22 November 2007

Patton and the Press

A certain radio program aired on November 21, 1943 -- so yesterday was its anniversary -- and I think it is worth acknowledging for the way it reflects upon contemporary events.

That August, General Patton had slapped an American GI in a field hospital. Actually, there were two such incidents -- one on August 3, one on the 10th -- which popular memory has melded into one.

So far as I can tell, everyone who has studied the incidents agrees on this: neither of the slap recipients was a malingerer. Each was in fact a deserving recipient of medical attention, and Patton was acting like a jerk.

Question: how did the incident(s) become common knowledge? The reporters covering the war for the US papers were in no hurry to run stories that discredited US officers. By some accounts, several reporters knew of the slaps yet didn't think them worthy of print.

That's how matters remained for three months, until columnist Drew Pearson learned of it and ran it on his radio program. That program aired on November 21, 1943, which is why I'm writing this today.

It's a big moment in the history of combat coverage. Was Drew Pearson right to do what he did? Would he be a hero or a goat if he did the same today, if a commanding officer in Iraq did the slapping?

I know nothing about Drew Pearson, but I would assume absent evidence that there wasn't any isolationist motive to his action that November. He was likely fully convinced of the rightness of the war effort. Furthermore, the "Patton" of legend, the Patton who would be played in the classic George C. Scott movie, hadn't yet made his appearance on the battlefield. He'd create that legend in France, later in the war.

Patton's actions were a court martialable offense. Reporters, then as now, often prided themselves upon taking the ordinary rank-and-file soldier's point of view, and sharing that soldier's grievances against the brass. Surely it must have been a tempting story for some ink-stained wretches during that three-month period.

Were they wrong to agree to sit on the story? I think there is a case to be made that things worked out for the best. The in-theatre reporters (the "embedded" ones as we would say) who knew first, are the ones who have to play ball with their sources. Pearson was no party to whatever gentleman's agreement they had made. So possibly everybody was doing the right thing.

How would it play out today?

Oh, and one more thing -- happy Thanksgiving to all.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.