Not surprisingly, then, no single journalist occupied more of the Office of Censorship’s time. From the beginning, they were watching Pearson—with a little help, as it happens, from The New York Times. After a Times reporter named Russell B. Porter heard Pearson give precise details about American military losses to a convention of insurance agents, he wrote a memo to his editors. Porter argued that “no one should be allowed to go around the country lecturing to large groups of people at public dinners, or even at one such event, and revealing as ‘inside stuff’ information so secret and so useful to the enemy that the newspapers and radio are not allowed to publish it.” The memo made its way to Arthur Hays Sulzberger, then to Byron Price, and eventually to Attorney General Francis Biddle. The FBI investigated the incident for eight months before closing the file without further action.

This didn’t prevent Pearson from breaking an explosive story less than a year later: he reported that General George S. Patton had slapped the face of a soldier in a military hospital in Sicily who claimed to be suffering from shell shock. (Actually, Patton had similarly assaulted two soldiers on separate occasions.) Pearson was only passing along what the press corps in the field knew but had agreed to suppress at the request of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. In the ensuing controversy, Patton struggled to keep his job and saw his role in the D-Day invasion diminished. Of Pearson, Patton wrote, “I will live to see him die.” (He didn’t.) And what of Byron Price? When the item reached the Office of Censorship prior to broadcast, an official called Price at home and asked for guidance. Price said he didn’t like the story much. But since it didn’t reveal military secrets, he had no authority to spike it.

It would be natural at this point to suggest that journalists in modern America would never subject themselves to a Director of Censorship, even one as gently persuasive as Byron Price. They probably wouldn’t. Certainly they were quick to cover the recent dump of classified documents by WikiLeaks, despite fervent protests from the military. Still, these same reporters who cover the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan regularly withhold information that “might be of aid to the enemy,” as FDR described the heart of the matter in his press conference announcing Price’s appointment.

John Burns of the Times, one of the great war correspondents of our era, admitted that he is selective in how he reports on General Patton’s modern successors. “You build up a kind of trust,” he told radio host Hugh Hewitt in July 2010, after a Rolling Stone exposé had ended the career of General Stanley McChrystal. “It’s not explicit, it’s just there. And my feeling is that it’s the responsibility of the reporter to judge in those circumstances what is fairly reportable, and what is not—and to go beyond that, what it is necessary to report.”

Decades after Price wielded them with such finesse, shame and suasion also retain their power. In 2003, when Geraldo Rivera described an upcoming mission of the 101st Airborne Division by drawing a map in the sand for his fox News audience, military officials were incensed. The correspondent was widely ridiculed, but it was fox that voluntarily pulled him from the war zone.

Even when The New York Times reported, on December 16, 2005, that President Bush had authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans without court-approved warrants, the newspaper went to great lengths to accommodate the concerns of the administration. The celebrated scoop was withheld for more than a year. In a meeting at the White House, President Bush personally pleaded with Times officials to spike it. But in the end the story was published under the headline BUSH LETS U.S. SPY ON CALLERS WITHOUT COURTS. The words had a revelatory ring, not so different from the 1942 headline the Chicago Tribune printed above its Midway story: NAVY HAD WORD OF JAP PLAN TO STRIKE AT SEA.

No censor could stop either of them.


Peter Duffy is a contributor to CJR.