Daily Archives: 3 June 2005

Reporting Both Sides from Spain, 1936-39

Ideological partisanship during the Spanish Civil War was every bit as blindly irresponsible as it is today with regard to the war in Iraq.

The main target for the [pro-Franco] Catholic press was Herbert Matthews. His newspaper, the New York Times, was determined to cover the war with impartiality and had formulated a plan to achieve this: it would print the news from both sides and would give both equal prominence, equal length, and equal treatment. This scheme, fine in theory, was a disaster and pleased no one. To begin with, the Times’ correspondent with the Franco forces was William P. Carney, a Catholic, who felt strongly about Republican excesses against the clergy, and who was simply not in Matthews’ class as a correspondent. Giving his stories equal length with Matthews’ often meant overplaying a bad story and cutting a good one. Next, the Times’ “bullpen,” its group of senior editors who read the news as it comes in and decide how much of it will be printed and where it will appear in the paper, was dominated at that time by Catholics who were known to reflect a Catholic viewpoint when assessing the news, with results ranging from playing down stories about birth control to playing up stories expressing alarm over Communism. And, third, the Catholic opposition to Matthews was much more active in pressing its campaign against him than his admirers were in supporting him.

How the New York Times’ plan worked out in practice can best be assessed by … examples….

In March of 1937, a large Franco force had struck towards Guadalajara, north of Madrid, but was stopped well short of its objective. Matthews went there and found that the attacking troops had been Italian. They had been routed and had left behind prisoners, rifles, machine guns, and some disabled tanks. Matthews talked to the prisoners (he knew Italian), examined the arms, and watched the dead Italians being buried. Back in Madrid, he filed his story, an important one because it contained the first positive evidence that Mussolini had sent not only arms and advisers but also an expeditionary force–a fact, at that time, of great political and emotional significance. To emphasise this point, Matthews wrote that the attacking troops “were Italian and nothing but Italian.” In New York, on the instructions of the assistant managing editor, Raymond McCaw, wherever the word “Italian” appeared in Matthews’ copy it was struck out and the word “insurgent”–one used to describe the Franco troops–was substituted. This was done even to the extent of making the quoted phrase read “they were Insurgent and nothing but Insurgent,” thus completely distorting Matthews’ point. To make matters worse, McCaw sent a cable to Matthews saying that the only papers to emphasise the Italian point had been those in Moscow and pointing out that, as far as the New York Times was concerned, “we cannot print obvious propaganda for either side even under bylines.”…

Small wonder that the editor at the New York Times responsible for the “Letters” column complained, “No matter who writes the dispatch [from Spain] the other side will accuse him of broadcasting propaganda or downright lying. In all my ten or twelve years’ experience with letters to the editor, I have never encountered a situation in which so much absolutely rabid partisanship was manifested. It is partisanship that cannot be reasoned with and which, consequently, gets nowhere.”

SOURCE: The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-maker from the Crimea to Kosovo, by Phillip Knightley, with an introduction by John Pilger (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 2000; first published in 1975), pp. 215-217

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