A Star Times Reporter was Paid by Government Agencies He CoveredHistorians in the News
tags: nuclear weapons, journalism, atomic bomb, World War 2
Shortly after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Maj. Gen. Leslie R. Groves of the U.S. Army, who directed the making of the weapons, told Congress that succumbing to their radiation was “a very pleasant way to die.”
His aide in misinforming America was William L. Laurence, a science reporter for The New York Times. At the general’s invitation, the writer entered a maze of secret cities in Tennessee, Washington and New Mexico. His exclusive reports on the Manhattan Project, when released after the Hiroshima bombing, helped shape postwar opinion on the bomb and atomic energy.
Before the war, Mr. Laurence’s science reporting won him a Pulitzer. Working with and effectively for the War Department during the bomb project, he witnessed the test explosion of the world’s first nuclear device and flew on the Nagasaki bombing run. He won his second Pulitzer for his firsthand account of the atomic strike as well as subsequent articles on the bomb’s making and significance. Colleagues called him Atomic Bill.
Now, a pair of books, one recently published, one forthcoming, tell how the superstar became not only an apologist for the American military but also a serial defier of journalism’s mores. He flourished during a freewheeling, rough-and-tumble era both as a Times newsman and, it turns out, a bold accumulator of outside pay from the government agencies he covered.
By today’s standards, to get the scoop of the century, Mr. Laurence and The Times engaged in a rash of troubling deals and alliances. “Restricted Data: The History of Nuclear Secrecy in the United States,” published in April, tells how Mr. Laurence came to promote Washington’s official line.
He was “willingly complicit in the government’s propaganda project,” said Alex Wellerstein, the book’s author and a nuclear historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.
Washington’s choice of Mr. Laurence was both smart and surprising, Dr. Wellerstein said in an interview. He noted that the science reporter was then a rising star at one of the world’s most respected newspapers. But he also described Mr. Laurence as a man of gaudy ties and ill-fitting suits, “a bizarre figure” who was no stranger to clichés and questionable claims. His reporting, it turns out, also teemed with financial conflicts.
Vincent Kiernan, author of a Laurence biography to be published next year by Cornell University Press, shows that, during the war, Mr. Laurence augmented his Times salary with supplementary pay from not only the Manhattan Project but also the Army surgeon general and, toward the end of his Times career, from Robert Moses, the master builder of New York City.
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