A century ago this month there were hundreds of thousands of dead on both sides of the trenches on the Western Front and America was in no mood to send its own young men off into Europe’s meat grinder.
But on February 24th, Great Britain gave the deciphered Zimmermann telegraph to President Woodrow Wilson who in turn released it to the American press. Following the publishing of the fact that the German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann had offered U.S. territory to Mexico in exchange for joining the war on its side, American public opinion moved so quickly that by April 6th, Congress formally declared war on Germany and its allied nations.
Seventy five years ago this month, America, and especially its west coast, was in a state of nothing less than mass hysteria. With Pearl Harbor not yet two months in the history books, the fear of invasion and sabotage was at fever pitch. So much so that on February 2nd, none other than the esteemed Los Angeles times published an editorial by W. H. Anderson on the topic of interring Japanese-Americans that included among other things, this journalistic gem: ”A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched — so a Japanese American, born of Japanese parents — grows up to be a Japanese, not an American,’”
And so it was that on February 19th President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 and resident enemy aliens were order relocated to military camps. What we now know as the internment of Japanese-Americans.
While there have been other shameful moments for the American press, I can think of none worse than the rush to call for the round up of American citizens without even bothering to take a shallow breath of reason.
A little over a quarter century later, America was again at war and the press was again the keeper of public opinion. And when on the evening of February 27, 1968 “the most trusted man in American” CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite removed his journalist hat and put on his editorial cap and told the American people that the Vietnam War was lost and the only way out was to begin negotiations, the line between news and editorial was forever broken.
In February 2003 the American people were once again being persuaded to war. This time the reason was to take out Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein and bring freedom to the Iraqi people. Short of the eight years of the Obama administration it is also the time that saw the American press completely fail in its core mission of skepticism and speaking truth to power.
Four different eras, four different wars, and all of it bound by the common thread of the power of the press to shape public opinion.
It is a power like no other, it is a power not to be taken lightly, and it is a power that carries with it awesome responsibility. A responsibility that history shows can have consequences far beyond the words said and printed in heat of the moment.
And it is a power that is at this very moment is being abused by far too many that call themselves journalists. Their incessant obsession with using anonymous sources that cannot be publicly verified and the continuous onslaught of exaggerated sensationalism that must later be corrected and clarified is beyond irresponsible, it is downright dangerous. The historical term is yellow journalism and it is exactly as it sounds: cowardly.
We already know that public trust in the major networks and print publications is at all time lows. What we don’t know is if the executives running those organizations and the self-described journalists inhabiting them even care anymore about a topic as quaint as public trust. Current coverage suggests they don’t.
But if by chance there are still those that do, they could learn a lot from the words of a true journalist one Edward R. Murrow: “To be persuasive we must be believable, to be believable we must be credible; credible, we must be truthful.”
Thousands of reporters, columnists and journalists at the hundreds of community newspapers and local television and radio stations across this country practice Murrow’s credo 24/7, 365. It’s not too much to ask their celebrity cousins to do the same.
Publisher’s Note: A version of this column first appeared in the February 26, 2017 print edition of the Joplin Globe.