The Atomic Press Release

August 6 marks the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Official announcement came through a press release issued by President Harry Truman:

Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of T.N.T. It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the British “Grand Slam” which is the largest bomb ever yet used in the history of warfare.

The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid many fold. And the end is not yet. With this bomb we have now added a new and revolutionary increase in destruction to supplement the growing power of our armed forces. In their present form these bombs are now in production and even more powerful forms are in development.

It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East…

Arthur W. Page, a legendary figure in public relations, wrote the release. Son of the co-founder of the Doubleday, Page & Co. publishing house, Mr. Page served as AT&T’s VP of Public Relations. During World War II, he oversaw the Joint Army and Navy Committee on Welfare and Recreation and was responsible for numerous communications and morale programs.

Noel L. Griese is the author of a definitive biography on Mr. Page. According to his account, Secretary of War Henry Stimson summoned Mr. Page to full-time duty in April 1945 and briefed him soon after on the Manhattan Project. The Trinity test blast would take place in the desert of Alamogordo, NM, on July 16. Mr. Page was asked to write the release that ultimately would be read to reporters at the White House on the day of the Hiroshima bombing while President Truman was at sea returning from the Potsdam Conference.

Arthur W. Page is credited with writing the most momentous press release in history. Whereas the 1969 moon landing–the 20th century’s other signature event–was beamed live to television audiences, Page’s release alone was the public’s introduction to the atomic age. It is likely the last time a sheaf of paper would change the world.

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V for Victory and Viral

Churchill_VJuly 19 marks the anniversary of World War II’s “V for Victory” campaign. New York Times article of the day describes it as a “nerve war” against the Nazis in occupied Europe. Launched by the BBC, championed by Winston Churchill, and executed by countless brave people in conquered countries, V for Victory was quintessential propaganda. It was also viral marketing in an era when the only computers were a handful of top-secret, room-sized machines (also part of the fight against the Nazis, used to break their coded messages).

The concept began in early 1941 with a BBC radio broadcast by Belgian refugee Victor De Lavelaye. He urged those under occupation to use “V” as a rallying symbol, the first letter in the French “Victoire,” the Flemish “Vrijheid,” and the English “Victory.” BBC editors embraced the concept, and the service beamed the official campaign to occupied Europe.

Per the NYT account, a BBC announcer with the nom-de-guerre “Colonel V. Britton” read a statement from Prime Minister Churchill:

The V sign is the symbol of the unconquerable will of the occupied territories and a portent of the fate awaiting Nazi tyranny. So long as the peoples continue to refuse all collaboration with the invader it is sure that his cause will perish and that Europe will be liberated.

Col.  Britton urged listeners to create “V” graffiti, to chalk or paint the letter on walls and pavement. The “V” theme continued as it was construed as the Roman symbol for the number “5.” Listeners were instructed to read Daniel 5, beginning with the fifth verse–the “writing on the wall” foretelling the downfall of the Babylonian empire that had enslaved the Jews.

Additionally, Col. Britton told the audience to tap out Morse code for the letter “V,” three dots and a dash for the benefit of friend and invader alike. That rhythm mimicked the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth (again, V as 5), a motif likened to “fate knocking at the door,” an extra affront to the Germans that co-opted the greatest work of one of their greatest composers. The first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth became the BBC’s call sign for its broadcasts to continental Europe throughout the war.

V for Victory spread across Europe, as one defiantly drawn or tapped “V” sparked another and another. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels quickly countered, claiming the campaign was a Third Reich invention signifying the German “Viktoria.” The Nazis posted their “V” on banners and newspaper front pages and used Beethoven’s Fifth in their radio broadcasts. It is true brilliance when you can get the competition (enemy) to carry your message.

V for Victory was viral marketing. A major media platform, the BBC, created the spark and the people did the rest. The great communicator of the age, Winston Churchill, continually flashed the V sign for photographers, maintaining his role in the movement. Seven decades before social media let people strike blows against dictators and report from battlefields, V for Victory gave voice to Hitler’s involuntary–and temporary–subjects.

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Social Media: Vast Wasteland 2.0

Newton Minow, chairman of the FCC, declared television a “vast wasteland” in 1961. The medium’s “golden era” was ended.

The golden era has ended…yet again. Media and movements (often entwined) arise and thrive in this so-called gilded time. We marvel at new capabilities, new ideas, new diversions. But then the luster dulls. It is happening to social media–and by extension, the digital realm–amid concerns about fake news, hate speech, and data privacy. And as stated above, it has happened before.

Television was the breakthrough medium after the Second World War, having shown its rudimentary promise during the Depression. The 1950s were the golden era of TV: the comedy of Lucille Ball and the commentary of Edward R. Murrow, the culture of Leonard Bernstein and the explosion of Elvis. Nevertheless, as the decade progressed, the sensation was seen as something more sinister.

In the early 1950s, media theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote, “Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best-trained minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind.” The quote came from The Mechanical Bride, a work dealing primarily with print advertising and messaging; however, the observation was fully applicable to the advertisers sponsoring, dictating and populating television programming.

In 1958, Edward R. Murrow, the acclaimed journalist who helped staunch McCarthyism with a damning report on the senator, warned that television was “nothing but lights and wires in a box” if used solely to “distract, delude, amuse and insulate us.” In 1961, Newton Minow, head of the Federal Communications Commission, famously declared television “a vast wasteland.” Debate and regulation regarding TV content intensified to reduce commercialism and modulate depictions of sex and violence while boosting educational programming, fair political communications, and appropriate children’s viewing during designated dayparts.

In the first decade of the 21st century, social media swept society in the manner of television. It was Web 2.0, the second, greater manifestation of the digital era, emulating the broadcast era’s reconfiguration under TV. With the emergence of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and ongoing use of blogs, we were immersed, participating, and publishing, further solidifying McLuhan’s 1962 prediction of a computer-based medium. We could create our content, report our own news, and construct new types of community, all from the field with the simultaneous ascendancy of mobile devices. Social media’s role in the Arab Spring, the pan-national movement in 2011 to topple Mideast dictators, was held up as an example of social media’s beneficence.

But further paralleling television’s evolution, doubts surfaced about social media’s contributions and effects. In 2012, consultant and author Shel Israel pondered if social media had become a vast wasteland per Minow’s model. Israel remained hopeful that the good of the communication technology would prevail, but he concluded with the instruction, “It is up to us.”

In 2018, the wasteland argument has strengthened. The 2016 presidential election underscored the prevalence of fake news and hate speech generated and shared through social media. Mass-manipulation campaigns traverse social media with ease, fueled with copious personal data openly provided and opaquely mined. At the same time, teenage bullies manipulate their own target audiences with identical tools.

Traditional news media (all with a social media presence) have sounded the alarm of societal threats, concurrently re-establishing their relevance and sowing more distrust among divided audiences. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and face of the social media boom, has appeared before the US Congress and EU Parliament regarding the sanctity of data and accuracy of news within the world’s largest social media platform. Regulation looms to protect users and curb excesses.

Social media’s golden age is history. Before we welcome a “new” vast wasteland, we must ask if it is merely continuation of the old one. After Minow’s speech, how many people roused themselves for “Sunrise Semester”? How many merely bristled or shrugged when accused of “low brow” tastes for tuning in “The Beverly Hillbillies”? (Worth comparing the label to “deplorables.”) Are we navigating the same media wasteland today? Is it the killing ground of society…or a mirror?

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