The Associated Press, the nation’s premier wire service whose reach is so broad that it often defines technical and ethical style for many other media outlets, has apologized for its treatment and dismissal of a foreign correspondent who broke the news that Germany had quietly surrendered unconditionally, ending World War II.
The problem wasn’t that the story was wrong. Indeed, it was spot-on. The correspondent, Edward Kennedy, was among the 17 reporters allowed by the military to witness the ceremony on the condition that the victors could determine the timing of the announcement. The timing was deemed crucial for political reasons, in order to soothe the rivalries within the Allied camp.
However, when German officials reported the surrender, Kennedy sent his story through, giving the AP a scoop at the expense of those who adhered to the news embargo.
Was his employer grateful? Not so much. Kennedy was publicly rebuked and later fired. It took 67 years for the wire service to apologize.
“It was a terrible day for the AP. It was handled in the worst possible way,” AP President and Chief Executive Tom Curley told the news service. Curley, who has co-written an introduction to Kennedy's newly published memoir, “Ed Kennedy's War: V-E Day, Censorship & The Associated Press,” praised the reporter who “did everything just right.”
“Once the war is over, you can't hold back information like that. The world needed to know,” Curley said in an interview with his organization.
While the apology is good news for the Kennedy family – and a vindication for working reporters – the sad news is that censorship, even self-censorship, is as American as apple pie, especially during war.
The need to let correspondents tell the story can conflict with the need to protect some secrets, creating a gray area for governments and news organizations. Kennedy was hardly the first to jeopardize his access to a story by not following orders, but his tale is among the most dramatic. AP was barred from some coverage for a time and Kennedy was expelled from Europe for his actions.
Reporters on any beat run the danger of being frozen out of access based on what they write or broadcast. Perhaps worse in some circles, they also run the risk of being beaten by the competition for holding to an embargo. That plight is as real as this week’s visit by President Obama to Afghanistan.
The judgment calls and censorship are more dramatic in a full-scale war. In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt established the Office of Censorship by executive order. The office was all-powerful in determining reporting and even snooping into unfettered private mail.
The size of the war matters little to the government’s desire to control the flow of news. Every conflict since from World War II to the war in Iraq has had censorship issues. Even failed incursions, such as the Bay of Pigs, raised questions of when and what to publish.
But the most glaring case of just how tenuous the line between the military's need for secrecy and simple political expediency came during the Vietnam War. At the time, the government tried to prevent the New York Times from publishing the then-secret Pentagon Papers, arguing it would be treasonous to release the documents. The newspaper eventually prevailed in the legal courts and in the court of public opinion.
Kennedy went on to a successful career as managing editor of the Santa Barbara News-Press, then publisher of the Monterey Peninsula Herald. He was struck by an automobile and died at 58 in 1963.
His daughter, Julia Kennedy Cochran, of Bend, Ore., told the AP she was “overjoyed” by the news service’s apology. “I think it would have meant a lot to him.”