Keeping Secrets

How censorship has (and hasn’t) changed since World War II

On December 16, 1941, nine days after the Japanese bombed pearl harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stood before the White House press corps and read from a prepared statement. He announced to the assembled reporters that they were, in a sense, getting a new boss. The executive news editor of The Associated Press, Byron Price, had been named the country’s “Director of Censorship.”

FDR seemed aware of the disquieting implications of the appointment. “When Roosevelt came to Price’s title, he mumbled,” writes Michael S. Sweeney in Secrets of Victory: The Office of Censorship and the American Press and Radio in World War II, the definitive account of a largely forgotten episode in American journalistic history. “A reporter asked him to repeat. In a loud voice, Roosevelt said, ‘Director of Censorship!’”

Price, fifty, was perhaps the least severe censor in history. Unpretentious and easygoing, he had played the part of a baby in the Gridiron Club’s annual show. He was a bad poker player and worse golfer who grew bearded irises and collected Mark Twain first editions. Yet the “Bishop,” as he was known around the censorship office, was no pushover. He stood up to government officials who sought a more draconian censorship regime—and challenged those in publishing and broadcasting who complained about the one already in place.

When, for example, the editorial vice president of Time protested a ban on the “premature disclosure of diplomatic negotiations,” Price wrote a sentence in response that revealed much about how he saw his role as the nation’s chief suppressor of information: “Instead of undertaking to break down and destroy the Code and substitute a code of your own, perhaps at the expense of bringing about a national diplomatic defeat which would be as costly as a national military defeat, why not give us a ring in any specific case which may arise.”

His statement shows that he regarded adherence to the censorship code—which forbade public discussion of topics like troop and ship movements, war production progress, and the president’s travel schedule—as vital to the struggle against the Axis powers. “Censorship’s responsibility is to help protect the life of the nation,” he wrote in 1945. Yet the communiqué to Time also indicates that he understood the system was voluntary and reliant on the good will of journalists.

History has generally looked favorably on Price’s performance. At the end of his forty-four months on the job, The New York Times praised him as someone who “did his best, usually with success, to see to it that censorship was not unreasonable.” His reasonableness won him a special Pulitzer Prize citation in 1944. And the ACLU declared that “almost no issues” were raised during his tenure.

The government was no less pleased. Price’s greatest achievement was convincing the Washington columnist and broadcaster Drew Pearson and Times reporter William L. Laurence to sit on perhaps the biggest story of the war: the development of the atomic bomb. His reputation was such that nearly twenty years later, during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Price got a call from President Kennedy, asking if he would be up for a second term as Director of Censorship if a hot war with the Soviet Union broke out.

But Price was lucky to be operating during the era that he did—which, compared to our multimedia age, might as well have been the Mesozoic. His unit monitored just two sources of news, the papers and radio, and was run on a shoestring. While the Office of Censorship had an impressive 13,500 employees, most of them were involved in monitoring postal and cable communications. The press and broadcasting divisions had just sixteen staff members each by the end of 1942. Forty informal “missionaries” throughout the nation helped monitor regional newspapers, but the broadcasting division relied mostly on tips from listeners and the perusal of scripts.

The most noticeable prohibition by far was the ban on “inadvertent references” to the weather, which censors believed could help the enemy pick opportune moments to strike the homeland. It made for some comical moments during sports broadcasts. During a football game in Chicago, the fog was so thick that fans in the stadium couldn’t see the action. Play-by-play man Bob Elson showed heroic restraint in never once mentioning the f-word. “This game is being played under the strangest circumstances that I’ve witnessed in fifteen years of being on the sport scene,” he said. Another broadcaster, Hal Totten of WCFL in Chicago, was more cavalier in describing a baseball rainout: “The umpires have called the game for reasons I cannot speak of, but whatever has caused the delay is also making the spectators go back for cover, and, yes, here come the ground keepers with whatever is used to cover the ground so whatever is causing the delay won’t affect the ground too much.”

There were also occasional loopholes in the guidelines, summed up in a pamphlet called The Code of Wartime Practices. On June 7, 1942, the Chicago Tribune published one of the most controversial stories of the war. In reporting that American forces were aware of the size of the Japanese attack force at Midway “several days before the battle began,” the piece implicitly revealed that the U.S. military had broken the Japanese operational code. The story was not presented for review to the Office of Censorship because the paper’s Washington bureau chief felt it didn’t violate the code. He was right. Censorship guidelines included no prohibition against reporting on the movement of enemy ships in enemy waters, a slip-up that was rectified in the next edition of the pamphlet.

Meanwhile, government officials were apoplectic over the Tribune story. A grand jury was convened to consider charging the newspaper with violating the Espionage Act. It failed to indict when Navy officials didn’t appear at the proceeding for fear of revealing other secrets in their testimony. In any event, the Japanese didn’t seem to notice what all of Washington was buzzing about. They didn’t alter their secret code.

The Office of Censorship had no real power to punish journalists. It could only recommend that the Justice Department investigate possible Espionage Act violations. To keep the press corps in line, Price used the power of shame and suasion. Even when confronted with a German-language broadcaster with apparent Nazi sympathies, Price was unable to remove him by fiat. Instead, he persuaded the station manager that his program was “contrary to the best interests of the nation.” The manager was only too happy to oblige. “If there is anything wrong with the guy, let me know,” he told Price’s staff. “I want to shoot the gun.”

The reporter who protested the code’s restrictions with the greatest vehemence was Pearson, who once said that he operated by sense of smell: “If something smells wrong, I go to work.” He was a kind of progressive Robert Novak with a column in The Washington Post and a national Sunday night radio program. He specialized in using anonymous quotes to skewer the nation’s elite, no matter their party affiliation, often with a shaky basis in fact. FDR called him “a chronic liar.” To Truman, he was an “S.O.B.” Although he complied with Price’s suggestion to keep the atomic bomb secret, Pearson was eager to reveal every other scoop that he discovered.

Not surprisingly, then, no single journalist occupied more of the Office of Censorship’s time. From the beginning, they were watching Pearson—with a little help, as it happens, from The New York Times. After a Times reporter named Russell B. Porter heard Pearson give precise details about American military losses to a convention of insurance agents, he wrote a memo to his editors. Porter argued that “no one should be allowed to go around the country lecturing to large groups of people at public dinners, or even at one such event, and revealing as ‘inside stuff’ information so secret and so useful to the enemy that the newspapers and radio are not allowed to publish it.” The memo made its way to Arthur Hays Sulzberger, then to Byron Price, and eventually to Attorney General Francis Biddle. The FBI investigated the incident for eight months before closing the file without further action.

This didn’t prevent Pearson from breaking an explosive story less than a year later: he reported that General George S. Patton had slapped the face of a soldier in a military hospital in Sicily who claimed to be suffering from shell shock. (Actually, Patton had similarly assaulted two soldiers on separate occasions.) Pearson was only passing along what the press corps in the field knew but had agreed to suppress at the request of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. In the ensuing controversy, Patton struggled to keep his job and saw his role in the D-Day invasion diminished. Of Pearson, Patton wrote, “I will live to see him die.” (He didn’t.) And what of Byron Price? When the item reached the Office of Censorship prior to broadcast, an official called Price at home and asked for guidance. Price said he didn’t like the story much. But since it didn’t reveal military secrets, he had no authority to spike it.

It would be natural at this point to suggest that journalists in modern America would never subject themselves to a Director of Censorship, even one as gently persuasive as Byron Price. They probably wouldn’t. Certainly they were quick to cover the recent dump of classified documents by WikiLeaks, despite fervent protests from the military. Still, these same reporters who cover the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan regularly withhold information that “might be of aid to the enemy,” as FDR described the heart of the matter in his press conference announcing Price’s appointment.

John Burns of the Times, one of the great war correspondents of our era, admitted that he is selective in how he reports on General Patton’s modern successors. “You build up a kind of trust,” he told radio host Hugh Hewitt in July 2010, after a Rolling Stone exposé had ended the career of General Stanley McChrystal. “It’s not explicit, it’s just there. And my feeling is that it’s the responsibility of the reporter to judge in those circumstances what is fairly reportable, and what is not—and to go beyond that, what it is necessary to report.”

Decades after Price wielded them with such finesse, shame and suasion also retain their power. In 2003, when Geraldo Rivera described an upcoming mission of the 101st Airborne Division by drawing a map in the sand for his fox News audience, military officials were incensed. The correspondent was widely ridiculed, but it was fox that voluntarily pulled him from the war zone.

Even when The New York Times reported, on December 16, 2005, that President Bush had authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans without court-approved warrants, the newspaper went to great lengths to accommodate the concerns of the administration. The celebrated scoop was withheld for more than a year. In a meeting at the White House, President Bush personally pleaded with Times officials to spike it. But in the end the story was published under the headline BUSH LETS U.S. SPY ON CALLERS WITHOUT COURTS. The words had a revelatory ring, not so different from the 1942 headline the Chicago Tribune printed above its Midway story: NAVY HAD WORD OF JAP PLAN TO STRIKE AT SEA.

No censor could stop either of them.

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Peter Duffy is a contributor to CJR.