Military Censorship of Journalism: World War II — Present

Korean War

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In World War II, the news outlets themselves had made the decision to self-censor before the government had established its official journalistic code of conduct. The war in Korea — the last American war to be covered “overwhelmingly” in print media (Fazio, 2)8 — represented a turning point in which the government began to enforce censorship without the endorsement of the journalistic community, but this did not occur at the immediate outset of the war. General MacArthur released a statement on June 2, 1950, stating that he “did not desire to reestablish wartime censorship”, but instead depended on the press to adopt a “voluntary code” identical to the one they had had in World War II in order to protect the troops and keep the war effort strong. (This call for a “voluntary code” of censorship was popular into the Cold War as well. Kennedy, in a speech to the American Newspaper Publishers Association in 1961, advocated the concept as well.10Audio) Although the Defense Department had released a statement ordering the censorship of “character and movement of troops, ships, and planes…locations of fortifications, war productions figures, general weather conditions, and certain kinds of pictures and maps” (Fazio, 3), the press seemed to agree to adopt MacArthur’s “voluntary code”. For several weeks, the harmonious relations between military and press continued, until military leaders began to complain that their defeats were being too widely publicized in the media. MacArthur even announced via The New York Times on July 13, 1950 his belief that journalists were purposely exaggerating his losses. Following this statement, the good relationship between the press and the military deteriorated quickly. Several prominent journalists were banned from Korea, some on the grounds that they were giving “aid and comfort to the enemy” by reporting on the “disillusionment” of the soldiers (4). On July 22, the American soldiers themselves were ordered to “self-censor”. On July 25th, the army ordered that reporters, while not required to submit everything to security checks, were not allowed to publish “unwarranted” criticism of command decisions, and that the army would be “the sole judge and jury” on what “unwarranted” criticism entailed. Not to say that the press was entirely innocent in the affair; there were several incidents where the press abused their privilege to “self-censor.” In late 1950, a journalist caused a military blunder due to misreported timing of a Soviet ship landing in Japan. Bill Shinn, a reporter for AP, reported the movement of a South Korean general before the army did, violating express instructions not to release troop movements in the interest of getting a scoop (7). By the time the Chinese entered the war, MacArthur was no longer tolerating anything he perceived as dissension from the press, and established a Press Advisory Commission on December 18, 1950 which operated from his base in Japan. As the war in Korea went on, censorship became tighter and tighter, but by 1952, press coverage on the war was already decreasing. The story was simply becoming old news. But the damage to military-press relations had already been done.

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