Journalism, World War I

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World War I had a great impact on journalism. The attempt of the Woodrow Wilson administration to censor not only newspaper accounts of the war but books, magazines, and other attempts to present the truth caused a strong reaction by the press in the effort to gain journalistic freedom. Moreover, the public relations manipulation of the Wilson administration, what we would today call "spin doctoring," led to a significant increase in objectivity of press accounts during and after the war.

Walter Lippmann, a highly respected journalist and commentator, warned at the time that manipulation of the press through government's "public relations" was highly dangerous, and could send nations spinning into war. That legacy of distrust has continued to the present day, with perhaps a pause for World War II when there was less public display of pessimism regarding the war's aims.

The military began its own newspaper during World War I, the Stars and Stripes. Although it tried to censor articles that it deemed inappropriate, it often failed and stories of the ingenuity of its reporters are legendary. Additionally, it was a source of change in overall American life. The increase in American advertising connected with the war, for example, was a clear example of tying patriotism to American commercial enterprise. The new cigarette Lucky Strike, launched in 1917, got a great boost from the war through its connection with the American doughboy. The Bull Durham Company's slogan tied rolling your own to "The 'Makings' of a Nation." Thirty-six million sacks, two million pounds, of Bull Durham were sent to American troops in Europe monthly, and ads stated that every single one was "chock-full of real American sentiment and love for you." For those people who weren't smokers, there was chewing gum, heavily advertised in Stars and Stripes.

The press influenced the way many people viewed the average doughboy. It presented a picture of the wholesome soldier, plugging along with optimism in the face of trying circumstances. Soldiers were depicted as human, people readers could recognize, a tradition that has carried on to the present day.

After the war the press remained suspicious of government attempts to manipulate reporting. Journalists developed a strong creed, holding that with very few exceptions the government should trust the professionalism of the press over claims of "national security." There was a strong sense that too often public officials simply wished to hide their errors, rather than protect public interests, when they claimed national security as a means for their imposition of censorship.

Therefore, the press since World War I has embraced a doctrine of objectivity to protect itself, and the public, from government wartime propaganda. Walter Lippmann advocated the application of the scientific method to the press and its sources. It would, he hoped, serve as a check on subjective interpretation of facts. This was also a means of protest against the famous "Red Scare" in which the government went on a witch hunt to jail anyone who appeared to be against the war or who expressed radical ideas during its aftermath.

World War I witnessed major attacks on the press and its members who dared oppose the official Wilson Propaganda line. This led to the embrace of objectivity at a time when it was difficult to be objective. During the war The Stars and Stripes showed an interesting mix of independence and literary elegance while walking a fine line to keep from being censored beyond credibility. Skepticism of government sources has affected press relations ever since, and has placed journalists in an adversarial role with respect to official representatives of the government.


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Frank A. Salamone

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Journalism, World War I

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