Washington radio station WTOP decided to put a local spin on the anniversary of the moon walk by telling its website viewers about the crucial contributions to our nation’s space achievements by “a brilliant German-American rocket engineer who is laid to rest in Alexandria, Virginia.”
The article, by Dick Uliano, was classic hagiography. No, nothing in it was false, but if a reader knew anything about Wernher Von Braun, it felt like a whitewash, which it was. Oh, there were plenty of hints in the piece that Von Braun was a Nazi, with off-hand sentences amid the upbeat prose, like “In 1932 he began work on Germany’s liquid-fuel rockets that pounded western Europe in World War II,” and “At the close of World War II, von Braun and his rocket team surrendered into the welcoming arms of the United States, which immediately put them to work in America’s space race against the Soviet Union.” Nonetheless, the article never connected the dots, leaving out the mandatory direct statement telling readers what every literate citizen knew in the 1960s: Werner Von Braun was not only a Nazi, but an unapologetic one. It is “fake news” to write about ‘the Alexandria man who was critical to the Apollo program’ without including this information. That is a material omission.
It’s true: the space program relied heavily on the contributions and expertise of Nazi scientists. This is a classic example of utilitarianism of the most unsentimental and most brutal variety. Had he not cut a deal with the Americans, von Braun very likely would have been tried and convicted of war crimes. The U.S. correctly and pragmatically concluded that making a pact with a devil was nonetheless essential to national security. That does not mean, however, that there was anything admirable about von Braun whatsoever. At best he was amoral, a mercenary. At worst he was as much of a monster as any of Hitler’s enablers.
That original article was Strike One. WTOP’s reporter either was uneducated about the subject of his article, which is incompetent, or deliberately minimized the single most important feature about him, which is dishonest. Either way, it’s unethical journalism.
There are a lot of veterans in Northern Virginia, so WTOP started getting complaints right away. The station then issued a correction that stated, “We have updated this story to explicitly state that Wernher von Braun was a Nazi.” Strike Two. The “corrected” article still made von Braun seem like a great American and one hell of a guy. He wasn’t. The article should have been overhauled to tell readers that a major though controversial figure crucial to the space program is buried in Alexandria, Virginia: here’s is why he was crucial, and here is why he’s controversial.
Then WTOP pulled the whole article, with no replacement. “After careful consideration, WTOP has decided to remove the article from our website. This story did not meet WTOP’s standards and should not have appeared on any of our platforms,” it explained. So down the memory hole the story went.
Strike Three. Rather than deal with a complicated subject and the the ethical issues it raises, just say nothing except “Never mind!” and help make sure that future generations of reporters are as historically ignorant as Dick Uliano. Nah, don’t mess up the good feelings around the moon launch by venturing into the dark origins of the space program. Better to forget about Wernher von Braun than have to think about the ethical messiness of war, science, international relations and national priorities.
This is a microcosm of 21st Century journalism, or what remains of it.
- What are WTOP’s “standards”? From thsi episode, I conclude that the standards involved are “don’t rock the boat,” and “if a story is going to upset the audience, leave it alone. Bliss is better than ignorance.”
- Our schools fail our children, society and the culture by not teaching these stories. An amazing number of commenters on various websites have admitted that they had no idea that former Nazis were involved with Cold War Era weaponry and the space program. Well, I’m sorry to be a broken record on the topic of cultural literacy, but here we are again.
- WTOP’s journalism here embraced incompetence, misrepresentation, and, in the end, cowardice, choosing to withhold information as the easier alternative to revealing unpleasant truths.