160331 Wellies

Last month I wrote about the challenge of addressing my biases when writing Kitchener 1916 Project posts. This month the challenge is what I call “source bias.”

I’m reading two English-language dailies for the Kitchener 1916 Project—The Berlin News-Record and The Berlin Daily Telegraph—therein, it’s easy to argue that by not including local German news sources, my basic research is skewed (regrettably, it is what it is: I don’t read German and I can’t afford to hire a translator to review one year’s worth of news). While an acquaintance remarked the newspapers I am consulting cover the spectrum (one left wing, one right wing), I disagree. I think they cover a spectrum within a spectrum—one right wing and (as I’ve put it) one righter wing. As someone with access to fair and balanced, left-leaning, and right-leaning news sources, I don’t see the 1916 stories as left-leaning or even balanced reporting.

A good friend reminded me those newspapers’ journalists and editors probably did what writers have done since time immemorial: they wrote to their audience’s preferences, fears, and prejudices. They may have also reflected the wants and wishes of their owners and advertisers. In wartime, in a country so closely tied to a main belligerent, in a city so closely tied to an opposing main belligerent, editors and writers wrote to an ideal audience who was blindly and wildly patriotic to the British cause.

Unsurprisingly, the newspapers mirrored their (ideal) readers’ social views. They downplayed suffragette wins and belittled women’s capabilities and contributions. They seemed to protect their own—unnamed soldiers sometimes stood before Magistrate Weir. And what of Berlin’s non-White population? In a case where a local Chinese man who believed two Germans cheated him, the Chinese man was named, but the two Germans who may have acted illegally were given nicknames.

As Himani Bannerji notes, the media provides a society’s prescription and description of consensus; the media also provides the chaotic images if that norm crumbled. It also plays a role in subjugating the “other”—in the 1916 context, this would include women, enemy aliens, and non-Whites/non-WASPs. While I’m aware of what those writers tried to project, maintain and/or create, I ask myself how accurately their words reflected Berlin’s citizenry in 1916. They are probably as accurate as some of today’s writers in reflecting our own society’s opinions.

From Mexico to the Antarctic

There were two stories I couldn’t fit in this month.

The first was about Pancho Villa’s exploits and the start of the Punitive Expedition. On 9 March, Villa crossed into the United States, and his revolutionaries raided Columbus, New Mexico. They killed 19 people and left the town in flames. Carranza, the leader of the Mexican government, allowed the Americans to enter the country to capture the revolutionaries. US president Wilson selected General Pershing to lead an expedition of thousands of men into Mexico to capture Villa and his men.

Meanwhile, on 25 March, London (UK) received a message from The Aurora, one of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s auxiliary steamships. The polar explorer and his crew set off in late 1914 to cross Antarctica. When the message was sent, the damaged steamer was in the far south Pacific and proceeding to New Zealand for repairs. The fates of Shackleton and his crew were unknown—no one in Britain knew if completed their mission and were at the Ross Sea Base without a return ship or if they were lost in the tundra or if they were dead.

This month’s favourite:

I think “No de-fence for fowl play” would have been a better headline than The Daily Telegraph’s “Chicken case was heard in police court.”

Apparently Berliners were all in a flap about “the thrilling ‘mystery of the dead chickens’” aka “who pulled the board off the back fence?” (I take it whoever came up with the 118th Battalion’s inspired recruiting campaign slogan, “700 men in three weeks” was the same frustrated novelist who also covered barnyard politics).

A long-standing feud between two neighbours resulted in a damaged fence and chickens killed for “trespassing. ” The two men and a “whole carload of witnesses” spoke before Magistrate Weir on 29 March. “As near as could be made out from the many and varied stories told,” the defendant tore off some pickets and killed any clucker that wandered through to his yard. The plaintiff didn’t “favour this strenuous method of dealing with his fowl nor did he like to see a fence, which he claimed to own, torn to pieces so ruthlessly.” I’m honestly unsure which he was more upset over—the damaged fence or the dead chickens. The case was called off after the defendant agreed to pay costs of $11.35 ($221.94—see note on conversion).


February 2016 Posts:

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