Friday, March 6, 2009

NY, LA, WWII & 911


The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor sent shock waves through America and changed the lives of people around the world. It is no surprise that it is ranked as the #2 news story of the 20th Century. In this blog, I will analyze the front pages and main articles from the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor in two newspapers from opposite ends of the country—the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times—and how this coverage relates to the industry of the time. I will then briefly compare this coverage with the papers’ coverage of 9/11.

The front page of the New York Times on December 8, 1941, the day after “the that will live in infamy”, devotes nearly half of the above-the-fold to an italicized and capitalized headline: “JAPAN WARS ON U.S. AND BRITAIN; MAKES SUDDEN ATTACK ON HAWAII; HEAVY FIGHTING AT SEA REPORTED.” Under the headline sits a map of where the attacks took place and a sea of small-print text that overwhelms my one-story-at-a-time, internet-era news brain. The most important story stands out on the right side of the page. Its headlines are longer and margins are wider, practically waving the reader over like an eager salesman.

The dateline says WASHINGTON. Frank L. Kluckhorn writes an informative but dry account of the attack and the international relations that shortly followed. In a post-Yellow Journalism, but pre-McCarthyism era, hard news of the 1940s relied heavily on official accounts, especially during a breaking-news event such as the attack on Pearl Harbor. Kluckhorn, perhaps because he is based in Washington, or because of the journalism environment of the time, only writes about official accounts from military and governmental personnel.

The Los Angeles Times’ front page screams at the reader in huge, bold type: “JAPS OPEN WAR ON U.S. WITH BOMBING OF HAWAII.” Other, gradually smaller headlines bring the reader down to an Associated Press story with wide margins similar to the New York Times story. This paper, however, does not have a map of the attacks but instead has a localized story about how Los Angeles reacted to the attack. The local story is graphically mirrored to the AP story with similar margins and headline size with a smattering of smaller stories in-between them.

I will not go into the culturally insensitive use of the term “Jap” in the headline (my Ethnic Diversity in News professor could have a field day, I’m sure.) I will not even talk about the AP story at all; I will instead analyze the local article. This article, whose author is not in a byline for whatever reason, describes the atmosphere of the city and the patriotic response. “Then came a reaction as truly American as apple pie … ‘They started it—we’ll finish it!’” Reminiscent of the black and white propaganda films that show the disjointed movement of proud American men boarding trains as they head off to war, this article is a great representation of the American support for WWII. But it is also shockingly similar to media treatment of 9/11.

Comparing the New York Times front page after the 9/11 attacks to the front pages after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a number of things strike me immediately. The first, naturally, is the impact of photographs. The image of the towers in flames is one that brings up a lot of emotions in Americans. These graphic images were absent on the front pages of a pre-internet paper covering events that took place thousands of miles away. The second thing is the language in the main article. Unlike the Pearl Harbor story, the language is less official and more graphic and emotional. It is as if the writer of the all-American propaganda story in the Los Angeles Times wrote the pure-facts news story of the New York Times. This integration of emotion with news allowed the American people to trust their government more than it deserved and demonstrates the power of the media.

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