Classic Essays

The Cheerleaders


“THE FIRST casualty when war comes,” said noninterventionist Senator Hiram Johnson in 1917, “is truth.” Phillip Knightley’s (pictured) The First Casualty is a history of journalistic war reporting from the Crimean War to Vietnam. Of particular interest are his chapters on World War I, the Italo-Abyssinian War, the Spanish Civil War and World War II. The author inveighs not only against the limitations imposed upon correspondents by military and government censors, but also the manner in which journalists have slanted, or even fabricated reports. As one example, he tells of Arthur Koestler’s bestselling Spanish Testament, in which the ex-Stalinist Hungarian (and more recently a specialist in Khazar history) described in the minutest detail “atrocities” committed by the Spanish Insurgents, thereby provoking a wave of revulsion against Franco in the Anglo-American press. Only in 1954 did Koestler, at one time sentenced to death by Franco as a spy, reveal that the book was in fact written in Paris under the direction of Comintern agent Willie Muenzenberg. Similarly, in the same conflict the routine bombing of a front-line battle installation, was turned by mythologist and war propagandist George Steer into the tragedy of Guernica. With an assist from the world’s richest artist, Guernica became a shrine that was the liberal’s answer to Lourdes.

Willie Muenzenberg

Other instances of wartime propaganda covered by Knightley include the famous jig Hitler danced for the newsreels after the French surrender, which William l. Shirer said he saw, but which, before his death, a newsreel cameraman admitted he doctored. One could add to this list the young “coed” kneeling over the minority victim of the National Guard shoot-out at Kent State. She was in fact a teenage runaway subsequently busted for prostitution. At last report she was working in a Miami “health spa.”

“There is something wrong,” writes Knightley, “with the values of a journalistic world that accepts as an important image a photograph that so clearly depends on its caption for its authentication …” (p. 210).

Charles Lynch (on right)

In his discussion of British coverage of the Boer War, Knightley refers to newspapers “creating animosity against the enemy with the timeless ploy of the atrocity story” (p. 72). But as to the most famous of all atrocity stories he is surprisingly silent, other than to claim that lithe disastrous effect of the Allied atrocity propaganda of the First World War” was to make readers reluctant to believe the reality of the World War II concentration camps. No one denies that these camps were pretty bleak, but why does Knightley not even mention the Ilse Koch affair and other such gruesome fabrications? No attempt at a critical evaluation of World War II atrocity news is even attempted and Ilya Ehrenburg, perhaps the vilest war propagandist of all time, is accepted at his word.

A quote from Charles Lynch, a Canadian correspondent with the British army, provides perhaps the fairest evaluation of all war reporting: “lt was crap … We were a propaganda arm of our governments. At the start the censors enforced that; but by the end we were our own censors. We were cheerleaders . . . . It wasn’t good journalism. It wasn’t journalism at all.” (p. 333).

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Source: Instauration magazine, May 1977

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