In 1950, President Harry Truman addressed the American Society of Newspaper Editors, seeking to enlist the assembled journalists in a “Campaign of Truth” to win the cold war. He began by noting that democracy hinged on the quality of information people received through the news media. The nation’s defense against Soviet propaganda, he told them, was “truth—plain, simple, unvarnished truth—presented by the newspapers, radio, newsreels, and other sources that the people trust.” False conceptions about the United States were held overseas, Truman warned, because of the success of communist messages.
The President alerted his audience to the possibility that the Kremlin wanted to take over the United States, but assured them that their cooperation would help prevent that outcome. He’d directed his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, to wage this campaign of truth and to enlist “our great public information channels” to this cause.
Truman explicitly asked for ideological support for the national security state, and none of the assembled newsmen blanched at this enlistment to propagandize.
The President’s request that day was part of deliberate strategy to sustain what was then believed to be a longtime struggle against the forces of communism. For a people just emerging from the military engagements of World War II, there was little will to remilitarize for a worldwide fight against communism. Sensing this, Edward Barrett, assistant secretary of state for public affairs, created a public information plan as a way of overcoming resistance to large foreign expenditures. Barrett was confident he could “whip up” public sentiment, and once he’d stirred the public’s fears, he’d follow soon with information about the government’s program to meet the threat. At times he referred to this operation as a “psychological scare campaign.” Success, for him, would be measured by how much demand for government action came from frightened citizens.
Since the events of September 11, a similar strategy and rhetoric can be heard in the words and reactions of Victoria Clarke, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, when she speaks about cooperation between the government and journalists. “We have the same end-goal,” she said on National Public Radio’s “The Connection.” Likewise, senior White House advisor Karl Rove has conducted a series of meetings with television and film industry executives.
Of course, journalists chafe at such talk because it belies their professional identity as skeptics and cynics who cannot be fooled by government propaganda. Yet very few journalists find or develop alternate patterns of sourcing in times of military crisis. When they have done end-runs around official information by, for example, covering the war from an opponent’s capital, they have been widely reviled. When Harrison Salisbury went to Hanoi in 1966, or when Peter Arnett remained in Baghdad in 1991, national security hard-liners accused them of treason.
Back in 1950, it would have been professional suicide for a journalist to question whether communism posed a genuine threat to the United States or whether massive militarization was an appropriate response. Instead, the press directed its energies toward policing the sufficiency of the government’s response which, in effect, testily egged the government on to ever-greater heights of vigilance and aggression against the enemy.
Today, most journalists do not dare question the appropriateness of a massive military response to the September 11 attacks. Instead, like their counterparts of decades past, they are feisty in defense of the war’s unrealized goals and the insufficiency of the government’s efforts to fulfill the policy—the destruction of Al Qaeda and the Taliban while minimizing civilian casualties, sustaining a coalition, and preventing more terrorism at home. Similarly, the Bush administration faces its own concerns about how to sustain public support for an expensive, long-term and largely covert war. Public support began remarkably high but can be expected to wane as Operation “Enduring Freedom” experiences failures.
Those people whose job it is to maintain public support will surely follow Barrett’s example by reminding us of the dangers lurking in our midst and then try to reassure us that the government will do everything possible and necessary to triumph over this evil. Journalists will keep after officials to make good on their promises and vanquish the threat, and we will have overwhelmingly unified coverage, as well as the illusion of a responsible press in pursuit of its watchdog role.
Nancy Bernhard is author of “U.S. Television News and Cold War Propaganda, 1947-60” (Cambridge University Press, 1999). She teaches “Reporting From the Front” in the Expository Writing Program at Harvard University.