On May 7, 1945, Associated Press Paris bureau chief Ed Kennedy set off one of the biggest journalism controversies of the 20th century. Nazi Germany had surrendered unconditionally to the Allies early that morning in a schoolhouse in Reims. Unbelievable as it may seem today, Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower imposed a news blackout on the surrender, under orders from President Truman. Big official secrets were more keep-able then--but not always. Kennedy had access to an unauthorized phone line. Gambling his career, he used that line to break the surrender story. His exclusive, eyewitness account of the ceremony got huge news play and led to mass rejoicing in Paris, London, New York, and elsewhere.For the gaunt, intense Kennedy, it became the scoop from Hell. Allied headquarters stripped away his press credentials, denounced him personally for defying the rules, and banished him to New York, where the AP fired him. Meanwhile, 54 rival reporters who had abided by the news embargo signed a statement branding Kennedy a double-crosser. The label lingered. In 1960, Walter Cronkite of CBS, a former United Press war correspondent, refused to stand when Kennedy offered his hand, according to a journalist who witnessed the encounter. Kennedy tried for years to repair his damaged reputation, publishing a lengthy self-defense in the Atlantic ("I'd Do It Again," August 1948.) Among other points, Kennedy argued that Ike had not ordered the blackout for legitimate reasons of military security. He had done so for political reasons that did not justify censorship. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin wanted to stage a second surrender ceremony in Berlin - to sell the illusion that the Nazis had surrendered first to the Soviets. He did not want his propaganda ceremony overshadowed by news of the authentic surrender in Reims. Eisenhower's news blackout was intended to appease an increasingly truculent and distrustful ally. Documents in the National Archives bear this out. But the Atlantic article did not put Kennedy's career back on track. This former star of international journalism spent the rest of his life in small-town-newspaper exile, brooding and embittered. He died in Monterey, CA in 1963 after stepping from a bar into the path of an oncoming sedan. Now scroll ahead 50 years to the present day: Ed Kennedy has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, honoring him in death for the decision that undid him in life. Dozens of journalists have joined the cause, petitioning the Pulitzer board on Kennedy's behalf. Kennedy's rehabilitation began last year with publication of memoirs that had sat for years in a box in his daughter's attic. After being invited to write the forward to Ed Kennedy's War, Associated Press CEO Tom Curley was moved to issue a public apology for Kennedy's firing. Publicity from that apology inspired the Pulitzer drive, and the board is set to announce this year's winners on April 15. The Pulitzer board has bestowed posthumous awards in the past, all in music, so Kennedy appears eligible by precedent. Does he deserve this recognition? To answer that, one must first address a threshold question: Was breaking the news embargo ethically justifiable? War Department officials, and the journalists that Kennedy "scooped," said emphatically that it was not, and some recent commentators agree. Their case falls apart under scrutiny:
- Kennedy broke his word when he broke embargo. Actually, it was Eisenhower's command that broke the embargo. As Ike's Chief of Staff, Gen. Walter Bedell Smith acknowledged after the war, the Allies ordered German radio to broadcast news of the surrender repeatedly to ensure that German forces stood down. The Germans complied, and Kennedy filed his story only after learning of the German broadcasts. He told the senior censor that these broadcasts had nullified the embargo, and he was no longer pledged to honor it.
- Kennedy failed to inform his bosses that his dispatch broke the embargo. This is true, but he faced a Hobson's choice. Kennedy had dictated his story to the AP London bureau by phone. The London bureau then had to relay the story to New York headquarters for editing, using a trans-Atlantic cable minded by a military censor. Kennedy thus had two options. He could dictate the story without a warning to editors that it was unauthorized, and get it into print. Or he could include a note telling editors that he was breaking the embargo, ensuring that the censor could stop the dispatch. Kennedy made a difficult choice, but not a deceitful one.
- Kennedy betrayed his fellow correspondents by failing to inform them of his intentions in advance. Come on. Wire reporters are paid to be first. If he had stopped to confer with his nearly 60 rivals, not only would he have lost the scoop, but also might inadvertently have alerted the authorities, making it impossible for anyone to file the story.
Photo of Ed Kennedy via AP
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