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Hither and Yon

Reporters vs editors: Paul Morton’s story is finally told

Reporters vs editors: Paul Morton’s story is finally told
Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
Fights between reporters and editors are classic. Reporters don’t trust editors, and editors don’t trust reporters.
That little observation is by way of commenting on what has to be about the worst reporter-editor rift in the history of journalism. That’s the betrayal of the Canadian correspondent who parachuted behind enemy lines in World War II only to have his paper refuse to believe he’d ever been there ¯ and then not only dismiss him arbitrarily but have him disaccredited and blackballed for any future anywhere in journalism.
Don North, a long-time broadcast correspondent, whom I first met in Indonesia in 1965-66 during “The Year of Living Dangerously,” then encountered in Vietnam in the old days and saw at a reunion of Vietnam hacks in Saigon at the end of April, tells the tragic tale. North’s book, “Inappropriate Conduct: Mystery of a Disgraced War Correspondent,” is the saga of the “disgrace” of Paul Morton. Drawing upon archival sources in Italy, England and Canada, as well as copious interviews and Morton’s own brief book, North spins a passionate yarn of derring-do and perfidy. So doing, he paints a portrait of a truly evil top editor, a man reviled by Ernest Hemingway, who as a young reporter quit the Star after four months.
North felt strongly enough about the awful treatment accorded Morton that he had the book self-published after failing to get a conventional commercial publisher. That’s just as well, since any book editor would probably have told him to cut out a lot of the background with which he embroiders Morton’ story. Although Morton did eventually write a brief book about his life with the Italian “patriots” battling the Germans, his account in Italian translation was sparing ¯ in need of explication that North provides sometimes in distracting detail.
North, seeking to put Morton’s heroics in perspective, fashions lengthy passages of history and background. These include a retelling of Winston Churchill’s escape from his captors as a British officer-journalist during the Boer War in South Africa, and his abiding interest in seeing what the Italian partisans were doing. Another chapter recounts the tragic adventure of an Associated Press correspondent also named Morton, Joe Morton, no relation to Paul, who was caught by the Germans and executed after landing behind their lines in Slovakia.
You wonder, reading North’s book, about the problems that correspondents have suffered in wars in Northeast Asia since World War II and the Chinese revolution. The Korean War was relatively simple. Journalists did not seem to have questioned policy then as they did during the Vietnam War, and I don’t recall correspondents deliberately going behind North Korean or Chinese lines.
Journalists do go to North Korea fairly often on tours where minders make sure they see the usual sights and nothing more ¯ certainly no sign of human rights abuses. Foreign news bureaus in Pyongyang operate under similar constraints. Correspondents based there are accompanied by minders and can’t begin to uncover the horrors. The Associated Press is no exception. Its bureau remains tightly circumscribed, at least to judge by AP stories out of Pyongyang.
Reporters during the Vietnam War had remarkable freedom. We could fly on military aircraft, stay in military facilities and interview young soldiers without fear of censorship. We often talked to contacts with information that U.S. policymakers didn’t want to see publicized. So negative were some of our stories that people in the Pentagon and State Department still blame “the media” for losing the war. The Pentagon has responded by having journalists “embedded” with units when covering U.S. forces, notably in the Middle East. That way the military controls whom they see and where they go ¯ even if there is no censorship.
Paul Morton operated under a similar system. He was embedded ¯ though the term wasn’t used then ¯ with some daring Brits as they moved about with the partisans, avoiding the Germans while undergoing dangers and hardships. The arrogant editor of the Toronto Star, having never covered a war, knew nothing of what his man was enduring. Instead, he relied on bad-mouthing by Canadian military people, upset that Morton had fired a few shots in an officer’s club in a rambunctious moment. The paper failed to investigate really what Morton had been doing and published only one of his dispatches before destroying the rest.
I’ve worked for terrible know-nothing editors, but I’ve never heard of anything so dreadful as the fate of Paul Morton after his exploits in Italy. The story’s now out there ¯ and the Toronto Star, years later, needs to answer if not atone for its sins. As tensions rise on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia, this book is a cautionary tale ¯ a warning of the arrogance of editors and the emotions and pressures that can destroy intrepid journalists in war.
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