The Duty of Correspondents

November 25th, 2008

I recently came across an editorial policy statement by a major New York City newspaper. It was startling in its emphasis on the duty of war correspondents not to report information that could compromise the operations of troops in the field. It was so at variance with the attitudes of correspondents and editors we see in the press every day that I thought you might like to read parts of it:

The result of newspaper correspondents [reporting] information respecting the future movements of our forces, and whatever they hear from the lips of rumor, is bad, not only for the Commander-in-Chief and his lieutenants, but the press generally, for the publication of these plans is not only annoying, but necessitates a change in them, which, of course, falsifies the statements originally put forward, and so brings the newspapers into discredit. Hence arises the multitude of false rumors of which we hear, the numerous changes in the movements of our troops, and the growing prejudice against correspondents of the press at military headquarters. It is obviously necessary that the plans of our generals should remain secret to the enemy till such time as they are put into execution, and if these plans are published by the…press in anticipation, such secrecy is impossible. Therefore we wish to discourage as much as possible our correspondents from communicating anything that they may hear respecting the future movements of the army. … Let our correspondents, when they receive such information, however valuable they may think it, resist the temptation to [report] it…. By so doing they will be acting like good patriots. All that we want is a prompt, full and accurate report of whatever movement or actions actually has taken place. We want the actual news of today, and not what is probable to occur tomorrow. The utmost despatch in communicating unalterable facts will be far more appreciated than any quantity of rumors concerning them in advance.

This editorial policy was issued by The New York Herald on June 22, 1861. Imagine. The editors didn’t want information reported that might damage the army in the field. They didn’t want correspondents looked upon with disfavor in military headquarters, and they didn’t want to cause false rumors. And most startling of all, they wanted their correspondents to act “like good patriots.”

I don’t delude myself that in 1861 all newspapers were as responsible and as concerned for the welfare of their country as The Herald was. But I think they all would be appalled if they could see the scramble by the media today to steal and publish classified information whenever possible. I think they all would be sickened by the refusal of so many in the American media today to recognize loyalty to country as an obligation or patriotism as a valid concept.

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