The Real Thing

Many have observed that today’s war coverage differs radically from that of WWII – including me in my last post. I posted this link to a satire of contemporary coverage based on D Day and then discovered that James Lileks had posted some real 1944 CBS radio coverage from D Day. It is available here.

It is well worth a few minutes listening to it. Go ahead – if you are much younger than me it will sound pretty strange. The segment is from the very early hours of D Day whan the only reports of the invasion are from German sources. What struck me was the scrupulousness with which the Bob Trout cautions the audience that the reports may be false. When he turns to military analyst Major George Fielding Eliot we get a surprisingly candid examination of the game of bluff and counter bluff then taking place. We even discover that capturing a port is almost certainly part of the allied strategy based on experiences at Anzio and elsewhere. It is always clear whose side these reporters are on, yet they do not sneer at the enemy or paint allied misdirection as any different than that practiced by the enemy. In any case, we are never for a moment allowed to forget the whole thing may be a German hoax or a German response to an allied feint.

To evoke the comparison with today’s war reporting I would ask: How many times have we seen analysis of footage of enemy soldiers in action explaining how it was obtained, by whom, and if shot with the knowledge of the enemy, inquiring into what might be the motivations of those who control the soldiers involved for allowing the recording?

A media analyst who has investigated these questions particularly in terms of the Palestinian conflict with Israel is Richard Landes of Boston University. At his website The Second Draft he takes a second look at the ‘first draft of history’ provided to us by journalism. Landes’ work demonstrates how easy it is to fake news footage using standard movie making techniques. He finds a lot of demonstrably faked footage coming from Palestinian sources that is accepted uncritically by the Western press. He also finds an even larger amount of footage about which it is impossible to say one way or the other if it is faked or not. Just the position Bob Trout and Major Eliot found themselves in with those German radio broadcasts on D Day.

One way to look at the difference between the 1944 CBS news broadcast and todays’ news is that in 1944 journalists went out of their way to correctly footnote and attribute their sources. They were at pains to caution against taking material originating from the enemy at face value and made clear that they are acutely conscious of the importance of correct labeling. Today we find reports that still take this level of care, but all too often we find ourselves dealing with reporters and editors who are extremely careless with the truth and more concerned with scoring ideological points.

Sometimes journalists still treat sources critically but there are way too many examples where ideologically committed sources are passed off as neutral and woven together with rumor, and anonymous tips to fit a preconceived view of events. Another common ploy is to do strait reporting with the spoken word accompanied by pictures that undermine or outright contradict the spoken part of the presentation. So a verbally balanced report about Iraq will be set against scenes of mayhem. Of course, it would be equally wrong to take sunny official press releases and illustrate them with scenes full of happy school children, but we haven’t seen a lot of that. Worse we haven’t seen much of what Major Eliot was doing on D Day – taking what was available officially and speculating about the operational intent and strategic direction of our military forces. In an ironic inversion of the way things were done in WWII our own governmental and military sources are routinely treated with skepticism and dubious material (I’m not talking about overt enemy material like Osama’s tapes) clearly supportive of enemy interests accepted less critically. Many factors beyond the scope of this post have created this peculiar state of affairs including the falsely optimistic official bulletins of the Vietnam war and the growth of the fashion for agenda driven scholarship in the academic world which has flowed on to the profession of journalism. It is one thing to look for an angle. It is quite another to impose it on events.

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