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20th century war reporting and beyond

Posted by: | November 18, 2009 | No Comment |

From its early beginnings as a system of warning to its present day status as a profitable manipulation of the mass media, war reporting has undergone some significant changes to say the least.  During this evolution, the concept of war reporting has still maintained that sense of security that all news provides to the populace but it has also still been a mechanism by which the media exploits the populace for profit. But when we veer from these two extremes, and focus on an objective style of war reporting, then journalism turns into something more than just superficial feelings. 

Nobel Prize winning novelist Ernest Hemingway reported for the North American Newspaper Alliance during the Spanish Civil War. Much of Hemmingway’s time spent in this conflict was wrought with emotions tied to previous experiences in wars and his sympathies found their way to the republican side of the conflict. His involvement was so much, that he may have even trained young soldiers, and was one of the journalists that helped row the last remaining republican units across the river in the Battle of the Ebro. Out of this, Hemingway produced his work entitled “The Fifth Column” and was later recruited to report from Europe during World War II. His closeness in combat earned him the bronze star. Hemingway reflected the old style of war reporting in 1937, that is reporters who are sent to cover as one-sided correspondents. This type of reporting that is often sympathetic to one side would soon change in the 20th century.

Courtesy of NYMAG.com

Courtesy of NYMAG.com

On August 3, 1965 Morley Safer joined a group of American Marines on an excursion to a small village called Cam Ne. At Cam Ne, the Marines took to destroying everything in the village, literally setting fire to the dwellings with Zippo lighters. His report had one of the most significant impacts on American public image of the war in Vietnam. What Safer did was to follow along as a mere observer with a group of men who were literally trained to search and destroy. What he managed to capture on film and write had no bias, it simply showed what American soldiers were doing in Vietnam.

Granted, this was not what all soldiers were doing, but if this one group was doing it then the possibility could exist for others to be doing the same. Therefore it comes off as anti-military or even anti-American to some. The possibility of G.I.’s doing these things sparked all kinds of reactions at home.

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, CNN correspondents John Holliman, Peter Arnett, and Bernard Shaw relayed audio reports from the Al-Rashid Hotel as the American air strikes on Baghdad started. ABC correspondent Gary Shepard also reported back to Peter Jennings on the quietness of the city, but soon returned to the air as flashes of light appeared and explosions began. Throughout the war, footage of front-line combat as well as footage of missiles being launched was almost constantly reported back to American News networks. Like no other war before, the whole world was able to see war unfold in an almost “Live from Baghdad” version of news. War reporting had just evolved into something more than reporting on troop morale, exposing suffering as Safer had done, and enduring occasional combat as Hemingway once had; war reporting had turned into a show of sorts.

American writer and journalisCourtesy of BlondieRockett Evan Wright, was embedded with the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion of the United States Marine Corps during the early stages of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Many of you might know him better as they guy who wrote the book and starred in the HBO mini-series “Generation Kill,” which was actually based on a series of Rolling Stone articles. Despite what many of the Marines, particularly officers, said about the truth behind the the book and articles, both represent the independent non-biased view of war reporting in the modern era; or more accurately they reflect a method of reporting that attempts to offend none but also brings in ratings, readers, and reams of money. How often does a journalist get the chance to write his own series of articles, have them made into a book, which is subsequently made into a mini-series in which the author stars? Could just be luck of the draw, or it could be a hidden agenda–this one will be left to you to decide.

What all these journalists share in common is the time period in which they reported. They could not be more different or more similar; Hemingway did indeed have an agenda (political)  just as many people think Evan Wright had an agenda (financial); Safer simply wanted the information to be put out there for the American public to see just as Holliman, Arnett, Shaw, and Shepard wanted to provide real-time updates on the bombing. From this very small sampling of journalists reporting on American wars two themes have become prevalent: there are those who wish to inform and those who wish to exploit. If we take a look at what type of news we are getting on a daily basis, I think these same principles can be related to all those types of news.

War reporting in the 20th and 21st centuries changed in that it took on an entirely new perspective, Safer’s landmark report changed war reporting and shaped it into much of what it is today. That is, a fascination with death and destruction; an obsession with seeing something as atrocious without risking one’s life; and a chance at meeting one’s agenda through reporting. It has brought the American public to desire watching things like this.

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