Reporting and punditry that escaped infamy

Photo by U.S. Navy

Nobody knew anything at first. The attack happened far out in the Pacific, on a small remote island. And the long shadow of time has erased much collective memory about the first few hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, 75 years ago today on December 7, 1941.

For the American media, that’s a good thing.

With very limited access to verifiable information, newspaper and radio reporters acted irresponsibly.  Wild speculation flooded the public sphere when radio transmissions from Hawaii were severely constricted and Washington authorities deemed the full scope and extent of the attack a state secret. The opportunity for accurate, verified and responsible journalism evaporated.

A look back at the reporting on Pearl Harbor shows how little has changed in the way media covers–or doesn’t cover–major events, from a tendency for errors in the early days of a crisis to its use of analysts and outside experts to fill the void created by the lack of actual reporting. This void of information catalyzes speculation and conjecture, and it’s here that journalism starts to crumble. Close examination of any epochal breaking news story – Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, 9/11 – reveals the same pattern. 

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But American broadcasting was just two decades old when the Pearl Harbor attack happened, making it the first instance of a shocking national news report to be transmitted directly, in real time, to a mass audience. America’s radio networks faced an anxious public dialing in throughout that Sunday. With little news to report as the hours passed, they turned to pundits, who largely did a terrible job.  

Across CBS, NBC, and Mutual, the “experts” offered odd theories for how, and why, the attack happened.  Perhaps the nuttiest was the assertion–by several commentators–that the Japanese were incapable of such a ferocious assault. Numerous radio newscasters asserted that only one nation on earth could have pulled off such a brilliant blitzkrieg: Nazi Germany.

“It is possible, my friends, that this is a coup engineered by German influence and with the aid of German vessels in the Pacific,” said NBC News commentator Upton Close–a specialist on the Far East–just 10 minutes after the last wave of bombing ended on Oahu. “And again it is possible that this is a coup engineered by a small portion of the Japanese navy that has gone fanatic,” he continued. A third idea he proffered was that the attack was staged by the anti-war faction in the Japanese government to discredit the pro-war faction by presumably provoking the United States into destroying the Japanese military. “All these things are possible,” he concluded. But none of them, of course, were true.

A few hours later, CBS aired the commentary of Major George Fielding Elliot, a syndicated columnist and military expert, who assured listeners that the Pearl Harbor attack spelled doom for the Japanese Empire.  “Japan is cornered, surrounded by forces which she cannot hope to overcome and to which in the end she must succumb,” he informed the listening public. 

As the day wore on, real reporting receded, giving way to more speculation. Right-wing commentator Fulton Lewis Jr. told an audience five hours after the attack that he shared the doubts of many American authorities that the Japanese were truly responsible. He “reported” that US military officials weren’t convinced Japanese pilots had the skills to carry out such an impressive raid. The War Department, he said, is “concerned to find out who the pilots of these planes are–whether they are Japanese pilots. There is some doubt as to that, some skepticism whether they may be pilots of some other nationality, perhaps Germans, perhaps Italians,” he explained. The rumor that Germans bombed Pearl Harbor lingered on the airwaves, with NBC reporting, on December 8, that eyewitnesses claimed to have seen Nazi swastikas painted on some of the bombers.

Twenty years later, scholar Ernest D. Rose carefully evaluated the first radio reports about Pearl Harbor.  His assessment was brutal. “One can not escape the conclusion that in the overall pattern of radio news communication that day something was drastically wrong,” he concluded. “The bulk of radio news time was consumed by commentators and analysts trying to explain the meaning of situations without access to reliable first-hand information,” he explained.  All the inaccurate speculation failed to reassure or properly inform the public during a time of national distress. The commentary, Rose said, seemed more intended to prop up the credibility of the pundits than offer reliable information or helpful context.

The inaccurate news analysis would have a lasting impact. The rumor that the Germans collaborated on–or even masterminded–the attack on Pearl Harbor carried into early 1942. It was bolstered by conspiratorial talk in the aftermath of Hitler’s unprovoked declaration of war on the United States on December 11, 1941. The following year, best-selling books by reporters who knew Nazi Germany well (such as Harry Flannery’s Assignment to Berlin, and Pierre Huss’s The Foe We Face) emphasized the complicity of Fritz Wiedemann, Hitler’s friend and the German Consul General in San Francisco, until his expulsion in 1941, in the attack. Wiedemann, a shadowy figure, had been Corporal Hitler’s superior in World War I, and they remained lifelong trusted confidants. When he left San Francisco, Wiedemann traveled to Japan and then China in the weeks before Pearl Harbor, stoking suspicion. Even after the war ended, when the Joint Congressional Committee investigating the attack on Pearl Harbor held its hearings, suspicion about Wiedemann’s role reemerged.

The American media did not distinguish itself in the immediate aftermath of December 7, 1941. But time has let it off the hook. All the commentators mentioned above went on to increased visibility and impressive careers during the war. Americans then–and now–tend to be very forgiving of terrible punditry, inaccurate reporting, and ridiculous commentary. 

Perhaps we shouldn’t be.

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Michael J. Socolow is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of Maine. He is the author of Six Minutes in Berlin: Broadcast Spectacle and Rowing Gold at the Nazi Olympics.