The second casualty of war

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IF the first casualty of war is truth, the second casualty might be the men and women on the frontlines who tell us their version of the truth. Each time we switch on the radio and television news, or pick up our daily newspaper, we rely on them for the latest reports. If it bleeds it leads is a media maxim. According to the International Press Institute (IPI) a total of 100 journalists were killed in 2010. This figure is only marginally lower than the previous year when 110 were slain.

The Vienna-based media authority say Asia tops the list of pen-pushing casualties with 40 journalists killed. Latin America bleeds second with a total of 32 casualties although Pakistan is the most lethal country for journalists. The war in Iraq has cost 348 journalists their lives.

Conflicts throughout the Middle East and North Africa are likely to tilt future statistics. Europe, including Russia and Belarus fares well with nine scribes in caskets.

As a breed war correspondents made, shaped and ended wars. Perhaps the best known was Ernest Hemingway, especially renowned for his reporting from the frontlines during the Spanish Civil War. The greats include war photographers too. Hungarian Frank Capa’s images of several conflicts still give us pause for thought: British-born Time Page’s haunting images of the Vietnam War were some of the most emotionally compelling of any war.

The war correspondent’s loyalties are to their vocation and their personal spin, which doesn’t always get the approval of editors. Many are freelance and work through agencies. Those who work directly for media such as Sky News, ITV, NBC, CNN and the BBC are a minority.

A tough maverick minority actually report from battlefields. Not for them guided tours or claims they have been denied permission to enter a country. Many are surprisingly candid. Robert St. John of Associated Press says: “We were just leeches, reporters trying to suck headlines out of all this death and suffering.”

Reuter’s correspondent Charles Lynch wrote: “It’s humiliating to look back at what we wrote during the war. It was crap and I don’t exclude the Ernie Pyles or Alan Mooreheads. We were a propaganda arm of our governments.”

Was the self criticism justified? Not really, many to their credit sent in accurate reports only to see them blue penciled to read something quite different from that originally intended. Geoff Stokes, a veteran of Time magazine groused to an associate that he ‘was asked to do a 40-inch story, which was pretty long for us, but that, when it came out, there were two words – two words – that were mine.

“At the start the censors enforced that but at the end we were our own censors. We were cheerleaders. I suppose there wasn’t an alternative at the time. It was total war, but, for God’s sake, let’s not glorify our role. It wasn’t good journalism. It wasn’t journalism at all.”

Not surprisingly World War Two created many great names who dominated Pathe News, Life Magazine and the Fleet Street greats. Newspaper columnists have influenced nations, moulding the opinions of tens of millions of readers, who, swayed by their columnists spin on events, voted accordingly.

They say American columnist, Walter Lippmann was pivotal in shaping post-World War One U.S. foreign policy. As a pen-wielding orator his columns fuelled passion for the Vietnam War and when enthusiasm diminished he talked America out of that conflict.

Walter Winchell’s column was essential reading for readers of over 800 different periodicals. Throughout Europe and the U.S no less than 50,000 newspapers and magazines employ columnists.

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