On September 1, 1939 Nazi Germany invaded neighboring Poland, provoking a World War Two. Prior to that, German Chancellor Adolph Hitler issued the “16 points” memorandum, defining the terms for negotiations with the Polish government. As the word powers were still unclear about the conflict’s outcome, the international press closely followed the unfolding events, making note of every little detail that took place as the history was unraveling itself before their very own eyes.
“British Mobilizing; Navy Raised To Its Full Strength, Army and Air Reserves Called Up. Parliament is Convoked. Midnight Meeting Is Held by Ministers — Negotiations Admitted Failure,” is a September 1, 1939 front-page story from The New York Times. Combined of two reports — one from the Associated Press and another from a special correspondent in London, the story talks about German aggression, failed negotiations with Poland, British mobilization and evacuation, attempts to address the issue in the Parliament, and presents a detailed account of the events prior to beginning of war.
While the paragraph-long wire from the AP resembles the modern style (short, concise, and straight to the point), the second part by Ferdinand Kuhn, Jr. falls into the category of a narrative written like a police report: “About 9 o’clock yesterday morning M. Lipski had asked to see Herr Von Ribbentrop. The Ambassador had no response until afternoon, when he was asked by telephone if he were coming as Ambassador or as a plenipotentiary to negotiate. He said “as Ambassador.” He heard nothing more until evening, when he was summoned and was told it was already too late, as the time limit has expired.” This over-explanatory style, as well as a lengthy, descriptive headline suggest that the story’s aim was to appeal to the general population and not specific socio-economic class. Nevertheless, the language gets complicated sometimes, as if the writer were someone from the previous century: “that the British regarded them as artful went without saying, since they conveyed a first impression of reasonableness that was not born out by the terms themselves.”
Another distinction from modern journalistic writing is lack of direct quotes — not even once the writer quotes his sources, majority of which are anonymous officials. Moreover, the writer tends to put his own spin on the story by putting quotations marks around certain words — as if he tries to be ironic. He also speculates, as it becomes clear from this passage: “much might have been said about the German “proposals” here tonight if the government had not been so anxious to have the first decision to Warsaw without any prompting.” At this point, it is evident that the style of the article is determined by the trend in journalism of the pre-WWII era — an interpretive reporting.
Another prominent newspaper, the Washington Post, had also provided a detailed coverage of the war, beginning with British mobilization, reactions from the international community, and raids of Polish towns. Somewhat similar in style (very detailed articles with explanatory notes from the editor), the Post writers, however, presented the information more objectively; although the traces of opinion and speculation could be found in some news articles (14 stories were examined), they all closely resemble the modern AP style — short, concise, and informative paragraphs elaborating on who did what and what happened as a result. However, just like in case of the Times, writers did not use direct quotes, and even if they did, they often attributed them to “top officials” and “knowledgeable diplomats” with no names or specific titles. For example, in one of the stories (“Germany Blockades Gdynia; Orders Ships Out of Baltic,” Sep 1, 1931, p.1), the editor mentions “reliable diplomatic sources in Rome,” as well as someone or something called D.N.B. — a source of unclear origin.
What’s interesting is that the facts mentioned by Times are corresponding with those reported by the Post, which can be argued is the sign of accurate reporting.
Overall, close examination of the two leading newspapers has shown that although different from the journalistic attributes of the 1920s (lack of neutrality, believe that the facts could not be understood by themselves, and skepticism — as Michael Schudson suggest), the professional journalists of the late 1930s did not try to be as objective as they are today… In fact, the profession of the given time period was something in between — a participatory journalism and sharing of unfiltered information, which eventually paved a way for the “ideal of objectivity as we know it.” (Schudson, 120).