Monday, June 07, 2010

Sweetheart, get me ... no, don't

Today in 1942, the World's Greatest Newspaper (that'll be Col. McCormick's Chicago Tribune) produced a 1A story that nearly brought the wrath of the Espionage Act down on its pointy little head.

Tucked among the stories proclaiming the week's huge news -- the momentous battle at Midway -- was this sidebar, and the problem with the hed is that (ahem) it's true. Thanks to the cryptographic breakthrough that enabled the US victory at Midway, the Navy had indeed known that a preliminary attack at Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians was a feint. Thus, the Navy (and the White House, inhabited by the target of the Tribune's fervent Roosevelt-bashing) really, really wanted to know how this story had come about and why the Tribune* had, you know, decided it was a good idea to run a 1A story whose implicit point is YOUR SEKRET NAVY CODEZ WE CAN READZ DEM!

The Trib almost certainly didn't mean to say that and might well not have known it. What seems to have happened was the sort of collision of news routines, deadlines and egos that ends up making stuff look a little -- or a lot -- sexier than it should.** The managing editor decided to sex up some muddy writing from a star reporter who was just back from the Pacific with a stunning tale of the battle of the Coral Sea, and in the course, a few fictions (a Washington dateline*** and an attribution to "reliable sources in the naval intelligence") got in. The reporter was apparently impressed that his material had been cleared through censorship so fast; in reality, the ME had decided on his own hook that the story didn't need to be submitted.

Amid the din, a grand jury in Chicago eventually refused to bring an indictment (not all of the administration was as eager to prosecute as FDR) -- likely because the Navy balked at providing evidence of any damage the story might have done. Truth be told, we don't know today whether the Japanese either knew of the story or managed to put two and two together about it. Bits and pieces turn up to this day: the Japanese embassy in Lisbon putting out a request for as many copies of the Trib as possible, for example. But as is often the case in media-security issues, the gap between what's known and what's feared may never be closed.

The Trib case is still resonant partly because the polarity looks so weird in today's environment. We're used to demands for the arrest of the left-librul media for its carelessness with security issues, but the Trib was a megaphone of the isolationist right. And the perps aren't the sort of coddled, America-hating weenies you'd expect if the story broke at Fox. Pat Maloney, the managing editor,**** had flown with Eddie Rickenbacker in World War I. Stanley Johnston, the reporter, was an Australian veteran of Gallipoli who was naturalized as a US citizen the week of Pearl Harbor.

The investigation went on for several months, producing along the way some of the fireworks that a good press war -- FDR's Navy secretary ran the biggest evening paper in town -- is likely to yield. We'll look at some examples later. Meanwhile, enjoy this classic example of press performance in wartime.

* It also appeared in the Patterson cousins' papers in New York and Washington and in unrelated properties as distant as Kansas City and San Francisco, but the Trib is the one that went down in history.
** The best account from the newsroom perspective that I know of is in Richard Norton Smith's "The Colonel," on which I draw here.
*** On the copy I have, the dateline reads June 7, which doesn't square with the "last night" in the lede. I don't know of any explanation for the discrepancy.
**** Most famous for a later hed: "Dewey Defeats Truman." He's sort of the Bill Buckner of Chicago journalism.



Blogger John Cowan said...

Except that was game 6! The Sox could still have won game 7 and broken the Curse, they just didn't.

1:29 AM, June 08, 2010  

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