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Journalism and The Bomb

By Barrie Zwicker


THE ATOMIC AGE BEGAN, in media terms, in a way any reporter can identify with.

It began with a press release, read aloud by a White House press secretary at 10:45 the morning of Aug. 6, 1945. The reporters who had been called to the briefing were told that 16 hours before ''one bomb" had been dropped on Hiroshima, "an important Japanese Army base."

The reporters were told the bomb was more than 2,000 times as powerful as the British "Grand Slam" which until then had been the largest bomb ever used in the history of warfare.

The new bomb, they were told, "is an atomic bomb. It is harnessing the basic power of the universe."

At first, an observer wrote, the reporters seemed unable to grasp what it was about. Once they did, "some of them had difficulty in getting their news desks to grasp the import of it."

We can identify with this. It is not surprising. What is surprising is that 38 years later, with more than 50,000 of these bombs deployed all over the planet, so many people in and out of journalism still have not grasped the import of it.

It isn't that the enormity of the bombs' destructiveness is a secret (as it had been, until that press release).

It isn't as if the finest minds have not warned with clarity and eloquence. Albert Einstein, whose genius laid the groundwork for the bomb, said: "When we released energy from the atom, everything changed except our way of thinking. Because of that we drift towards unparalleled disaster."

Bertrand Russell devoted much, perhaps most, of his post-Hiroshima life to warning and campaigning against the bomb. Linus Pauling, the only person to win two Nobel Prizes, wrote his book No More War in 1958.

It's unlikely full historical perspective will ever be written on why these voices of wisdom and caution did not prevail.

It's unlikely because — in this writer's opinion — nuclear war now is probable. Most of the evidence needed by historians to tell the story of the greatest tragedy of all time will be vaporized, especially if Washington, D.C. is successfully targeted.

But even today, in the narrowing time until what people have called World War III but which surely we must call Extermination Day, we can see some outlines of how the needle got as deeply into the red zone as it now is. (As I write this, Margaret Thatcher has just said she wouldn't hesitate to press the nuclear button, and NATO "sources" took less than 24 hours to dismiss Soviet leader Yuri Andropov's offer of a nuclear weapons free zone in the Baltic as "meaningless.")


My main focus is the media's part in getting us into this predicament. Although the media's role is blended with those of the nation state, the culture and technology, it can be isolated to some extent.

There still may be time for useful learning and behavioral change. Of all the elements that are contributing to our drift towards unparalleled disaster, the role of the media may be the one most amenable to rapid (in historical terms) change.

The sheer size and bureaucratic inertia of the military-industrial-academic complexes means they cannot be diverted more than a few degrees from their suicidal directions. More than half the scientists and engineers in the United States now work for the military.

A scientist whose job is perfecting warheads for the MX cannot walk into his lab one day and start working on an anti-cancer vaccine.

Journalists, on the other hand, have long noted that — unlike other industrial products — the news is different every day. (Let us put aside, for the moment, the criticism that "the news remains the same; it just happens to different people.")

A journalist does have some latitude to walk into his or her office tomorrow and write something completely different. More importantly, as the journalist becomes more enlightened over time on any given subject, his or her work will consistently reflect that growth. The bomb-making scientist whose opinions change has much less freedom — or more stark opinions, if you will: continue making bombs, or quit.

We're lucky to be journalists, but our relative freedom imposes upon us a corresponding responsibility.

The arms race challenges the value system of every nation, every organization, of every institution and individual, not least journalism and journalists.

Veteran CBS newsman Daniel Schorr told a Foundation for American Communications media seminar in San Francisco: "The biggest ethical problem facing the media today is which of the sea of waving hands in front of the camera to recognize."

But the most significant waving hands are not hard to pick out. As Richard Pollak, a former editor of the journalism review MorE, told a seminar on War, Peace and the Media in New York in March: "Nuclear holocaust is not just one story among many. The prospect of nuclear extinction is light years ahead of all other stories."

What actions are we going to take — or not take, for an act of omission is a powerful act — about the unparalleled drift to disaster? This is the supreme ethical question faced by each profession and individual alive today.

"The odds are lousy and everyone here knows it," Pollak told the conference sponsored by New York University and the Gannett Foundation. "I come here not as a press critic but as a supplicant: wake up.

"Think of this problem not as an anchorman . . . but as a human being. Think how radically journalism must change. Not a single journalism organization has a peace beat. The ultimate deadline is upon us. Yet the (New York) Times has a sports staff of 30 editors and reporters.

"This is not man bites dog; this is man devouring himself. It is the military-industrial complex out of control. It's news.

"Journalists must keep relentless page one pressure to keep this story before our people and our government."

At the same conference, Robert Manoff, former editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, contributed a compelling paper, titled:


Manoff documented how close journalism and the state have been in the matter of war. Taking the dawn of the atomic age as his peg, he noted that one reporter at that White House briefing on Aug. 6, 1945 was neither surprised nor skeptical.

"His name was William L. Laurence. He was a . . . science reporter for the New York Times. And he had written the release.

"Laurence, a 15-year Times veteran, had been recruited for the Manhattan Project (the secret atomic bomb operation) three months before . . . Laurence would work for the government, but continue to be paid by the Times, which would also keep his whereabouts a secret.

"The collaboration was a fruitful one . . ." as Laurence won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting about the bomb after he went back to the Times, to place beside his special citation from the War Department.

Laurence, as the Times later would explain, was ". . . with the War Department . . . to explain the atomic bomb to the lay public." In effect, he was hired to sell the bomb to the world.

Laurence's view, Manoff writes, "was an emotional celebration of the science, engineering and industry behind the bomb, couched in superlatives that left . . . dilemmas . . . far behind.

"Reporting the Alamogordo test . . . he equated the bomb's beauty to 'the grand finale of a mighty symphony,' and the mushroom cloud, boiling up from the New Mexico desert, to the Statue of Liberty."

Nevertheless, shortly after Hiroshima — and this is part of our hidden history — there was a worldwide outpouring of human concern about the meaning and portent of the bomb.

During this brief interlude of one precious month there was a stunning example of how the media — well within the boundaries of conventional journalism — could be a powerful reflection of, and therefore promoter of, humanity's concerns (as opposed to those of a nation state).

But this kind of reporting (based on premises of humanitarian concern) was quickly squelched by an American administration even then dominated in its foreign policy by anti-Sovietism. The administration's actions, and the media's knee jerk adoption of the nationalistic administration view as their own ideological framework, set the pattern which has been unbroken in its essentials right to Reaganism today.

But let Manoff sketch the interlude:

"The enormity of the (bomb) and the paucity of detail . . . combined to create a journalistic space in which a different and more troubling view of Hiroshima could be considered.

"It was not a major feature of the first day's coverage, dominated, as it was, by the War Department's releases. But it was one that would assume a prominent place in the coverage until at least the early part of September.

"It appeared first in the words of Clifton Daniel, who wrote from London of 'the terrible toll (the bomb) will levy on Japan.' Hanson W. Baldwin, the paper's military affairs analyst, composed a tormented and angry piece about strategic bombing throughout the war. 'Americans have become a synonym for destruction,' he wrote. 'We may yet reap the whirlwind.'

"For weeks the paper was awash with British Bishops, worried scientists and earnest educators addressing their consciences and the future of the world. The Times as a whole, it began to seem, assumed this agenda as the paper's own, and others ignored it at their peril.

"For example the day after a diverse group of scholars and writers gathered at Columbia University for the sixth annual Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion, they awoke to find a Times story by Morris L. Kaplan, whose incredulous tone was well captured by the headline it bore: ATOM BOMB FAILS TO EXCITE SAVANTS: ONLY 1 OF 31 PAPERS AT THEIR MEETING HERE WARNS BLUNTLY OF DANGERS IT PRESENTS; OTHERS TREAT IT CALMLY.

"It was with evident satisfaction that Mr. Kaplan was able to report the next day that the conference had, at its second session, thrown away its agenda and had confronted, 'with a note of hysteria,' the crisis of the Atomic Age," Manoff writes.


Manoff identifies two basic orientations in the Times during this period, one "in its reliance on official sources, in its preoccupation with policy, in its focus on government, basically statist.

"The second, largely reactive to the first, took root in the journalistic interstices — in adjectives, in analysis and editorials, in fugitive paragraphs within the statist narrative.

"It was, in its recourse to moral authority, in its dependence on unmediated expression, in its respect for individual opinion, basically a civil voice.

". . . the former tended to be a journalism of achievement, the latter one of consequences; the former a journalism of causes, the latter of effects; the former a journalism of politics, the latter, of ethics."

The Cold War began on Sept. 4, 1945. On that day the Times published a page-one story headlined SOVIET HINTS RACE FOR ATOM BOMB.

"Where," Manoff writes, "in the weeks after Hiroshima, Times editors had chosen to emphasize the moral judgements of critics, by early September they were beginning to feature the political assessments of Congressmen.

"By late September, the Cabinet dispute over sharing the secret had heated up sufficiently to provoke one of the parties to go public with a pre-emptive leak. Aimed at heading off co-operation with the Soviet Union, it turned up as a front page story on Sept. 22."

In early October the U.S. president unilaterally announced the United States, which alone possessed the bomb, would not share its secret nor co-operate with its wartime ally, the Soviet Union. The press fell quickly into line, accepting its government's perspective as its own. Government aims and policies became in effect the valves and filters of media coverage of the bomb from then on and have shaped the premises and outlook of us all in the intervening years.

"Within two months the closure had become complete," writes Manoff. The civil voice was suffocated in the Times. The Times in this respect represented all American journalism, being then as now the acknowledged  leader and primary continuing agenda-setter.

"Quandaries and dilemmas were put aside, or relegated to the political fringe and the journalistic margins."

Hanson Baldwin had written in mid-September: ". . . the iron of public opinion, which was malleable, is setting now into the cold mould of the old order." And the new mould of the old order was the Cold War.


War in the 18th Century, Manoff notes, was the business of absolutist governments. And there were a number of constraints on the conduct of war at that time.

First, the peasant was not to be disturbed at his tilling. In an agrarian economy the peasant was clearly the foundation of wealth for the autocrats. Pillaged peasants cannot pay taxes.

Also, soldiers were impressed or were mercenaries. The unreliability of such soldiers was reflected in de Tocqueville's description of the aristocratic soldier as one who "acts without reflection, triumphs without enthusiasm, and dies without complaint." And there were constraints flowing from the small amount of damage any known weapon could inflict, slowness of transportation, problems of supply and so on.

As a result, it was believed in the 1700's that there were "natural limits" to the size of armies: about 50,000 men.

Then the autocracies fell. But there was more to the end of autocracy and the coming of what we call democracy and the "free Press" than has yet met our eye.

First, the chronology. The "free press" arrived in the wake of "democracy."

(Now, I place quotation marks around these words for compellingly significant reasons.

(Removing the press from control of the authorities — either direct control or control through licensing — was of course a giant step in the direction of freedom. But freedom is not an absolute. The press did not go from being "unfree" to being "free."

(It did move a significant distance along the continuum which has the abstraction "no freedom" at one end and the abstraction "complete freedom" at the other.

(Notice that politicians have no qualms about using words like "freedom" and "democracy" to lead the public by its conditioned nose.

(The term "free press" linguistically forecloses questions, questions that the term "Western press", for instance, would not. Questions, for instance, about the ideology that suffuses the media in the West because of the prevailing ownership structure. We correctly use the descriptive and non-judgmental term "Soviet press."

(Similarly with "democracy." C.B. Macpherson begins his brilliant Massey Lectures titled The Real World of Democracy: "There is a good deal of muddle about democracy."

(We cannot here go sufficiently into Macpherson's analysis of "democracy." We can note, however, that he states: ". . . democracy is not properly to be equated with (my emphasis — B.Z.) our unique Western liberal-democracy . . ." and ". . . non-liberal systems which prevail in the Soviet countries, and the somewhat different non-liberal systems of most of the underdeveloped countries of Asia and Africa, have a genuine historical claim to the title democracy."

("Democracy originally meant rule by the common people, the plebeians. It was very much a class affair: it meant the sway of the lowest and largest class," Macpherson explains. "In the present Soviet countries . . . democracy, we may say, came as a revolution against the liberal capitalist society and state. The political movements that came to power there thought of themselves, and do now think of themselves, as democratic. For them democracy has had something like its original meaning, government by or for the common people, by or for the hitherto oppressed classes."

Further, as Macpherson points out, Western style democracy "is, like any other system, a system of power." It is a double system of power in which power relationships are controlled through access to accumulated capital and property, and in which people are governed (his emphasis), "that is, made to do things they would not otherwise do, and made to refrain from doing things they otherwise would do."

(Macpherson notes a "third fact, which some people find admirable and some people would prefer not to have mentioned." That is that "democracy" and capitalism go together. Yet capitalism came first and "democracy" was an addon, in the final analysis, suitable to capitalism.

(". . . the democratic franchise did not come easily or quickly . . . it required many decades of agitation and organization . . . The female half of the population had to wait even longer for an equal political voice: not until substantial numbers of women had moved out from the shelter of the home to take an independent place in the labour market was women's claim to a voice in the political market allowed."

(The preferred terminology, then, would be "Western-style democracy," "liberal-democracy" or "capitalist democracy.")


Return now to the relationship within Western history of "democracy," journalism and war.

Clausewitz was one of the earliest observers to see how crucial this triple intersection was, Manoff notes. Clausewitz in 1832 could write that by engaging what he called the "heart and sentiments of a nation" Western states completely altered the nature of War.

With the move away from an agrarian economy, with the rise in technical capacity to destroy, with the accumulation of wealth and with the availability of masses of people to fight (if they could be persuaded of the righteousness of the state's cause), the scene was set for a major escalation in the size and destructiveness of war.

The persuasion part was crucial and the newly "free" press was to be the agent of persuasion.

But a press with a strong self-image as simply "free" cannot knowingly accept a role as agent of the state. The state therefore must find a cause which the gatekeepers of the press will find righteous on its own merits.

Early on Western states found one, serviceable in all circumstances. The manipulation of the sentiment evoked by the abstraction "democracy" was apparent, as Macpherson notes, "by the time of the First World War, a war which the Western allied leaders could proclaim was fought 'to make the world safe for democracy.' "

This same reason was invoked, among others, by successive U.S. administrations to justify the U.S. war in Vietnam.

(The Reagan administration still relies to some extent on the "defence of democracy" argument to justify its support for the regime in El Salvador, and its undeclared war against the government of Nicaragua.

(The major premise in the Nicaraguan case is that for a Marxist government to simultaneously be democratic in any sense of the word democratic is simply a contradiction in terms. Marxism and democracy are implied by the administration and, in practice, inferred by the mainline media, to be fairly precise terms, like oranges and apples, with no gradations, no subtleties, no possibility of change and above all, no overlap.

(When facts incontrovertibly show that the simplistic manipulation of labels does not correspond with reality — as with the democratically – elected Marxist government of Salvadore Allende in Chile — the facts are physically erased through application of illegitimate military violence.

(A U.S. administration will then return to creation of reality in the public mind by means of repetitious rhetoric with the abstraction "democracy" at its manipulative core. Historical fact — for instance, the existence at one time of a Marxist-style democracy — is displaced in the public mind by a synthetic belief that such a democracy is impossible.

(Exactly in the degree to which the mainline media do not find politically-relevant (i.e., widespread and persistent) means for questioning and modifying politicians' manipulative use of dangerous abstractions, those mainline media are precisely agents of the state.)

The foregoing, it should be evident, is relevant to an unholy vortex: the power of words to prepare for war; journalism's entanglement in what could well be termed war propaganda; both the perception of and the condition of Western-style democracy today; and the danger of globalization of local conflict.

But it is to the historical relationship of global conflict (today meaning nuclear war or extermination), "democracy" and journalism that I wish to return now.

Popular ardour fanned by the press enabled early "democracies" to dramatically change the face of battle, Manoff writes.

"Where 17th Century armies were thought to have natural limits of 50,000 men, democratic armies grew so large that French revolutionary forces lost 1.5-million . . .

"Popular wars presented neither serious political nor journalistic problems for democratic states until 1914," according to Manoff.


Then came the First World War, the most ferocious until then. It left 13 million dead; the British lost enough men to field a 17th Century army in one particular single day of combat.

The alliance of the civil society and the state under the banner of the nation was for the first time brought seriously into question.

People, especially in Europe, began to question the legitimacy of mass warfare. But the questioning was deflected, "nowhere . . . more successfully than in the United States," writes Manoff.

". . . in the first decades of the century, the Roosevelt administration had already formalized planning for modern warfare by creating a War College and the General Staff Corps. Roosevelt told a British journalist it was time "to get my fellow countrymen into the proper mental attitude." The press for the most part required little coercion "to play the role the state required," writes Manoff. Journalists signed on to write war propaganda.

Six thousand press releases by the U.S. government during the First World War produced 20,000 columns per week of "news."

"As revealing," Manoff writes, "as what the newspapers ran was what they didn't: when pacifist O.G. Villard's New York Evening Post printed the complete text of secret Allied treaties, which dramatically undercut the public's idealism (about President Wilson's) war aims, only nine other papers published even small excerpts, while the New York Times condemned the leak."

Walter Lippmann, who himself had signed on to write war propaganda, reflected later: ". . . it seemed impossible to wage the war energetically except by inciting the people to paroxysms of hatred and to Utopian dreams."

The story was much the same during the Second World War. This is not to say the First and Second World Wars were indistinguishable. Nor to say waging war against Hitler's Germany was mistaken. Most emphatically not. The point is, however, that the media (by this time, radio and film were important components of propagandizing the public) were supporting war efforts on terms established by the state.

"By the summer of 1942," Manoff writes, "as Walter Laqueur has shown in compelling detail, one of the war's biggest stories, the slaughter of European Jewry, was widely known in Allied capitals but scantily reported." It was believed in Washington and London, Laqueur concluded, "that stories like these would at best sidetrack the Allies from the war effort . . ."

A story the state wanted told (Manoff s emphasis), however, faced no such difficulties "and by the summer of 1945 the ease with which William L. Laurence could shift from the Times to the Manhattan project and back again can be taken as symptomatic of the interpenetration of the press and the state which mass warfare had fostered."

Coverage of the bomb in the Western press has been predominantly from the point of view of (perceived) national self interest. This is true of what was not sought out, what was sought out, what was reported, and the interpretation of what was reported, including play.


In 1984, Manoff reports, "Herbert Marks, general counsel for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission — responsible for all atomic research and weapons productions — observed that the press covered his agency 'rarely with more penetrating comment or follow-up than that which accompanies the society news.' "

Manoff contends there has been what he calls a "failure of nuclear reporting" especially over the past 20 years, the years during which the nuclear arsenal has built to its present enormity.

The failure, he suggests, is due to the media's acceptance of the state's goals. These included public indifference. With indifference, the technocrats and strategists and the military-industrial-academic complex which pays them could get on with their own games and profits.

"First," Manoff writes, "the story has been largely ignored. In light of news judgments routinely applied elsewhere, this represents a stunning lack of attention.

"In all of 1972, for example, the CBS Evening News ran only one minute on the military balance. In 1973, . . . CBS ran nothing at all on the balance story.

"Second," Manoff continues, "such reporting as there has been on strategic doctrine over the last decades has largely accepted policy declarations at face value."

And coverage has "ignored the fact that declared policy represents only the facade of a complex strategic structure," he adds. That is an extremely kind interpretation.

". . . one might have watched years of television news," Manoff concludes on this point, "read volumes of magazine coverage, and followed some of the best newspapers for months at a time without encountering anything but the most perfunctory descriptions . . . of America's strategic policy." Yet these perfunctory descriptions (basically the highly varnished if not tainted declarations by politicians of nationalistic intent, crafted by clever phrase makers) have been the language (i.e., thinking) tools provided to the public by the media for the public's consideration of nuclear extermination.

That there have been honourable exceptions to the failure of nuclear reporting does not detract from the enormity of the collective lapse.

Even in those cases where the media have taken an interest in a nuclear weapons issue, it has usually been because of a policy disagreement within the state rather than through initiative by the media.

Manoff cites several U.S. examples. A Canadian example might be the cruise missile controversy. Because the government, exemplified by Prime Minister Trudeau, is divided on the issue of cruise testing, it becomes a story. It's the controversy, more than the enormity of the weapon, that is at the heart of the "news-worthiness" of the cruise testing story.

As Manoff remarks: "The press, for its part, merely has to report a controversy in order to find itself well outside the customary limits of its coverage. As always, it is the state which seems to establish the boundaries of journalistic inquisitiveness and anticipate the parameters of responsible dissent. The press may discover these limits but it does not set them."

Manoffs conclusion is thought provoking for any journalist who has read this far.

Journalists should recognize the "actual relationship (the media have) with the state, on questions of war and peace," he contends.

And journalists should embrace the relationship (media as servant of the state) "instead of waging an imaginary contest in the name of a liberty it has never been able to exercise."

Journalism should, in other words, "cast aside the delusion of objectivity" and recognize itself "as a partner of the state."

But the press should serve the state by also recognizing the state "needs the truth . . . in order to survive." The assumptions state leaders have about other leaders and other countries should be vigorously and thoroughly scrutinized by the media in the interests of the state's survival.

"Journalism . . . must find the freedom it yearns for by affirming the actual limitations on its liberty — not by persuading itself, as it has always tried to, that they do not exist.

"In fulfilling the objectives (of scrutinizing and evaluating the state's war policy), the pressing needs of the state coincide with the highest aspirations of journalism."


This is, virtually, a new ethic for journalism, or at least a renewed basis for the existing journalistic ethics — save one. For the thoughtful traditional journalist, the new ethic provides a thorough justification for pursuing greatly the story that is of transcending significance compared to other stories: the prospect of extinction and how to avoid it.

Things are going very badly. The needle is deep, deep into the red zone. Individual heroes are not going to emerge out of nowhere to save us. Large impersonal forces have a deadly momentum. Only large personal forces can stop them.

Western journalists in the past few decades have clung to "objectivity" as an untouchable ethic of their craft. As a synonym for fairness, "objectivity" has merit, even if more preached than practiced.

But in the final analysis, as Donna Wolfolk Cross wrote in her article "Junk-Food Journalism" in the February issue of Penthouse: "In fact, to be 'objective' in a news report usually means to conform to traditional ways of thinking. New York Times columnist Tom Wicker calls the practice of objectivity 'an act of advocacy for the status quo.' "

"Objectivity" leads to — or is invoked to justify — the journalist distancing himself or herself from issues.

Distancing oneself from the prospect of one's own unnecessary and horrible death is fatally maladaptive, however. The uniquely threatening jam we're in forces a basic reappraisal of the journalistic ethic of "objectivity" and the emotional hiding place it provides.

If the missiles are launched, it will be as much a failure of journalism as anything else. Journalism that did not put first things first, that did not crusade, that conducted business as usual in the store while dispassionately watching foolish men lug keg after keg of dynamite into the store basement.

Thousands of journalists and writers marched in the giant and totally peaceful rally for peace in New York City on June 12, 1982. To put it in negative terms, they had ceased to find meaningful that part of their journalistic ethic which would have prevented them from expressing their concern to be living journalists rather than dead journalists.

To put it positively, they saw that peace is not only the biggest story on earth, it's also the greatest need on earth. That the "other side" is suicide.

The time to work fully on the story of the threat of universal death is now. History has handed us the assignment and marked it "MUST" and "URGENT." Nuclear war doesn't lend itself to post blow-up analyses. There will be no retrospectives. Journalism will end with everything else.

Journalism and activism for peace are one and the same, insofar as the journalism is of the highest order and is about the threat of war. The telling of it is simultaneously an attempt to prevent it. To paraphrase Manoff, the highest needs of humanity coincide with the highest aspirations of journalism (and coincidentally the need of the journalist for personal survival.)

It isn't easy journalism. But it's exciting. And involving, since there's a wealth of fact and history and secrets and opinion to be dug out and flung to the fore. It's the most challenging journalism there is today, demanding that we understand our craft better, that we place more of ourselves than ever before on the line, that we provide better context than we normally do, that we use language more precisely than we usually do, that we have more courage than is normally required of us, that we dig deeper, work harder, ask more questions, work in new ways and with new people, that we grow faster than we have, that we give up most of our hiding places.

It is, in the words of newspaper columnist and peace activist Sister Mary Jo Leddy, "time for ordinary people to do extraordinary things."

 See related article Journalism and The Bomb, Words and War


Published in Sources Summer 1983 

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