At a first glance, it might be hard to see how World War II and the War on Terror have much in common politically, on the home front, or in the field of journalism. Looking at those differences more closely can help show how technology has changed the way Americans receive and participate in journalism in times of war, and how that can have a political, historical impact on the world.
Take, for example, comparable big moments, big stories that seem sure to warrant huge, bold headlines. Both wars start (for the United States) with a sudden act of violence against unsuspecting Americans – Pearl Harbor and the 9/11. While troubles may have been raging throughout the rest of the world all along, it suddenly became personal and impossible to ignore once it came to American turf.
What is striking is how different the initial response was for each. For Pearl Harbor, at a time with less preparedness and protocol for handling war news, naval officials declared a news black out, seizing all forms of communication between the Hawaiian islands and the mainland. One United Press report slipped out before the censors blocked it though:
HONOLULU, Dec. 7 (UP) – War broke with lightning suddenness in the Pacific today, when waves of Japanese bombers assailed Hawaii and the United States Fleet struck back with a thunder of big naval rifles.
The story came to Americans from Washington and the White House, and FDR’s administration controlled how much Americans knew, acknowledging the surprise attack but claiming only one old battleship was sunk and that heavy causalities were inflicted on the Japanese. The White House could manipulate what people knew to manipulate how they felt about it, taking years and investigations letter for the full story to come out.
Compare this to the first time you heard about the Twin Towers on 9/11. Perhaps it was told through another person, but where did they find out? Maybe word of mouth, maybe they were in the car and on the radio, but what everyone remembers and has burned into their visual memory is what they saw on TV: live video of the Towers burning, the second plane crashing, and seeing them fall.
Even the huge headlines in the many days that followed the attack and the accompanying pictures on a front page cannot compare to those videos, whether they were seen live or not. The broadcast journalism was not well crafted as the event happened and as the new broadcasts learned more information, but Americans across the country were glued to the coverage none the less. Why the drastic differences?
Location: At the time of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was not yet a state. Even more, it was an island far isolated from the mainland, and though unsuspecting, was a military facility. 9/11 was an attack that wanted to be seen– in the most populous city in America, at some of the tallest buildings in the world, on unarmed civilians. Even without journalistic communications, one had a much greater impact as far as eye witnesses who lived to tell the tale.
Technology: No matter where the attacked happened, television news could bring the event into your house or onto your computer instantly. You saw it and responded to it in a way that cannot be manipulated the same way words or radio prepared in advance can. Live video from the source versus the time it takes to craft text was more instant and less filtered.
Furthermore, New Yorkers with cameras or camera phones could upload footage to the internet or send it to news channels. Even if the collective media or the government had wanted to cover up the significance, it was no longer so easily in their hands. The scale needed to block all communications would be more extensive and would likely have been treated as more outrageous.
The wars that followed these sparks are worth looking at as far as journalistic freedom and American response/participation – while WWII is famous for its propaganda encouraging Americans to help in the effort (“Loose Lips Sink Ships” or Rosie the Riveter’s “We can do it!”), what they didn’t know certainly changed how they felt about it and their level of support.
Today it seems outrageous to hear of the level of censorship about the war with pictures, videos and newscasts being sent to quickly and easily through television and the internet. Bias and filtering still exists, but the internet also allows Americans to participate in their opinions by contributing their opinions in different ways (blogs, social media conversations, websites, etc.)