Category Archives: Journalism

The secret history of the Manhattan Project

By Christopher B. Daly 

Better late than never: the U.S. government has finally declassified its official history of the Manhattan Project, the vast and Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 3.16.57 PMsecret program undertaken during World War II to build an atom bomb. (Which was intended, first and foremost, for use against Germany, but as it happened, the bomb was not ready by V-E day in May of 1945, so it ended up being used against Japan in August.)

As it happens, the Manhattan Project was a major focus of my master’s thesis in U.S. History at UNC-Chapel Hill back in the 1980s. At that time, none of these documents were available. Instead, I had to rely mainly on Hewlett and Anderson’s multi-volume history of the Atomic Energy Commission, which was the main successor to the Manhattan Project and which oversaw the conversion of the bomb-making project into two new, separate enterprises: military efforts to make bigger and better bombs and civilian efforts to make cheap nuclear energy available.

Even after all these years, it is still remarkable how few “atomic secrets” slipped out during WWII and reached hostile powers. Of course, that depends on how you define such secrets and how you define hostile powers. In one sense, there is no “atomic bomb secret.” Before the war, physicists had pretty well worked out the basic science of atomic fission. After that, it’s all engineering, and there are in fact many different ways to apply the science to create weapons. The issue of “hostile powers” turns out to have been the more vexing issue. During the war, the U.S. naturally worried about maintaining secrets from the Germans and the Japanese, our avowed enemies. They did not pay enough attention to maintaining secrets from the Soviets, our putative allies.

I have no intention of re-fighting the Cold War battles over atomic espionage (in which a small number of misguided leftists cooperated with Soviet spies and probably made the world a worse place).

All I want to do today is draw attention to the belated but still welcome declassification of this report.

BUT NOTE: there are almost certainly more parts that the government has not declassified and will not even acknowledge. That’s the nature of secrecy. 

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What can we learn from a Civil War sketch artist?

by Christopher B. Daly

Plenty.

The little-known artist Alfred Waud was one of the most important “visual journalists” covering the greatest conflict in American history. Along with the young Winslow Homer and Thomas Nast, Waud was assigned to cover the fighting, including the critical Battle of Gettysburg, by drawing sketches that could quickly be converted into engravings that could be printed along with text in the pages of newspapers like Harper’s Weekly.

Much better known are the photographs of Mathew Brady (and his less-well-known team of assistants). But Brady’s photos, for all their power and terribly beauty, all suffered from the technical limitations of the mid-19th century. In order for the chemical emulsions used in photography to leave an impression on the glass or metal plates, the camera’s shutter had to be left open for a comparatively long time — at least several seconds. As a result, cameras in the Civil War era were unable to stop action. If the subject was moving, the image would be blurred.

So, it fell to sketch artists to capture any scene involving motion or action.

Sketch of action at Gettysburg by Alfred Waud for Harper's Weekly. Library of Congress.

Sketch of action at Gettysburg by Alfred Waud for Harper’s Weekly.
Library of Congress.

Now, a professor at Northern Kentucky University has used a Waud sketch to try to learn more about the crucial fighting that took place in Gettysburg, Pa., from July 1 to July 3, 1865. Emeritus Prof. Michael C.C. Adams argues that the sketch by Waud can be used to deduce the distance at which the opposing forces opened fire on each other. Many more Waud sketches can be found online or at the Library of Congress.

In the history of journalism, those Civil War sketches are some of the first examples of illustrating the news in a documentary fashion. Hats off to those brave sketch artists who got right up to the front lines armed with nothing more than a palette and some chalk.

 Alfred Waud, at Gettysburg. Library of Congress


Alfred Waud, at Gettysburg.
Library of Congress

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Holder: Worst AG in US history for journalism?

By Christopher B. Daly

There are, of course, many ways to evaluate the performance of Eric Holder as the Attorney General of the United States. Since he announced his intention to retire, many voices have attempted to determine his legacy. I want to focus on his treatment of journalists, which may be the most hostile in the history of the country.

His most egregious and unconstitutional offense has been to investigate and prosecute journalists for doing their jobs — which, at its most vital, entails gathering and sharing information about the actions of our government. When that news-gathering has involved discovering information that the government prefers to keep secret, Holder has been ruthless — far more agressive, for example, than he was in prosecuting those lenders and speculators who crashed the U.S. economy in 2008.

It’s not just a campaign against “leakers” such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. What has really marked Holder’s approach is his determination to go after the journalists who get secrets from government sources. Among his biggest targets has been the New York Times (no accident, of course, because the Times is a leader in investigating government secrets). With considerable restraint, the Times made these observations today:

But Mr. Holder has continued Mr. Kennedy’s work in another way, one he is less likely to embrace but is no less part of his legacy. Like Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Holder has frustrated and confounded even his staunchest allies for his views on civil liberties.

Mr. Holder approved of the National Security Agency’s authority to sweep up millions of phone records of Americans accused of no crime. He subpoenaed journalists and led a crackdown on their sources. He defended the F.B.I.’s right to track people’s cars without warrants and the president’s right to kill an American who had joined Al Qaeda.

And later:

Mr. Holder’s Justice Department started more investigations than any of his predecessors into government officials who disclosed information to reporters. He subpoenaed journalists’ emails and phone records, and demanded their testimony. The New York Times reporter James Risen, who has refused to reveal his sources about information on Iran, remains under subpoena.

Mr. Holder acknowledged in the interview that those efforts went too far at times and pointed to new rules limiting investigations involving journalists. . .

To put all this in historical perspective, it might be worth noting that Holder is not the only attorney general in U.S. history

Attorney General Charles Lee, 1795-1801

AG  Charles Lee, 1795-1801

to have prosecuted journalists. One notable enemy of journalists was the third AG — the rarely remembered Charles Lee of Virginia, who served under Federalist president John Adams and enforced the blatantly unconstitutional provisions of the Sedition Act of 1798, which made it a crime to publish certain kinds of criticism of the government or its officials. (When the Jefferson administration came into power in March of 1801, Lee was promptly replaced by Levi Lincoln Sr. of Massachusetts, and the Sedition Act was mercifully allowed to expire.)

Then there was Alexander Mitchell Palmer, who occupied the office during the late years of the Wilson administration. He is most notorious for carrying out the “Palmer raids” on suspected radicals, but he

AG Palmer

AG Palmer

also prosecuted several high-profile cases under the Sedition Act of 1918 to attempt to silence critics of U.S. involvement in World War I.

Ultimately, I suppose, it is worth remembering that all attorneys general are nominated by the president, and they serve at his (or her) pleasure. So, attorneys general are only as good as the president allows — or requires — them to be.

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Gail Sheehy: still pitching herself

Don’t miss today’s review in the Times of the new memoir by Gail Sheehy. Not that she needs any more exposure.

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New media outlet in New Hampshire

By Christopher B. Daly

Welcome to the news business to the latest wealthy businessman seeking to have a role in politics through the media. The newest member of the club is Bill Binnie, the founder of the media venture NH1, which is having its rollout this month in the state known as FITN for its “first in the nation” presidential primary, which is just around the corner in political terms.

Based on a quick search, it appears that Binnie is a Republican who made a fortune in plastics, which he converted into another fortune in the investing business. Born in Scotland, Binnie went to Harvard (on a scholarship, it should be noted) and to Harvard Business School, then did a stint at McKinsey as a consultant, telling other businesses how to run better. Eventually, he actually founded and ran several businesses of his own, including Carlisle Plastics, followed by a venture capital firm, Carlisle Capital Corp.

In 2010, he ran as a Republican for a U.S. Senate seat in New Hampshire and lost. He is a big donor to GOP causes and fund-raiser, and he has served as the chair of the finance committee for the N.H. GOP.

Now comes his latest venture: NH1, which debuts next week. Here is part of the Boston Globe‘s take, from today’s Capital section (which, BTW, is a welcome addition to the paper and potentially more meaningful to a lot of Globe readers than its much-heralded [if I may use that term!] new Catholic-watching section called Crux):

At a time when most newsrooms are shrinking, Binnie Media is doing the opposite, doubling staff to 120 in the past year and recruiting top journalists like former CNN political editor Paul Steinhauser and veteran political reporter Kevin Landrigan, who was laid off when The Telegraph of Nashua closed its New Hampshire State House bureau earlier this year. Binnie has also attracted a number of other seasoned journalists from cash-strapped local papers.

Hooray for hiring. It’s good to see someone taking up the slack from the diminished statehouse press corps. And Binnie could not have done better than to hire Kevin Landrigan — whose desk used to abut mine when we both worked in the Massachusetts Statehouse Press Gallery in the mid-1980s, he for the Lowell Sun and me for the AP. Kevin was simply the best reporter in the room (the Globe’s Frank Phillips was down the hall in a separate room, and John King didn’t stay long enough to build up Kevin’s cred). I learned a lot just from eavesdropping on Kevin’s phone conversations with his sources — not that I picked up any actual facts but I got to see his technique at work, which was relentless questioning, double-checking, and working his sources. He broke a lot of stories and always seemed to know what was about to happen next. I knew Kevin as decent, fair, straight-ahead, a total pro.

As for Binnie, he has actually been involved in TV and radio in New Hampshire for a few years, but he is taking another step forward in creating NH1, which is billed as a multimedia platform — which I guess means broadcast TV, plus a website (still under construction) but no print medium that I can see. The idea appears to be to capture some of the vast amounts of money spent in New Hampshire every four years on TV political ads.

Will NH1 survive through the lean off-years in politics?

Stay tuned.

Shiny! The Globe caption says: NH1 News anchor KeKe Vencill (left), reporter/anchor Paul Mueller (center), and chief meteorologist Clayton Stiver rehearsed a news broadcast. Photo by Boston Globe

Shiny!
The Globe caption says:
NH1 News anchor KeKe Vencill (left), reporter/anchor Paul Mueller (center), and chief meteorologist Clayton Stiver rehearsed a news broadcast.
Photo by Boston Globe

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Monday round-up

By Christopher B. Daly

As a public service, I am rounding up some recent reports and commentary about journalism and history.

Here is a new report from our friends at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, asking:

Where are the women in the executive ranks of the news media?

Good question.

Here’s the latest episode of NPR’s “On the Media.” This week’s show looks at the decline in “beat reporting.” Any thoughts from my JO310 alumni?

Here’s the latest episode of CNN’s “Reliable Sources” — much improved since Brian Stelter replaced Howie Kurtz. So, should news organizations censor ISIL’s propaganda videos? I say, yes.

And from the NYTimes. . .

Here is B.U. Prof. David Carr on TMZ’s sacking of the NFL.

Here is a confusing story about NPR doing “live” shows. (Isn’t all of NPR live?)

Here is a story about the sale of Digital First Media. Want to buy a newspaper? (I don’t mean one copy, I mean a whole paper!)

Here is an update on the Hachette-Amazon brawl. I am still not sure which side to join in this one.

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Who said what? A cautionary tale

By Christopher B. Daly 

Here is a cautionary tale for both historians and journalists. We all wrestle from time to time with trying to establish just what is “on the record” — that is, what did people actually say. For most of us, most of the time, the gold standard is a mechanical or digital recording. It seems so appealing: if you’re in doubt about handwritten notes, just “check the tape” (even though most recording devices no longer use tapes).

But what happens when the recording itself is murky, ambiguous, or just plain impossible to decipher?

Here’s one example, from Sheldon M. Stern — and he should know, as a historian and the former historian at the JFK presidential library in Boston, the source of many releases of presidential tapes and transcripts. He cites a single passage from the Nixon tapes that has appeared in several books, all with variations in the transcriptions. 

Here’s my takeaway from his recent article:

It is becoming increasingly clear that scholarly works rooted in the extraordinary and unique presidential recordings from the JFK, LBJ, and Nixon administrations actually constitute a new and distinct genre of historical investigation. Historians are familiar with books that utilize written primary sources, synthesize primary and secondary sources, or annotate the private papers of prominent historical figures. But, books based on audio recordings are clearly different because the historian takes on a unique responsibility in this new genre. He or she is obviously reaching conclusions about a primary source; but, in the process of transcribing a tape recording, the historian is also inevitably creating a subjective secondary source. As a result, the historian must demonstrate the most careful scholarship imaginable. No other task of historical analysis or interpretation is really quite the same.

Is there a “solution” to this “problem.” Not really, I suppose. All we can ask is that anyone who works in non-fiction should approach these issues in good faith and, wherever possible, preserve original materials and make them available to others.

Meanwhile, let the interpretations continue. . . 

156728-NTA

 

 

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