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What would censor Weller today?

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If you admire and respect the human race and wish it to survive, then the words of George Weller — appearing in print 60 years after they were first written — are chilling:

NAGASAKI, Saturday, Sept.8 (odn) — In swaybacked or flattened skeletons of the Mitsubishi arms plants is revealed what the atomic bomb can do to steel and stone, but what the riven atom can do against human flesh and bone lies hidden in two hospitals of downtown Nagasaki. Look at the pushed-in facade of the American consulate, three miles from the blast’s center, or the face of the Catholic cathedral, one mile in the other direction, torn down like gingerbread, and you can tell that the liberated atom spares nothing in the way. The human beings whom it has happened to spare sit on (illegible) One tiny family board their platforms in Nagasaki’s two largest (illegible) hospitals, their shoulders, arms and faces are strapped in bandages.

Showing them to you, as the first American outsider to reach Nagasaki since the surrender, your propaganda-conscious official guide looks meaningfully in your face and wants to knew (sic): “What do you think?”

What this question means is: do you intend saying that America did something inhuman in loosing this weapon against Japan? That is what we want you to write.

Weller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent, snuck into Nagasaki on a rented rowboat ahead of Douglas MacArthur’s advancing army. He wrote about what he saw in profound detail. He filed his dispatches with MacArthur’s censorship office as required.

In an E&P story by Greg Mitchell, his son explains:

Anthony Weller, a novelist who lives near Gloucester, Mass., told E&P that it was one of great disappointments of his father’s life that these stories, “a real coup,” were killed by MacArthur who, George Weller felt, “wanted all the credit for winning the war, not some scientists back in New Mexico.”

His son found his father’s work decades later. You can read it thanks to the Mainichi Daily News, which has posted the four Sept. 8 and Sept. 9 dispatches.

The dispatches demonstrate Weller’s brilliance. The sentences are terse without being overwritten or imbued with false bravado or disingenuous sentimentality. Like the very best reporters, he gathered facts. He let the facts tell the story. For more about Weller’s background, read Mitchell’s E&P story or this Chicago Sun-Times obit. Among the facts of his life:

Mr. Weller escaped from the Gestapo in 1940; fled Singapore after its fall; sneaked into Nagasaki, Japan, ahead of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s forces; was held captive by the communist Chinese as they battled Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists in Manchuria, and was held incommunicado for 30 hours in East Germany in 1957. In between, he swam the Bosporus, predicted the outbreak of Israel’s Six-Day War in 1967 six days before it happened …

The emergence of Weller’s censored work is thought-provoking.

Truth is the first casualty of war, of course. But the war had ended. Why the censorship? Mitchell’s story suggests the United States did not want to deal with questions regarding the morality of using atomic devices. Suppressing Weller’s dispatches helped achieve that. But his son, Mitchell reports, said, “Clearly, they would have supplied an eyewitness account at a moment when the American people badly needed one.”

I do not know when photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki began to emerge. But I suspect anyone who reads Weller’s dispatches will wonder: What impact would those descriptions of the devastation in Nagasaki, if published widely in the United States, have had on the anti-nuclear debate that surfaced as the potential for A-bomb use in the Korean War emerged? And, if widely published outside the United States, how would other nations have considered the American use of nuclear weapons? As Mitchell told The New York Times, “For decades, the full picture of what the bomb did was kept from the people.”

Do the people get “the full picture” today? Weller, whom the Times described as “sometimes swashbuckling,” probably wouldn’t think so. But the reason would not be outright government censorship such as MacArthur’s but more likely the impacts of economics in the journalism business.

Journalists do not lack the courage Weller displayed in his career. I’d hate to be in Iraq right now with a notebook in one hand and a pen in the other. It just isn’t safe.

Because of press complaints regarding access during Gulf War I, the Pentagon crafted an embedding system that placed reporters with troops — partly to solve the access issue and partly to protect the journalists and, methinks, to manage information more subtlely than it did in GWI. (See Jack Shafer’s embed criticisms in Slate and embedded WSJer Nicholas Kulish’s critique.)

The danger and the system limit the ability, but not the willingness and fortitude, of journalists today to be Wellerian in their approach to war coverage. A measure of their success, for both b-cast and print reporters, would be the extent to which they are able to place in their dispatches details of civilian casualties and damage to non-military facilities. Just watch CNN and read your local paper to obtain your own answer.

In World War II, according to insidepolitics.org, more than 2,600 American journalists were sent overseas to cover the war. These days, 2,200 reporters (foreign and U.S.) show up to cover the Michael Jackson trial. That leaves how many reporters to chance renting a metaphorical rowboat in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places where Americans are covertly and overtly involved in war making?

I don’t know how many. But I do know that since the 1980s (the decade after Al Neuharth discovered newspapers could be converted into mega-cash cows), both print and broadcast organizations suffered substantial budget cuts, leading to the layoffs of talented, committed journalists. The Big Nets closed overseas bureaus. As American readers became less interested in international news (or did the press fail to give them such news that would interest readers and viewers?), news bureaus were closed all over the world.

Economics has foreclosed the ability of journalists to fully realize their potential overseas. As advertising revenues shrink and circulation declines and news organizations seek ways to maximize audiences, international and war coverage (both immensely costly and risky to reporters’ lives) are likely to be further curtailed.

The Wall Street Journal reported June 21 that newspaper executives believe that print news is far from dead and is, in fact, thriving in face of competitive pressures from the Internet. (Other critics would beg to differ.)

In the WSJ story, Times chief financial officer Len Forman says:

“Will [newspapers] see growth at 8 to 10% a year? No, it won’t. But you don’t need 8 to 10% growth to [get] margins in this business if you manage expenses appropriately.” (my italics)

That may mean smaller travel budgets for overseas correspondents. (In the b-cast world, it’s not just supporting a reporter. There’s the producer, the shooter, and and so on.) It may mean, as I’ve posted frequently, yet more layoffs of reporters (and others who work at newspapers).

For the megacorporations that own journalism, economics and politics trump Weller.

The eternal quest to keep corporate shareholders happy, the erosion of reportorial ranks and supporting resources, the desire to keep government regulators off their backs and the appeasement of Republican orthodoxy would be far more effective in keeping a modern-day Weller’s words from being read by those who have a right and need to know about the consequences as yet uncovered of American war making.

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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

June 22, 2005 at 3:57 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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