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  • News Zero: The New York Times and the Bomb
  • Robert C Kiste
News Zero: The New York Times and the Bomb, by Beverly Ann Deepe Keever. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 2004. ISBN cloth, 1-56751-283-6; paper, 56751-282-8; 374 pages, map, figures, photographs, tables, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth US$39.95, paper US$19.95.

Currently a professor of journalism atthe University of Hawai'i, Beverly Keever had an earlier career as a journalist for Newsweek, the New York Herald-Tribune, and the Christian Science Monitor. She covered Vietnam for seven years, was nominated for aPulitzer Prize in 1969, and has received numerous awards for her freedom-of-information endeavors. The title for this book was suggested by "Ground Zero," a term originally used to refer to the exact location at which a nuclear bomb is detonated.

Early in News Zero, Keever recalls how Adolph S Ochs, the publisher of a small newspaper in Tennessee, purchased the near-bankrupt New York Times in 1896. On the day after he took control, Ochs published four principles that would make the Times one of the world's most trusted and influential newspapers: Give the news, all the news. Provide a forum for considering all questions of public importance. Invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion. Give the news impartially, without fear or favor. However, in a letter in 1931, Ochs himself wrote that the Times "so far as possible consistent with honest journalism attempts to act andsupport those who are charged with responsibility for Government" (quoted in Keever, 32). Ochs died in 1935, but his daughter was later quoted as saying that her father and his two immediate successors believed that the Times should support government and that in practice they acted accordingly. Such sentiments had never otherwise been made public.

Using Ochs's guiding principles, Keever critically examines the New York Times coverage of the US nuclear program from its very beginnings, the development and use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the postwar-era nuclear testing program in the Pacific Islands, and more recent developments. The nine chapters that make up Part 1 of News Zero are primarily concerned [End Page 178] with the years from 1945 to 1962, the year the Pacific tests were ended.

A pivotal figure in the story was William L Laurence, science writer for the Times. As early as 1939, Laurence was privy to informal discussions of nuclear scientists who were instrumental in the creation of the atomic bomb. Beginning with his first article about the attempt to split the atom, Laurence was optimistic and enthusiastic about the potential of nuclear power to improve the world for the benefit of all humankind.

In April 1945, Laurence was hired by the US Department of War to officially chronicle the making of the A-bomb. During a four-month absence from the Times, he was paid by both the Times and the War Department, an arrangement that violated the journalists' code of ethics of the time. Laurence witnessed Trinity (the first US test of a nuclear bomb) in New Mexico in July 1945, the bombing of Nagasaki later in the same year, and the first nuclear test at Bikini Atoll in early 1946. In an agreement between the Times and the military, the Times released to other newspapers free of charge a series of ten articles bylined by Laurence under the editorial scrutiny of the military. Laurence systematically omitted or obscured any information about the dangers of radiation. Never mentioned was the fact that the man-made plutonium, with a half-life of 24,000 years, is the most toxic element in the world for living organisms.

For Laurence, the opportunity to witness the nuclear tests took on a seemingly mystical if not religious quality. His skillful use of language embodied much that was sacred and certain to resonate with Americans. On one occasion, he described a great mushroom cloud that "for a fleeting instant took the form of the Statue ofLiberty magnified many times" (quoted in Keever, 75). Laurence's reaction to the Trinity test was cast in Biblical terms: "It was as though the earth had...