“Over and Forgotten”: Why journalists must continue investigating the Trump era

IN MARCH 1945, New Yorker co-founder and editor Harold Ross sent a letter to Janet Flanner, a war correspondent who had just filed a piece from Cologne about atrocities inflicted by Germans on their POWs. Ross was proud of Flanner’s reporting, and he feared that many other equally important events were not being covered—and might even be in danger of being lost forever in the chaos.

“The war is going to be over and forgotten before any number of real atrocity stories are printed, I’m afraid,” he told her. “Unless the New Yorker gets around to doing something.”

He was right to worry. News outlets were quick to move on. When the war in Europe ended in May, many Allied correspondents were re-routed to the Pacific theater right away. After the Japanese surrender three months later, some of those reporters instantly pivoted to occupation coverage in that country. Others began covering new post-war events, including war crimes trials, returning American troops, and the fledgling cold war between the United States and Soviet Russia.

In the war’s immediate aftermath, US leaders also encouraged Americans to look forward instead of back. Many gladly complied. Exhausted after surviving the deadliest conflict in human history, and numb from overexposure to atrocity news and clinical mass casualty statistics, Americans in 1945 seemed to have had little interest in absorbing new journalistic excavations of terrible wartime events.

Even the biggest stories of the war receded into the background, quickly becoming the provenance of historians, not reporters. Two of those stories—the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—had been arguably the most significant news events not only of the war, but human history: these bombings had revealed that mankind had finally come up with an invention that could instantly end civilization.  (They were “stealing God’s stuff,” as New Yorker writer E. B. White put it.)

A couple of initial press reports out of Hiroshima were followed by near-radio silence on the subject of the bombings and their aftermath.  As a result, the official government narrative that the bombs had essentially been conventional megaweapons was allowed to stand, and the public remained unaware of the new, global existential threat posited by nuclear warfare.

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It would be easy to blame the shocking lack of reportorial investigation on the War Department’s almost impenetrable secrecy and on General Douglas MacArthur’s control over Japan-based correspondents, but Allied reporters and editors were also at fault. Within mere weeks of the bombings, many simply lost their appetite for covering such remnant war stories. Hiroshima was “old stuff,” as one editor put it; there seemed to be a collective newsroom decision that readers and audiences simply didn’t want to hear about it anymore. When occupation forces eventually made access to the atomic cities a little easier, the Tokyo-based Western press corps had long since shifted attention to new stories, such as Japan’s makeover from bastion of the “yellow peril” to an American foothold against the Soviets, and General MacArthur’s new role as the American Caesar ruling over the conquered country.

Back at the New Yorker, however, Harold Ross and his deputy editor William Shawn remained determined to commission reporting on stories that other major news outlets had left behind. Their mission implicitly questioned whether Americans even had the right to move on without the proper reckoning on certain wartime events. In late 1945, Shawn, along with war correspondent John Hersey, decided to tackle the “old stuff” story of the Hiroshima bombing.  The idea was simple: Hersey would attempt to get into the city and investigate what the atomic bombs had really done to human beings. “No one has even touched it,” Shawn told Hersey.

Hersey managed to access Hiroshima in late spring, 1946, and interviewed dozens of survivors.  His subsequent New Yorker report—released on August 31, 1946 and comprising nearly the entire contents of that issue—was told from the point of view of six survivors, and revealed the truth about the bombs: they had been apocalyptic and uniquely deadly. The story also showed in excrutiating detail that radiation poisoning was not, in fact, “a very pleasant way to die,” as Manhattan Project leader General Leslie Groves asserted to Congress in 1945.

Hersey’s “Hiroshima” revealed how much the US government had covered up about its experimental weapons. Just as importantly, it also showed how deficient the breaking news coverage of the bombings had been, despite the initial frenzy and blockbuster headlines—and that the mainstream media had failed to signal to the world the true and terrifying implications of the new atomic age.

 

IN SOME RESPECTS, 2021 has a similar feel to postwar 1945. Many of us today are exhausted, and we find ourselves amidst the aftermath of a different sort of war. Over the past five years, we were firehosed with alarming news as the country swung wildly from one crisis to the next. We are only just escaping the jaws of a global pandemic that killed more Americans in a single year than the Axis powers killed in four.

As in 1945, many in this country are desperate to move on to the next chapter, and tempted to “escape into easy comforts,” as Albert Einstein once put it, to the peril of all. Revisiting events of the Trump era—and of 2020 and early 2021 in particular—may, for many, feel like a traumatic prospect. As NPR’s Terry Gross said in a recent Fresh Air interview with the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, “Some people think we should just move on, [and say], ‘Let’s focus on the present and the future.’”

The media appears to be moving on once again, too, and we are in danger of leaving major stories of the Trump era under-investigated and perhaps even forgotten. One White House correspondent friend of mine likened the last four years to being in a series of car crashes, after which everyone walked away each time as though nothing had happened.

A host of major stories desperately need additional reporting. Significant investigations into the January 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection—arguably one of the most traumatic watershed moments in American history—will be more crucial than ever, given the GOP’s blockage in the Senate of legislation to create an independent commission investigating the attack. We also need to learn about what happened to intellectual property stolen during the attack, and the roles that Trump White House principals and various members of Congress may have played in preparations for the assault. Also falling by the wayside: investigations into the Trump administration’s relationships with various dictators—including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan—and how those relationships may still compromise our national security. In addition, we need further reporting on the fallout from the Trump administration’s denial and downplaying of the threat of COVID-19 from late 2019 onward.

Hersey and his team also would have been wildly concerned that we are now, in 2021, living in what experts deem the most perilous nuclear landscape in history: in 2020, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set its Doomsday Clock to 100-seconds-to-midnight, where it remains this year.  The clock has never been set so close to nuclear apocalypse before—not even in 1953, when the first thermonuclear weapons were tested, or during the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962. Yet the announcement went comparatively unnoticed by the press, and urgent nuclear issues remain dismayingly absent from front pages and broadcasts.

Media organizations during the Trump era operated in relentless breaking news mode, and the inclination to take a breather, as the country adjusts to the relative placidity of the new Biden administration, is understandable. But moving on too quickly may come at an awful price.  Hersey’s reporting in 1946 has been credited with helping to prevent subsequent wartime use of atomic weapons, because it showed the world the true horrors of nuclear conflict, making it more difficult for leaders of nuclear countries to deploy them readily.

To be fair, today’s journalists face deep-reporting obstacles that reporters and editors of Hersey’s generation did not. Until the past few weeks, the COVID pandemic grounded many journalists, although vaccines will now allow more of them to return to shoe-leather reporting at last. American newsrooms have lost half of their employees since 2008, and have fewer resources than ever to launch in-depth investigative reporting efforts. We are also contending with an adrenaline-soaked, social media-driven information landscape that worships speed and novelty over deliberation, and rewards hot-takes over in-depth investigation. This has intensified this breaking news mentality to the point of absurdity. Subjects premiere and age out within hours on Twitter, and become almost instantly—and prematurely—classified as old news.

Yet there is also a perpetual newsroom challenge at play: next-scoop mentality, just as it pervaded the occupation press corps in Japan in 1945 and 1946. As journalists change up their new administration beats this spring, many will be looking to break exclusives in their new spheres, as their successors—lacking their predecessors’ expertise and immediate proximity to Trump era events—will try to do the same. While newsrooms will always be rightfully devoted to breaking news, and journalists will always covet fresh exclusives, this impulse must not come at the expense of powerful, follow-up investigations into events that could not be fully reported at the moment of breaking. The New Yorker’s “Hiroshima” team felt that it was crucial to go back and tell such stories not only because there was, as Harold Ross put it, the after-the-fact opportunity to “scoop the world, even if a flock of other journalists [had] the same facts and the same opportunities.” They did it also because there was a moral imperative to do so.

In many ways, Hersey’s “Hiroshima” was a unique feat, but it stands as an instructive example during this moment, and not just as a critical reminder of the importance of going back right away, while memories are fresh, and evidence and records intact. Hersey’s work provides an example of disturbing and painful material rendered in the most human, intimate, and relatable terms possible—an essential approach to commanding the attention of even the most resistant and beleaguered of audiences.  In this way, even “old stuff” stories have a new shot at changing the course of global history for the better.

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Lesley M. M. Blume is a New York Times bestselling author, historian, and journalist. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Vanity Fair, The Wall Street Journal, and National Geographic, among many other publications. Her most recent book, Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World, documented the crucial role investigative journalism can play in combating global existential threats.