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June 22, 2000

Korea: How the Korean war changed the way military conflicts are reported

"The war in Korea formed a bridge between the military-media relationship of World War II, during which cooperation and a sense of shared purpose reigned, and that of the Vietnam War, during which distrust and hostility developed," said James Landers, a magazine historian and former journalist.

At the start of the war, military commanders and journalists cooperated to describe the situation accurately, Landers said. But their relationship soon soured as U.S. and South Korean forces retreated before the better-armed North Koreans — and as criticisms of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and other commanders by GIs and lower-ranking officers appeared in American newspapers, newsmagazines and radio reports.

"In the space of five months, journalists in Korea went from reporting with no censorship, to reporting with voluntary censorship, to reporting with full field censorship," Landers said. "Military commanders justified the progressive restrictions on the basis of operational security, while journalists believed the military sought mainly to protect its public image."

Generals who had experienced only positive reporting during World War II were surprised, then angered, as journalists began reporting casualty rates for specific units and portraying American soldiers as being frightened, bewildered and demoralized, said Landers. "Some of the descriptions were unlike any published during World War II, when journalists avoided dealing with the emotional toll of battle and the psychological trauma that resulted.

"Also, photographs focused more on the aftermath of combat in Korea than in the previous war, when concern for troop morale and public reaction had kept editors and photographers from considering pictures of men crying or otherwise distraught," Landers said.

New, more sophisticated lenses and film processing, the knowledge that good photos boosted sales, and competition from a new medium — television — led newspapers and magazines to publish more dramatic images, he said. (Fewer than 10 percent of U.S. homes had a television set at the war's beginning in 1950. By war's end in 1953, 40 percent had a TV.) Infuriated by negative coverage, MacArthur ordered mandatory censorship to begin in December 1950. The system was largely effective, Landers said, because journalists in Korea had to dictate their copy by telephone to offices in Japan, from which the text would be radioed to the United States.

The U.S. Army Signal Corps operated the only telephone system connecting Korea to Japan, so the Army could delete any information it wanted, Landers said — although, he added, some journalists would fly to Tokyo and then deliver their text to a colleague traveling to the United States, where it would be published.

"Censorship remained in effect until the armistice in July 1953," Landers noted.

The skepticism that journalists acquired in Korea of U.S. military leaders' motives would come back to haunt the generals in Vietnam, he said. Battlefield conditions and new communication technologies virtually ruled out censorship during the Vietnam War.

Journalists in Vietnam "would overwhelmingly comply with restrictions necessitated by operational security concerns but would adamantly resist any attempts to prevent reporting of information related to troop morale, combat conditions, or other subjects not considered potentially harmful to combatants," Landers said.

In U.S. military operations since Vietnam, the military has reasserted a large measure of control over reports from the field, said Landers and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Bob Dvorak, who was a combat pool reporter for the Associated Press during Operation Desert Storm.

Unlike Vietnam War reporters, who traveled freely to interview soldiers, visit combat sites and transmit copy, journalists in the Persian Gulf were forced to depend on the military to reach otherwise inaccessible desert battlefields.

Dvorak recalled covering epic tank battles in which U.S. forces were killing Iraqis from three miles away, while sandstorms reduced visibility to 1,000 yards. In such a war, "the closest seat is not necessarily the best," Dvorak quipped.

— Bruce Steele

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