Sunday, September 02, 2012

Breaking the News by Breaking the Rules

Imagine if you will that you are a journalist, covering the story of
the century, an event of such magnitude that the fate of the world
lies in the balance.

Now imagine that you become privy to information of such profound
importance that publishing it will alter the course of human events
and allow you to “scoop” every news outlet worldwide.

Despite efforts of censors to prevent it, you write your story, your
employer publishes it and it becomes the most legendary piece of
breaking news in history.

Your reward? You’re fired.

The above account is true. The reporter was Edward Kennedy, a war
correspondent for the Associated Press wire service. The story he
covered was World War II. And the news that he broke was the
unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany in April of 1945.

For his efforts, he was threatened with court marshal by the
military, stripped of his correspondence credentials, rebuked and
terminated by the AP and ostracized by many of his colleagues.

Now, 67 years later, Kennedy is being recognized for what he was: a
journalist of resourcefulness, impeccable judgment and considerable
intestinal fortitude.

The Associated Press recently apologized for its treatment of him and
efforts are being made to award him a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.

How did this strange turn of events come about?

Kennedy was the AP’s Paris bureau chief and was among a small group
of reporters quickly assembled by the military to witness the
surrender. After the ceremony, they were asked by General Dwight
Eisenhower not to publish the news for 36 hours so that Soviet leader
Josef Stalin could hold a ceremony in occupied Berlin.

But after a German radio station in Allied-controlled Flensburg
broadcast the news, Kennedy knew that military censors must have
allowed it. Evading wartime censorship, he phoned the AP bureau in
London and reported the surrender. The story moved on the AP wire at
9:36 a.m. EST on May 7, 1945, according to Associated Press accounts.

Historical documents say that the official announcements of the
surrender varied from German foreign minister Lutz Graf Schwerin von
Krosigk early May 7, to Winston Churchill on May 8, and Joseph Stalin
on May 9 (accounting for the Soviet Victory Day). The formal
cessation of hostilities was at 23:01 hours on May 8.

As for Kennedy, he was the target of much professional indignation.
The New York Times wrote an editorial saying he had committed “a
grave disservice to the newspaper profession...and strengthened the
censor’s hand.”

Several years later he wrote an essay for the Atlantic Monthly
entitled “I’d Do It Again.”

He went on the become managing editor of the Santa Barbara News
Press, then publisher of the Monterey Peninsula Herald. He died in an
auto accident in 1963 at the age of 58.

So did Kennedy do the right thing? He had cooperated with military
censors in the past. But this time it was clear that the censors were
politically motivated, attempting to mollify the Soviets. In the
meantime, troops were still fighting and dying. There was no good
reason for him to cooperate, especially with the news of the
surrender already being leaked.

His own organization finally agreed after six decades. In spring of
this year, AP apologized, saying “It was a terrible day for the AP.
It was handled in the worst possible way. ” AP President and Chief
Executive Tom Curley praised Kennedy as a reporter who “did
everything just right.”

“Once the war is over, you can't hold back information like that. The
world needed to know,” Curley said in an interview with his

What is Kennedy’s legacy? Do news organizations defiantly publish
every bit of information they discover? Of course not. No reporter is
his right mind, for example, would divulge in advance that a
President was going to visit soldiers at a certain base in
Afghanistan. That’s an easy call.

The case involving the Pentagon Papers was much more difficult. The
top secret study of the U.S. political/military involvement in
Vietnam was leaked to the New York Times and Washington Post. The
Times justified its publication because it "demonstrated, among other
things, that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not
only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of
transcendent national interest and significance."

Kennedy’s call was the most difficult of all. He had the whole world
looking over his shoulder as he wrote his story. To his credit, he
got it right.

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