conference, but the best general officer, U. S. Grant, said, in essence, "You are professionals. Do your job, I'll do mine," and Lincoln regularly welcomed them to the White House - he even snagged a few off the street, looking for more accurate (and timely) information than he was getting from some of his commanders.

The Spanish American War was not much of a war, but it was started in large part by the media. (Hearst to an artist in the field: "You provide pictures, I'll provide the war." He meant it.) For the U. S. invasion of Cuba, there was something like one journalist for every seven Army officers in the expeditionary force. Coverage was, well, spotty, but journalist Richard Harding Davis probably, indirectly, made Theodore Roosevelt President of the United States.

World War I: The Army granted some privileges to journalists - but not many. They were allowed to go to France, but not usually to the front lines. The Army gave them "official" dispatches. To qualify for this privilege, the journalists had to post a $10,000 bond.

World War II: The avowed press policy of Admiral E. J. King, Chief of Naval Operations, was "Don't tell them anything until the war is over, then tell them who won." He was not, I think, being facetious. However, journalists were put in uniform, with the equivalent rank of major. The Army and Navy provided support. There was pretty heavy censorship. Most didn't complain.

Korea: A mixed bag. There was censorship (as an ensign aboard a destroyer, I was assigned to censor the personal mail of the sailors. A hangover from WWII); I don't recall any significant issues.

Vietnam: No official censorship; the journalists themselves established reasonable ground rules (no advance info about planned operations, no photos of recognizable American dead, that sort of thing.) The U. S. forces provided considerable support - there was even a string of seven press camps, essentially, motels attached to regional headquarters. There was in-country transport on a moment's notice for press pools, tv crews.

So - who were qualified for this support? Almost anyone. A recent New York Times editorial ("Case of a Jailed Journalist," Aug.14) noted, "the First Amendment protects those who are engaged in journalism, not those certified as journalists by the government." Exactly this principle was applied to the accreditation of journalists in Vietnam War.

Then, since almost anyone with an airline ticket could get in to South Vietnam on a seven-day tourist visa, we were visited by a fair number of free-lance adventurers. Our rule: an applicant either had to be employed by the media or have a letter from an editor affirming that any copy submitted would be considered for publication. Thus, anyone who wanted to qualify, could, as long as they convinced an editor to give them a chance. And what was "the media?" Any entity that said it was "media." This included some some patently anti-military weeklies, and ad hoc start-ups among the freelancers as long as they set themselves up in some formal fashion as a business. One fledgling news service, for example, obtained incorporation in Hong Kong.

All told, more than 3000 individuals were accredited during the war; they ranged in politics from far left to far right and in age from 17 (a young woman on an honors project for her high school newspaper) to 85 (Rear Admiral Dan Gallery, USN ret., working on a proposed TV series). On any give day, 300 might be in country; when there was some special activity, perhaps 500 would be in country, but I don't remember that number ever being higher.

Note: technology was not much advanced from WWII. No satellite feeds. All TV was on film, flown out of the country to be developed. The portable videotape camera did not come into use until 1971 or 72, or thereabouts (first use: George Heineman, NBC VP, for a children's program. I think the camera was walked across a rope-bridge in some exotic location).

By the mid-80s, technology was rushing ahead. Satellites, etc. However, the Department of Defense did not seem to have noticed. To brag a bit: in a 1986 article in the Naval Institute Proceedings, I predicted that DoD would not be ready to handle the new media technology in the next war. I was right.

Gulf War: The media have complained that they were not given "access" to the battlefield. Perhaps. But - what does a military commander do when the number of foreign journalists in someone else's country (Saudi Arabia) goes from about zero to 1000 almost overnight? That's twice the number that we had in Vietnam at any one time - where they lived in a city of some 2 million people (Saigon) and were supported by a very mature infrastructure (see above).

The Gulf War military command tried to parcel journalists out to various commands - perhaps to get them out of the way, in a manner of speaking, but the action nonetheless put them where they said they wanted to be: on the front lines. Some of the journalists resisted - too paternalistic for their liking. They wanted to develop "independent" coverage. Some of them became Iraqi prisoners of war as a consequence, and were lucky it ended at that. (In a small irony, some of the military units resisted having journalists assigned to cover their activities. When the histories of the war came to be compiled, official and otherwise, those units largely disappeared; outside of unit daily logs, which don't much lend themselves to narrative, there was scant record of their participation.)

Iraq, Afghanistan . . . I'll only address the early days. From the beginning, the situation is fluid and rapidly-changing. Journalists were all around the fringes of the war - on aircraft carriers, in Germany (flying on some missions), in Pakistan, with the Northern Alliance. Coverage was 24x7. And yet -some complained that they were being spoon-fed by the Pentagon; they resented the fact that the only source they had for Special Forces activities "was coming from the military." Well, perhaps someone had a better idea. Perhaps.

A look at the other side of the coin, in a manner of speaking: a TV journalist who seemed to be getting in the way - or at least, perhaps screwing up intelligence efforts. He was reporting from a just-captured "safe house." He was going through cupboards and boxes, outlining what had been found. He seemed to be careless; I saw at least one piece of paper that looked important, end up on the floor, not back in the box where he found it. There was no indication that any of this material had yet been examined by anyone who might understand it.

As you will appreciate, I am not a journalist, nor a handler, nor a critic, but merely a writer of history. Thus, I now step out of the frame . . . and hope that this overview helps keep some things in perspective.

Whatever, the basic tenet must hold: an unfettered press is a burden to the military in the field, anathema at the seat of government - and vital to a free, democratic society. But, sometimes, there are reasonable constraints. About which all sides should confer, and agree, not posture and postulate.

Enough. Hope this may be useful.


This ESSAY is Copyright © 2010, Brayton Harris. "Fair Use" is welcome, an acknowledgement would be appropriate: Harris, Brayton. War News: Blue & Gray in Black & White. Newspapers in the Civil War. Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace, 2010

WAR NEWS (published in 1999 as Blue & Gray in Black & White) is an exploration of the individual and collective efforts of newspaper journalists during the Civil War. As eyewitnesses to one of the most memorable conflicts in history, they left a record that is sometimes brilliant but, at other times, marred by shoddy journalism, sensationalism, and self-serving reporting. They were, however, the American public's primary source of information about the battles that were tearing the nation apart. This book focuses on the personalities, politics, and rivalries of editors; the efforts of newspapers to influence military appointments, strategy, and tactics; advances in printing technology; formal and informal censorship, the suppression of dissident newspapers, and, most of all, the war correspondents themselves.
Civil War journalism


BRAYTON HARRIS is a retired U. S. Navy captain who served as a media coordinator in Vietnam and as a special assistant to the secretary of the Navy at the Pentagon. He has also been a printer, a publisher, and an editor, and is the author of more than two hundred articles and ten books, including The Age of the Battleship: 1890-1922 and The Navy Times Book of Submarines: A Political, Social, and Military History.

Read the first chapter:
The War Correspondent

Read a related essay:
Military-Media Relations

Visit a website covering
Civil War Submarines

Explore the full Bibliography

WAR NEWS is available on-line from: AMAZON / Barnes & Noble, CreateSpace / and booksellers world-wide.