The Military and the Press
Michael S. Sweeney
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Buy *The Military and the Press: An Uneasy Truce (Medill Visions of the American Press)* by Michael S. Sweeney online

The Military and the Press: An Uneasy Truce (Medill Visions of the American Press)
Michael S. Sweeney
Northwestern University Press
302 pages
August 2006
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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The relationship between the military and the press is strained at best. Stretching back over 150 years, there has always been suspicion between the groups regarding who knows what and what they’ll give out to the public. Michael Sweeney’s comprehensive The Military and the Press chronicles a frosty relationship that continues to play out on news broadcasts and newspaper reports today. As part of the Medill School of Journalism Vision of the American Press series, this book follows the format of concise yet accurate re-telling of important milestones and developments in journalism.

Sweeney covers a wide range of historical war coverage, from the U.S. Revolutionary War to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The war for independence was noted through editorials in newspapers during a time when freedom of the press gained importance. The Civil War marked the first major war to be covered by the press, with few reports reflecting reality. War correspondence during the World War I was stifled by deliberate and calculated efforts from the Wilson era to enforce censorship. Sweeney documents the shift in war coverage during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, with journalists able to bypass censorship efforts through new technologies.

Sweeney does well in finding the origins of modern-day methods for covering war. The first embedded journalists were in the Mexican-American War of 1848, when professional journalists wrote their articles alongside soldiers in battle. Press pools were formally implemented during WWII in order to restrict photographers who might publish the gruesome images of war. The government`s propaganda machine was perfected in WWI with the U.S. Committee of Public Information (CPI), which created a newspaper about the war with an impressive circulation of 115,000 copies weekly.

The thread that unites all war coverage is the government`s desire for censorship. Sweeney argues that a fundamental tension exists between governments and the press. The military wants only positive information to be revealed in order to boost morale and support. The press wants to give out truthful, accurate information, whether this helps or hinders public morale. Their need for each other and conflicting goals give way to a tense relationship.

Censorship is the cornerstone of war coverage in past and present wars. Sweeney devotes four of the book’s eight chapters to access of information for the media. In WWI, it was legalized censorship as evident by the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act that punished any publication making statements deemed “disloyal.” Sweeney makes a convincing argument that, because of the hostile situation for newspapers, self-censorship was enforced in order to avoid losing press credentials. Self-censorship masked legalized censorship in WWII, with newspapers adopting codes for what to report about the war while the Office of Censorship went through radio and newspaper reports for any violations. This two-tier system of censorship ensured that controversial stories were squashed.

Technology broke the military stranglehold of information with the invention of television. Coupled with the unconventional wars in Korea and Vietnam, the press found ways to get past official military versions of events and find interesting stories on civilians and soldiers. Journalists became more daring in their reporting and more suspicious of government accounts as they sought greater access to the front lines. War photography reached new heights with some of the most famous photos taken during this era. The well-known coverage of the Tet Offensive in 1968 by CBS anchor Walter Cronkite uncovered the power and importance of solid journalism during a war.

The aftermath of Vietnam, including the media’s role, continues to be argued to this day, and it continues to affect the way the media reports wars. The military learned the hard way what can happen if they didn’t control wartime images. Sweeney shrewdly uses examples from wars not well known (the Grenada invasion, the Falkland wars) to demonstrate how war images on TV are manipulated by restricting access for journalists. The first Iraqi War is a prime example as Sweeney describes the frustration of hundreds of journalists stuck in the outskirts of battle while CNN became the cable powerhouse that it is today by gaining access in Baghdad.

Readers looking for more than a historical critique will be delighted in the final chapter focusing on the future. Sweeney recognizes the power of the Internet in war coverage, predicting a shift in the military’s censorship efforts. With soldiers and civilians blogging from Baghdad, today’s information environment has made it nearly impossible for the military to control information. However, Sweeney makes the valid point that journalists must remain sceptical of military information and not become complacent. A critique of the overall lack of analysis leading up to the second Iraqi war, including the weapons of mass destruction rationale, is one key example.

Sweeney`s mix of the past and present gives The Military and the Press a balanced, accurate feel for what lies ahead in war coverage. The icy relationship between the press and the military won`t be thawing anytime soon.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Julie Sobowale, 2008

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