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Civil War methods still echo in today's war coverage, author says

By Mike Tunison


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ARLINGTON, Va. — Modern war correspondents owe much of their craft to technological innovations made during the Civil War, an author said last week at an Inside Media program at the Newseum.

James Perry, author of A Bohemian Brigade, The Civil War Correspondents — Mostly Rough, Sometimes Ready, said July 22 that one major communications advance, the telegraph, brought mixed blessings. It gave correspondents instant access to their newspaper publishers, Perry said, enabling them to keep readers abreast of the latest events. But it also increased competition among reporters, sometimes with adverse effects.

"It was a breakthrough technology, (but) it caused many of the problems that the Internet [does] today, like rushing the judgment of a story before we know what we're talking about," he said.

For example, he added: "After the first battle of Bull Run, many papers ran the headline that decreed a great Union victory. They had filed their stories in the middle of the day before the battle was over, and by the end of the day it was a Union defeat. They had it absolutely dead wrong, and this happened with some frequency."

Compounding the problem was many reporters' lack of professional experience.

Because of the young country's limited experience with wartime journalism, the expectations for correspondents were minimal, Perry added. Reporters' jobs were open to almost anyone willing to sign up.

"Basically, you walked into a newspaper, said, 'Here I am, I want to go cover war,' and they signed you up and sent you out. There was no particular training required," Perry said.

Many reporters were asked only to identify those slain in battle. Correspondents would literally wander the battlefields, recording the names of the dead, and then would send them to their newspaper, he said.

Perry said his book focused more on Union correspondents because of the scarcity of Southern newspapers. "As Union armies overran cities in the South, they closed down their presses," Perry said, which effectively destroyed valuable resources for historical researchers.

Documenting Southern journalism also is difficult to do because Southerners didn't use bylines, he added.

The program was held in the conjunction with the Newseum's War Stories exhibit, which runs through Nov. 11.


War Stories events coverage
Coverage of discussions relating to Newseum's War Stories exhibit.  07.31.01