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The Reporter Who Would Be King: A Biography of Richard Harding Davis.

Arthur Lubow New York: Scribners, 1992 438 pp.

In 1911, Richard Harding Davis, the most celebrated American journalist of his day, wrote an article entitled, "The Passing of the War Correspondent," which looked back on his career. In it he mused: "The day [the journalist's] cable from Cuba to New York was in an hour relayed to Madrid, the war correspondent received his death sentence, and six years later the japanese buried him." The immediate causes of Davis's complaints were the impact of international telegraph communications during the Spanish-American War and the Japanese practice of barring American reporters from the front during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904. Davis's report of the war correspondent's death was, however, greatly exaggerated: War has endured throughout history and will always prove irresistible for would-be chroniclers. Had Davis been able to leapfrog ahead in time to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he would have found more war correspondents in action than ever before in history. Whether he would have recognized them is a different matter.

Davis's real fear was that technology would eliminate the role of the war reporter as the translator of the experience. The telegraph, after all, could bring near-instantaneous headlines from the front, while the traditional correspondent was still trying to decipher the meaning of the event. And unlike the enterprising reporter's modest tools, the notebook and pencil, the telegraph required capital to build and security to maintain -- both of which suggested government influence and control.

Davis's fears regarding censorship were also excessive. It is hard to argue that the US. military imposed more official censorship during the Gulf War than in previous similar conflicts; indeed, it is possible that there was less interference. The real concern is cultural: Once the public has consumed the headlines provided by the correspondents who exploit the most rapid news technology, are they likely to seek out more detailed and thoughtful accounts elsewhere? Or will people develop an addiction to the quick fix?

Every successive generation of technology that is harnessed for news gathering -- the telegraph and telephone, and radio, television and satellite broadcasting -- coincides with a quantifiably shorter attention span on the part of the audience and creates a greater hunger for news flashes that excite the nervous system without testing the brain. This phenomenon alone is enough to justify Davis's disquiet.

It is a little ironic that Davis should inspire such analysis, since he was not particularly thoughtful or analytical during his career. His experience however, laid the boundaries of the future of war reporting. In The Reporter Who Would Be King, Arthur Lubow provides a richly detailed portrait of Richard Harding Davis as the man who defined the role of the war correspondent for his generation: the gentleman scribbler in the high noon of the empire. A handsome, physically imposing man, Davis was drawn to the theater and brought a strong sense of costume and spectacle both to self-promotion and to the stories he covered. His work was drenched in Victorian sentiment and dime-novel prose. His sense of drama brought him an enormous audience of admirers which contributed to his wealth and fame. His style, however, also brought him criticism from intellectuals and other journalists, who viewed him as mawkish and overrated.

But it was Davis's vivid accounts that brought the wars of his time to Americans. And it was a crucial moment for the task. The Spanish-American War was the United States' first authentic overseas adventure, one in which no national territory was under attack and no U.S. interest at stake. Davis was skeptical of U.S. involvement at the war's outset, but in time became a true believer. He also served as a correspondent in wars that presaged the splintering of Europe and the end of the British Empire: the Greco-Turkish War, the Russo-Japanese War and the Boer War in South Afrika. Davis was born during the Civil War and died during the First World War, the beginning of which he covered. Davis's life and his career began when the United States was an insular nation preoccupied with consolidating its own boundaries. It ended as the United States was catapulted to the status of an international power and a nation with its own colonial possessions. History provided Davis with a useful springboard for his career. An adventurer at heart, Davis travelled to Central America and the Caribbean before these areas became policy concerns. This adventurism allowed him to paint vivid portraits of the places that were luring Americans with the promise of empire.

Advances in the technology of warfare and the technology of communications usually go hand in hand, often as a matter of cause and effect. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine satellite television as separate from the race for space during the Cold War. One can forgive Davis's hubris in thinking that war reporting would end with him, given that today's vision of war correspondence virtually began with him. A glance at nineteenth-century journalistic history reveal that, until the Civil War, war correspondence was precisely that -- letters written by pen and paper, carried by ship and horseback. By the same token, news was slow to reach the front, and it was not uncommon for major battles to be fought days after a peace treaty was signed.

These so-called correspondents were likely to be army officers describing the skirmish they had just led. When the Civil War broke out, the North managed to send hundreds of reporters into the field. By contrast, most of the South's war correspondents were active-duty officers in the Confederate Army. Nonetheless, the New York Post's definite account of Sherman's march through Georgia was contributed by a major on Sherman's staff.

Davis was born in the midst of these events, to a distinguished journalistic family. He gravitated toward reporting at an early age, making a name for himself with his coverage of the Johnston Flood and his picaresque accounts of Central America. It was the Spanish-American War, however, that made his career, as it did for many of the young men associated with it.

One often forgets that the events of 1898 were a crystallization of developments in U.S. technology and the military establishment and the territorial expansionism that pushed the United States over the boundary into the twentieth century, for better or worse. Consider the century's divide: Before the Spanish-American War, the United States had a standing military force of 25,000, none of whom were based outside the United States. After the war, the military stood at 25%000 with outposts in the Pacific and the Caribbean. Before the war, Theodore Roosevelt and Leonard Wood were frustrated young military bureaucrats in Washington, DC; their performance in the war and the resulting publicity -- much of it thanks to Davis -- set them on the paths to the presidency and the architect of the modem American army respectively.

Revisionists claim that exaggerated accounts of Spanish misdeeds written by reporters like Davis and promulgated by sensationalistic publishers like William Randolph Hearst fired the public into a pro-war frenzy and sparked the Spanish-American War. This version, however, does injustice to Davis and the facts. The Spanish colony of Cuba had been suffering an ongoing human rights crisis of severe proportions. The Cuban independence movement had been disrupting the island for two decades. When it intensified in the 1890s, Spanish authorities took harsh measures, including executing nationalists and exiling their suspected civilian supporters to concentration camps. At least 100,000 died from the repressive measures and subhuman conditions of the camps.

While there was no precedent for U.S. intervention on strictly humanitarian grounds, there was public pressure for it. Some of that pressure came from men like Roosevelt and Wood, who regretted being born too late to prove themselves on the battlegrounds of the Civil War and were impatient to assert a muscular nationalism on an international playing field. The business community also pressed for action, since it was fearful of the closing of the American frontier and the saturation of domestic markets after being badly shaken by the depression of the early 1890s. Americans were also eager to get a lock on the lucrative sugar trade of the Caribbean.

While the press did not create the war, it did make many of these outgrowths possible. As Lubow shows, the Spanish-American War was the first instance of a war as a photo opportunity. Theodore Roosevelt did not particularly like Davis, but he cultivated his friendship nonetheless, ensuring that Davis had the optimum vantage points for recording battlefield action. The myth of Roosevelt's "charge up" San Juan Hill can be attributed to Davis.(1) Roosevelt was one of the first military men to understand the propaganda potential of the new motion pictures, making room on his troopship for two young men with a movie camera.

Roosevelt's subsequent political career was built on these incidents as well as the instincts that inspired them. While Davis was capable of critical thought, he was swept away by the momentum of battlefield action. Lubow describes Davis's early doubts about the wisdom of U.S. intervention in Cuba and his revulsion at war's impact in the Philippines a few years later. But in Cuba, in the heat of the moment, he became the war's most effective promoter. The irony his writing achieved elsewhere was abandoned to the most cliched images of his day; the Cuba story was literally and figuratively reduced to a tale of a beautiful, dark-haired maiden assaulted by swarthy Spaniards and rescued by clean-cut American boys.

Davis provided journalism with a taste of things to come: He was interested in action, color and people -- not analysis. Hand-wringers today decry the reduction by journalism of complex foreign-policy issues to a preoccupation with personalities such as "Stormin' Norman" Schwartzkopf and Saddam Hussein. As a precedent, however, they need only look back to Davis's triangle of Rodriguez, the Cuban freedom fighter; Teddy Roosevelt, the noble American liberator; and Weyler, the dastardly Spanish general. The presence of network anchors in the midst of the action is also nothing new; as a celebrity journalist, Davis's very presence often made the story. In Lubow's account, Davis does not study languages, read books or absorb background; instead, he seeks the company of socialites more energetically than that of scholars, experts or local sources. Lubow's biography spends a great deal of space examining Davis's second -- and lesser -- career as a serious author of novels, short stories and plays. Here Lubow is unnecessarily apologetic: The fiction of Davis has clearly not survived in the same way as that of his colleague Stephen Crane. Davis did, however, help journalism push fiction off the stage as the primary narrative form of twentieth-century America. Through the force of his personality, the correspondent turned the attention of a whole generation of Americans to the world beyond. Davis thought the new technology of the telegraph would destroy the role of the war correspondent; instead, it gave his work more commercial value than ever. At the same time, however, Davis was justified in his fear that the speed and sophistication of technology could overwhelm the journalist's experience of an event.

In Robert Wiener's book Live from Baghdad: Gathering News at Ground Zero, the eclipse of the mediator-reporter by the technology is nearly complete. Wiener was CNN's producer in Baghdad during the Gulf War; he scored the journalistic coup of the decade by winning CNN a spot as the only U.S.-based medium to operate out of Baghdad during the war.

Live from Baghdad has an almost uncanny quality of being a real-time book. Wiener provides an almost hourly account of his time in Baghdad, during which anything outside his immediate consciousness -- the past, Washington, DC, the war itself -- is only a faint echo.

In Wiener's book, correspondents and politicians come and go, while the real heroes are the mysterious boxes and fibers that allow humans to transmit sound and images halfway around the world on a near-simultaneous basis. The author does not question governments' near-absolute control of the access of the news media's technology to the high-tech battlefields. This aspect is merely a part of his landscape.

Gone is the image of Richard Harding Davis's gentleman spectator chewing on his pencil as he describes the day's battle in terms that his genteel readership will find moving but not shocking. Today's media are beholden to the so-called flyaway, the four-wire and the INMARSAT -- bits and hulks of metal that allow the audience at home the illusion that they are observing unmediated reality.

Wiener tells the reader that he cut his journalistic teeth in Vietnam, implying that he will never believe a government again. This distrust is wise: In wartime, whatever distinction governments usually maintain between information and propaganda blurs even further. During the Gulf War, Wiener entered into complex territory in government relations: The Iraqi government determined how he would use his broadcasting equipment, while the U.S. military monitored the material broadcast out of Atlanta. The fact that both belligerents let CNN operate as freely as it did demonstrates how useful each found the network as a channel of communication and as a vehicle for As own propaganda.

Despite Wiener's savvy, he warns against turning to the broadcast media for a range of information and analysis:

Television news has only two things going for it that beat the

written press. It's the best medium in the world for capturing

emotion, and it's immediate. The [Iraqi] hostage story was emotional-headline

material and at CNN, if you've got a headline story,

you'd better know how to milk it. Any intellectual assessment of the desirability of a war on the part of someone like Robert Wiener is sidelined in the interest of "capturing emotion" and making it "immediate" for the viewers. If such emotion creates public pressure for war and leads to conflict, television journalists are trained to consider the hostilities as simply another emotional situation tO cover and not as a consequence of the coverage itself.

The aftermath of the Gulf War created as much anguished analysis of the role of We media as it did of the war itself. CNN was particularly scrutinized by anti-war activists and by media critics. The prospect of real-time war consumed by an audience as entertainment, combined with the display of new weapons technology, led some critics to conclude that the very nature of war had changed fundamentally. The corollary was that the news media -- and satellite television in particular -- had brought on the war.

Whether CNN was good for the war is a complex and troubling question that is not as simple as either side of the debate suggests. It is far more apparent, however, that the war was good for CNN: Ratings soared; the network gained longed-for prestige; and veteran correspondent Peter Arnett suddenly became a household name. It is unsettling to think that the news media -- a business that has so much to gain from armed conflict -- should also have such strong influence over public opinion on the question of waging war.

Arthur Lubow's story of Davis and Robert Wiener's account of the CNN experience during the Gulf War pose similar questions over a stretch of nearly a century. As war approaches and begins, how can the national news media maintain a critical distance from the belligerents without incurring charges of treason? Each war is a web of strategic, political and human events, tethered respectively to the institutions of the military, the government and the public. The news media's war coverage connects these institutions and can tip the balance between any of them by inclining toward the military's propaganda effort of the military or the public's doubts.

War's greatest allies are distance and time. No sane person -- and here one returns to the question of the human translator -- can experience the immediate reality of war without thinking it the stupidest, cruelest exercise in testosterone overdrive ever devised by man. But add a few years or a few thousand miles and otherwise reasonable beings can suppress the sensual memories of the horrific squander of flesh, lives and property. They can float the flags of glory and national honor, making the world safe for the next war.

Of course, the battlefield is most attractive when viewed as a sweeping panorama. But if one should focus on any single figure for too long, it becomes a life, an individual, a tragedy. Davis was wrong: It would take more than the telegraph or Japanese censorship to change these immutable truths. It would take the end of war to bring about the end of the war correspondent, and so far neither event seems likely. (1.) Roosevelt's men actually captured the smaller and less glamorously named Kettle Hill.
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Author:Nelson, Anne
Publication:Journal of International Affairs
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
Words:2785
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