From the Fall 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 8.
American newspapers in Revolutionary War time didn’t have war correspondents, but they did cover battles using official reports and eyewitnesses. Often they cooperated with the military by publishing orders, rewards for deserters and any desirable information the military approved.
Gen. George Washington often offered inflated casualty figures for British forces. But he was also rankled by some new reports that he thought assisted the English.
“It is much to be wished that our printers were more discreet in many of their publications,” Washington wrote. “We see in almost every paper proclamations or accounts transmitted by the enemy of an injurious nature.”
Generally, the military saw no need to censor newspapers because dispatches often appeared in newspapers too late to benefit the enemy.
War of 1812
As in the Revolutionary War, most military officers saw no need to curtail war reports.
But after the Battle of New Orleans, Gen. Andrew Jackson imprisoned an editor who ignored Jackson’s orders to clear all news articles with him. After a judge freed the editor, Jackson tried to court martial the judge, but the war ended before Jackson could pursue the matter further.
Orleans Gazette editor James Bradford might be America’s first war correspondent. He enlisted in Jackson’s army in New Orleans and sent dispatches back to his newspaper.
Newspapers began competing widely for war reports, using newsgathering tools such as the telegraph and the Pony Express. Reports, however, were still more than a week old. Some soldiers began printing “camp newspapers” to circulate news of the war among U.S. troops.
With “real-time” reporting almost a reality, both the North and South tried to stifle newspaper reports of the war.
When some newspapers began printing battle orders and other sensitive information, President Lincoln ordered the government to take control of all telegraph lines leading to Washington.
The War Department also issued the 57th Article of War, which threatened journalists with court-martial if they revealed sensitive information. Reporters mostly ignored the edict, and the government rarely enforced it.
Newspapers created the Associated Press to pool their resources for battle coverage. Many journalists joined soldiers on the battlefield, becoming a likely target for the enemy as someone in uniform.
Military commanders on both sides, particularly Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, tried to limit coverage. Sherman blamed the press for leaking battle plans and causing the North’s defeat at the first Battle of Bull Run.
Because news dissemination had improved so quickly since the Civil War, the government banned reports from the battlefield and shut down cable offices in an attempt to control information.
It didn’t work. Leaks abounded during the war, which coincided with the sensationalistic journalism of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.
World War I
During this war, Congress passed both the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act of 1918, measures that prohibited criticism of the war, publication of information helpful to the enemy or the interference with military operations.
President Wilson’s Committee on Public Information asked newspapers to not print “advance reports about troop strengths, troop and ship movements, anti-aircraft defenses and harbor defenses.”
To report on the war, correspondents had to be accredited, take an oath to write the truth and submit all work to a military press officer. Only five reporters lost their credentials for failing to comply.
World War II
Although censorship ran rampant, journalists found incredible access during World War II, often wearing uniforms and traveling with troops. President Roosevelt’s Office of War Information and Office of Censorship gave explicit instructions on what journalists could not include in their reports. These restrictions forbade details on location and movements of troops, ships and planes; weather forecasts; casualties; and even locations of museums.
Originally deemed a “police action,” the government didn’t immediately censor the press, nor did it have to. Most journalists voluntarily censored themselves. But as security leaks surfaced, the Defense Department imposed some standards similar to those from World War II. Stories could not be released if deemed to deteriorate morale or cause embarrassment to the United States.
The government imposed no censorship on reporters, allowing them to cover whatever they wished. The military provided transportation in some cases and allowed news reports, photographs and film to go out without any security review.