Reporting the Second World War
Barnsley (South Yorkshire): Pen & Sword, 2015
Hardcover. viii+223 p. ISBN 978-1473834200. £19.99
Reviewed by Michael S. Sweeney
Reporting the Second World War extends historian Brian Best’s work on World War I, Reporting from the Front : War Reporters during the Great War, and smoothly transitions between the two through a brief prologue. Not surprisingly, the book has the same strengths and weaknesses as its predecessor.
Once again, Best synthesizes a compelling summary about war correspondents and photographers from secondary sources and sprinkles in colorful and insightful quotations from contemporary mass media. As such, Reporting the Second World War provides a strong overview of the challenges, triumphs and costs of wartime journalism. These become particularly apparent about the fourth or fifth time Best slides from an anecdote about one reporter to a story about another with a variation of the preface, “So and so wasn’t so lucky.” War correspondents died with regularity in World War II, whether in combat, like Ernie Pyle, or accidents, like Webb Miller. (About 80 from the English-speaking world suffered war-related deaths, two-thirds of them Americans.)
Best has admirably culled many of the strongest passages from dispatches and memoirs, including Edward R. Murrow’s broadcast accounts of the bombing of London and Robert Capa’s bravery in taking photographs of the D-day landings. Compared with other books of wartime journalism history, Best uses quotes liberally to re-create the texture of news as Western audiences received it.
The weaknesses – for an academic audience, at least – include a lack of footnotes to sources or enough in-text information to allow other scholars to easily find the original material. Likewise the book contains an index only of names and not of subjects. If searching for an account of a particular battle, the reader/researcher likely would either skim the pages or have to already know the name of one of the journalists associated with it.
A book of a mere 210 pages of text cannot be all things to all people, but a serious reader might wish for more. The book includes a section on propaganda focused almost entirely on British efforts. Lacking are a similar accounting of the Americans’ work to shape publicity about war news and also put war messages in radio programs, films, popular songs, and music.
Also missing are details about censorship in combat zones and on the home front, as well as the self-censorship that pervaded eyewitness accounts of combat and gave audiences a PG-rated version of the war. As combat correspondent John Steinbeck noted in his memoir Once There Was a War , “Some subjects were taboo. Certain people could not be criticized or even questioned. The foolish reporter who broke these rules would . . . be put out of the theater by the command.”
Still, the range of material covered is impressive enough that even scholars of World War II journalism will find surprises scattered among the pages. One such discovery is that Eddy Ward of the BBC took a microphone and recording equipment to the front lines of the Finnish-Soviet war, making him the first broadcast journalist to do so on the scene of live combat. Another is the intense training regimen of correspondents selected to go ashore at Normandy, including instruction in gunnery, signals, reconnaissance, aircraft and tank recognition, map-reading, parachute jumps, assault techniques, and field survival. “There was probably never a fitter corps of pressmen,” Best writes .
Given the broad arc of the war and the subject matter, Best deserves credit for creating an engaging but far from comprehensive narrative introduction to war correspondents in the field. The book would be a good primer for a scholar approaching this subject for the first time, but as noted, has limited practical value for the more serious historian looking to use the original sources for an in-depth follow-up.
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