World War I -- Life Histories/Section 001/Elmer Roberts

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This page is connected with English 105 at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill - North Carolina World War I.

Elmer Roberts
Elmer Roberts' passport photo from his archives at UNC Chapel Hill.
Years active1899-1929
Known forHead of the Paris Bureau for the Associated Press
Claire Livingston Roberts' passport photo from his archives.

Biography[edit]

Elmer Roberts (1863-1937) was an American correspondent for the Associated Press who worked as head of the AP bureaus in Paris and Berlin throughout World War One. Roberts was born in Lagro, Indiana and began working in journalism at the age of 22, quickly branching out from local papers to major news organizations in Washington and New York.[1] After he began working for the Associated Press, he and his wife, Claire Livingston Roberts, split their time between New York, Germany, London, and France. Roberts worked hard to get the truth out to the public in a time when media was heavily censored. He was known as a prominent journalist in Cuba, then worked in Berlin before settling into his job in Paris, where he remained for the entirety of World War One. Roberts’ most notable work was done during the war, and his record-breaking journalism successfully spread news across Europe and America. His office was even the first to relay the orders summoning France to arms.[2] His wife Claire also played an important role in the war, serving in the American ambulance service and American Red Cross.[3] Both were recognized as important figures in the Great War, and Claire was decorated by the French government for her services before she died of an illness in 1923 on a return trip to New York.[4] Roberts remained a leading war journalist throughout the conflict and worked with the Associated Press until 1929, his fortieth year in journalism. His last years were spent in ill health and he died in 1937, fourteen years after Claire, at the age of 74. He was buried in Jacksonville, Florida, where he lived with his sister-in-law the last six years of his life, and where he had worked early on in his career for the Jacksonville Citizen. [5]

Censorship in World War One[edit]

Government Regulations[edit]

Governments, in an effort to keep up morale and keep information out of the hands of the enemy, shielded their people from the grisly truths of the conflict. This was a war that needed support from every man, woman, and child – both on the battlefield and on the home front. Nations could not afford to have their own people question their tactics or their chances at victory. Strict regulations for American journalists were issued by war offices and the American Committee on Public Information, demanding they only write what the government wanted them to.[6] The Espionage Act was also passed, making it a crime to convey information that could potentially be harmful in the hands of the enemy or speak out in criticism of the United States.[7] Among the regulations were orders not to report the arrival of American troops at European ports and information on government experiments in war material.[8] Wires were screened by the Navy and forbidden words were cut directly out of papers.[9] Cable tolls were also raised, making journalists more careful about what they chose to send.[10] Journalists began to fear for their businesses and for their Constitutional right to free speech. While much of the regulations made sense to protect the safety and well-being of the soldiers overseas, a complete lack of any real news soon led to the dwindling of public support, as citizens began to question what was actually happening overseas. [11]

Journalists' Response[edit]

Desperate to win back the favor of the people, the government turned to the very people most likely to violate the regulations put in place – journalists – and asked them to publish only news that made America look good and revealed no crucial information.[12] It became clear that the government could no longer fight the media; government propaganda and war correspondence would have to go hand in hand. Many journalists soon gave up their quest to get real news past the censors and instead became the government’s messengers. As writer Sydney Moseley said, “[journalists’] wings were so clipped by the authorities and the censors that they seldom fluttered to the front line. […] We were, of necessity, commentators and descriptive writers, not reporters.”[13] However, many journalists believed the government was attacking free speech and fought against becoming the government's envoys. Several news organizations continued to work tirelessly to get the real truth out to the masses, believing everyone had a right to know what was going on, and they often managed to get quite a few stories past the censors. Roberts himself said in a letter of his: “It is often true that official statements have a greater importance than an account by a newspaper reporter," Roberts said in a letter of his, "but a continuous stream of such communications become a little tiresome, as I think the world has seen from the official military communiques. The reader wonders why the communique rarely gives the situation.”[14]

Roberts' copy of the regulations issued by the Committee on Public Information found in his archives.

Work in War Journalism[edit]

Roberts’ job as head of the Paris AP office was to report the history of Europe leading up to the war, major news throughout the war, and the rebuilding and peace conferences following the war.[15] He wired news from France to America and brought attention to the issues he believed really mattered. Said Roberts, “There are terrible things about this war which have never yet been written, and this may be the beginning of tearing open the realities.”[16] He believed full effort could not be made without the whole of a nation understanding the issues involved in the war and tried to get the truth out to as many people as possible. Though censorship caused many of his wired stories to be fragmentary or lost, he still managed to get several important news stories across the Atlantic to the New York office, and he was even more successful in reporting news across France.[17] Several of his letters slipped through unnoticed by censors, and in them he managed to fit detailed descriptions of political and military issues he came in contact with daily. In fact, his bureau in Paris broke records with the volume of news they managed to report during the War.[18] He wrote of the horrors of war for the sake of news, but said he hoped, “the cause of civilization may be served incidentally.”[19] Roberts remained a well-respected AP executive until his retirement.


References[edit]

  1. “Elmer Roberts, 74, Journalist, Dead.” New York Times. November 18, 1937. Page 23. Print. 18 February 2015. <http://search.proquest.com/docview/102153741/569C1CD124AB4646PQ/1?accountid=14244>.
  2. “Elmer Roberts, 74, Journalist, Dead.” New York Times. November 18, 1937. Page 23. Print. 18 February 2015. <http://search.proquest.com/docview/102153741/569C1CD124AB4646PQ/1?accountid=14244>.
  3. “Paris Mourns Mrs. Elmer Roberts.” New York Times. November 6, 1929. Page 25. Print. 18 February 2015. <http://search.proquest.com/hnpnewyorktimes/docview/104866969/fulltextPDF/448B418CFC594BE5PQ/2?accountid=14244>.
  4. “Paris Mourns Mrs. Elmer Roberts.” New York Times. November 6, 1929. Page 25. Print. 18 February 2015. <http://search.proquest.com/hnpnewyorktimes/docview/104866969/fulltextPDF/448B418CFC594BE5PQ/2?accountid=14244>.
  5. “Elmer Roberts, 74, Journalist, Dead.” New York Times. November 18, 1937. Page 23. Print. 18 February 2015. <http://search.proquest.com/docview/102153741/569C1CD124AB4646PQ/1?accountid=14244>.
  6. Smyth, Daniel. “Avoiding Bloodshed? US Journalists and Censorship in Wartime.” War and Society Volume 32 Issue 1 (2013): p. 64-94. Web. 18 February 2015. <http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=9&sid=34e9dba7-a442-4512-b45b-9e9db814ab5e%40sessionmgr111&hid=125>.
  7. “The Espionage Act of 1917.” Digital History. 2014. Web. 18 February 2015. <http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=3&psid=3904>.
  8. Roberts, Elmer. Correspondence to Associated Press Colleagues. 1917-1919. Box 1, Folder 13-15. Elmer Roberts Papers, 1835-1937. Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 11 February 2015.
  9. Smyth, Daniel. “Avoiding Bloodshed? US Journalists and Censorship in Wartime.” War and Society Volume 32 Issue 1 (2013): p. 64-94. Web. 18 February 2015. <http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=9&sid=34e9dba7-a442-4512-b45b-9e9db814ab5e%40sessionmgr111&hid=125>.
  10. Roberts, Elmer. Correspondence to Associated Press Colleagues. 1917-1919. Box 1, Folder 13-15. Elmer Roberts Papers, 1835-1937. Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 11 February 2015.
  11. “The War to End All Wars.” Associated Press. 2014. Web. 18 February 2015. <http://www.ap.org/explore/ww1/>.
  12. Collins, Ross F. “The Business of Journalism in Provincial France during World War I.” Journalism History Volume 27 Issue 3 (2001): p. 112. Web. 18 February 2015. <http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=22&sid=34e9dba7-a442-4512-b45b-9e9db814ab5e%40sessionmgr111&hid=125>.
  13. Macleod, Jenny. War, Journalism and History: War Correspondents in the Two World Wars. Oxford, Peter Lang, 2012. Web. 18 February 2015. <http://site.ebrary.com/lib/uncch/reader.action?docID=10620452>.
  14. Roberts, Elmer. Correspondence to Associated Press Colleagues. 1917-1919. Box 1, Folder 13-15. Elmer Roberts Papers, 1835-1937. Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 11 February 2015.
  15. “Elmer Roberts, 74, Journalist, Dead.” New York Times. November 18, 1937. Page 23. Print. 18 February 2015. <http://search.proquest.com/docview/102153741/569C1CD124AB4646PQ/1?accountid=14244>.
  16. “The War to End All Wars.” Associated Press. 2014. Web. 18 February 2015. <http://www.ap.org/explore/ww1/>.
  17. Roberts, Elmer. Correspondence to Associated Press Colleagues. 1917-1919. Box 1, Folder 13-15. Elmer Roberts Papers, 1835-1937. Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 11 February 2015.
  18. “Elmer Roberts, 74, Journalist, Dead.” New York Times. November 18, 1937. Page 23. Print. 18 February 2015. <http://search.proquest.com/docview/102153741/569C1CD124AB4646PQ/1?accountid=14244>.
  19. “The War to End All Wars.” Associated Press. 2014. Web. 18 February 2015. <http://www.ap.org/explore/ww1/>.