Pearl Harbor Anniversary Reminds Us How Fast News Now Spreads

National Archives

As America marked another Pearl Harbor anniversary, I found myself thinking about how different the spread of news was 80 years ago.

With every Pearl Harbor anniversary, we get a reminder of how few survivors remain with us. Pearl Harbor happened almost 30 years before I was born. So I can’t tell you what it was like to live through Dec. 7, 1941.

Television, of course, was barely a consideration that far back. It did exist, but it was not close to being a household staple like it would become in the following decade.

Radio basked in its golden age. But even radio, to its listeners, offered entertainment much more than news and information.

When the Empire of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, people got their news from newspapers. They even turned to newspapers for breaking news, which, by today’s standards of instant information, almost boggles the mind.

Journalist Dan Rather wrote an interesting reflection about news on that day. Rather was 10 years old on that day, old enough to remember it, even if not old enough to fully understand its implications in the moment. Rather publishes a regular column — which he describes as a series of letters from him to you — available free with subscription tiers, called Steady.

I read with great interest his take on that day.

Breaking news before the digital age

It is impossible to convey to those who weren’t yet alive at the time, Rather says, what a “complete shock” the attack was. I find myself struggling to imagine his description of how news of the attack spread.

Yes, I grew up before the digital age. But by the time I came along, news spread far faster than it did in 1941. Yes, people switched on radios to listen to bulletins, he wrote. Yes, newspapers printed special editions to inform their audiences.

But one sentence jumped out at me: “Neighbors knocked on doors.”

I know younger people won’t be able to fathom such a thing. I see some young people sitting together in restaurants, each on their phone, seemingly oblivious to the fact that their friends are literally across the table. Technology — that dreaded digital age — has made us largely anti-social in many ways.

We get a practically endless stream of information. But in the bargain, we lose the personal touch.

Neighbors knocked on doors.

There was a sense of community then. We were all in it together. We governed ourselves accordingly. But more than most would even imagine these days, we communicated face to face.

You can argue that Pearl Harbor was the birth of breaking news on radio.

I have said in the past that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy 22 years later represented the birth of breaking news on television. Rather himself played a major role in the coverage of that story, reporting the president’s death ahead of the official announcement that would come a short time later.

How we got news changed

On Nov. 22, 1963, United Press International’s Merriman Smith’s first wire bulletin came in at 12:34 p.m., just four minutes after the shooting. ABC Radio broke the news on the air at 12:36 p.m., six minutes after it happened. Walter Cronkite broke the news on television in the form of a voiceover bulletin at 12:40 p.m. That was just 10 minutes after the shooting.

But even though radio beat TV, for some reason, Americans in large numbers instinctively went to their televisions rather than their radios.

By contrast, on Dec. 7, 1941, the first wave of the Japanese aircraft attack on Pearl Harbor began at 7:55 a.m. local time. Webley Edwards announced the news on KGMB radio at 9 a.m., an hour and five minutes later.

“Alright now, listen carefully. The island of Oahu is being attacked by enemy planes,” Edwards said. “The center of this attack is Pearl Harbor, but the planes are attacking airfields as well. We are under attack.”

By today’s standards, when we think about news reports of Pearl Harbor, we either think about the bold newspaper headlines or John Charles Daly’s famous radio bulletin.

It’s hard to imagine neighbors knocking on doors to spread the word. Somehow, 80 years ago seems even further back in time.

How fast can news spread?

Those of a certain age, me included, still remember afternoon newspapers. Every afternoon, as workers came home from a day at the office or the plant, a newspaper waited to sum up that day’s news. 

Television largely killed afternoon newspapers. The immediacy of the internet seems to be doing its best to make papers delivered the day after news happens obsolete as well.

Yet even with afternoon newspapers, word-of-mouth still helped with the delivery of news about Pearl Harbor. 

Thirty-seven years after the Kennedy shooting, we watched 9/11 unfold mostly live as it happened on television and cable. You couldn’t escape those images. They were everywhere and they were hard to process.

But no matter how fast news spreads, it always seems “too fast” by that generation’s standards. (Even when it seems comfortably slow by the standards of the generations that follow.)

Consider a short commentary the late David Brinkley delivered on NBC at 12:53 a.m. on the morning of Nov. 23, 1963, hours after the Kennedy assassination. He pointed out that at 1 p.m., Kennedy “was about as alive as any human being ever gets, young, strong, vigorous” and looking forward to another term in office. That changed at a speed he called “too fast for the senses.”

He compared the events of the day with the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945. FDR’s body returned to Washington in a train, he said, draped in black crepe. 

“It steamed majestically across the southern landscape toward Washington taking a little time about it and giving everybody time to think a bit about what had happened,” he said.

“But not today. There is seldom any time to think anymore, and today there was none,” he said. “In about four hours we had gone from President Kennedy in Dallas. alive to back in Washington and a new president in his place. There is no more news here tonight. And really no more to say except that what has happened today has been just too much, too ugly, and too fast.”

No patience to wait any longer

As I looked back at the latest Pearl Harbor anniversary, I marvel at how much we feel a need to know right this minute.

You can blame technology for that, but only to a point. Just because the technology exists, that doesn’t mean we have to avail ourselves of it.

But we do. We do because we can.

When the attack on Pearl Harbor happened, we didn’t have the same level of technology to follow it as it happened. If that technology existed back then, our parents and grandparents surely would have.

Looking back now, at a time when many of us don’t even know our neighbors’ names, much less go door-to-door to spread news, there’s something almost appealing about having more time to process.

Those days have been gone for a long time. They won’t be back.

When we see a group of police cars, sirens blaring and lights flashing, speed past us, we grab our phones. We want to know right that minute what’s happening. You can argue that technology conditioned us to do that.

But we have allowed ourselves to be so conditioned.

The speed of breaking news increased exponentially over the past eight decades.

It shows no signs of slowing down. You have to decide whether that’s good or bad.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.