Soon after the surrender of Nazi Germany, the reporter Martha Gellhorn made her way to Dachau. There she interviewed a recently liberated doctor who told her how the Germans immersed inmates in icy water for hours at a time to determine the human body’s ability to withstand extreme temperatures.
“Didn’t they scream or cry out?” asked Gellhorn. The doctor smiled. “There was no use in this place for a man to scream or cry out. It was no use for any man ever.”
For Fred Inglis, professor of cultural studies and author of People’s Witness: The Journalist in Modern Politics, the exchange and the article that surrounds it are great examples of what journalism should be. It bears witness, it is “truthful” and “faithful to the facts,” and it matches a story with “adequate feelings and moral judgment.” Gellhorn is the first of a long procession of journalists who march through this book over the course of the twentieth century. The best of them, in Inglis’s view, fight the good fight for democracy, decency and international solidarity. The worst bow to the pressures of the market or fawn before the powerful. Together, their lives teach lessons about the purposes of journalism and its place in the history of what the historian Eric Hobsbawm has popularized as the short twentieth century, the period stretching from the beginning of World War I in 1914 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Inglis insists that the purpose of journalism is about more than providing objective information. He conducts a respectful but pointed debate with Phillip Knightley, author of The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth Maker. Where Knightley criticizes generations of war correspondents for partiality, errors and becoming little more than government propagandists, Inglis treats objectivity as an impossibility. Truthful reporting is possible, Inglis argues, but the search for the facts and their presentation can’t be separated from values and beliefs. “The moral view is always somebody’s, located somewhere,” Inglis writes, adding later that “the best journalists square their human allegiance with their feeling for truth.”
In showing how journalists responded to war, revolution, the Depression and the cold war, Inglis charts a ragged story that identifies the reciprocal relationship between journalists and their time. Themes that structure other histories of journalism–the quickening speed of communications, the growth of freedom of expression, professionalization of the press–receive less attention. More important for Inglis is how a journalist in a particular time and place balanced ideals and expedience, and helped to move the world toward more cruelty or less.