The press conference that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld held shortly after the United States began bombing Afghanistan on October 7 was painful to behold. The questions posed by reporters tended to be either trivial–Did the B-2s involved in the mission depart from the United States?–or thoughtless. Since September 11 Rumsfeld had repeatedly said that he would not divulge any information that might endanger ongoing operations, but that did not stop reporters from trying to elicit it. CNN’s Jamie McIntyre, for instance, kept demanding to know whether the United States planned to send ground troops into Afghanistan. Rumsfeld did his best to ignore him, but, as McIntyre persisted, the Secretary finally fixed him with an icy stare and said, “We don’t discuss operational details.”
The briefing reminded me of the famous Saturday Night Live sketch aired during the Persian Gulf War, in which reporters–despite being warned not to ask about matters that could aid the enemy–posed questions like, “What date are we going to start the ground attack?” and “Where are our forces most vulnerable to attack?” The sketch captured the public’s disdain for the media’s mindless aggressiveness and reinforced the first Bush Administration’s inclination to restrict the flow of information about the war.
Now, with a new conflict upon us, the second Bush Administration seems intent on imposing similar controls. “Although the administration says it is not engaged in censorship,” Elisabeth Bumiller reported in the New York Times, “officials throughout the government readily say they have been ordered to be circumspect about their remarks.” This is certainly troubling. Without access to battle sites and timely information, the press–whatever its faults–will have a hard time assessing the success of US actions. Accordingly, US news organizations have been pushing the Pentagon to be more open.
That seems unlikely to happen, however. As during the Gulf War, the public seems to support the Administration’s approach. Rather than sit around and grumble, though, reporters and editors should rededicate themselves to the real task at hand, which is providing the fullest possible coverage of the complicated new era we have entered. That, in turn, requires journalists to show such qualities as independence, enterprise and, yes, courage. Regardless of how much information the government provides, the press must pose uncomfortable questions, challenge broadly held assumptions and solicit opinion from a wide range of sources.
There are some hopeful signs. During the Gulf War, the press uncritically accepted Pentagon assertions about the accuracy of its missiles. Postwar studies showed those claims to be vastly exaggerated, and many journalists felt burned. A month into the current conflict, some journalists have shown their determination to avoid a repeat. Thus, after the Rumsfeld briefing, Richard Hawley, a former US general turned ABC news consultant, told Peter Jennings that in bombing Afghanistan, the United States was using precision-guided weapons so as to avoid “collateral damage.” Jennings immediately pounced. During the Gulf War, he observed, generals “repeatedly talked about precision-guided weapons, and they turned out to be anything but precise. How much better is it now?” Hawley said that US missiles now have GPS-aided navigational devices that make for “far fewer stray rounds.” Whether that’s so remains to be seen, of course, but the exchange shows how some journalists, at least, have learned from that past conflict.
The current one, however, offers a host of new challenges, especially in covering the political dimensions of the conflict. And here the press could do much better. To cite one example, the Pentagon revealed on October 7 that in addition to dropping bombs on Afghanistan, it was dropping humanitarian food packages. In all, it said, it was delivering about 37,000 packages. Most news organizations accepted at face value the Pentagon’s explanation that this showed America’s concern for the well-being of the Afghan people. In all, though, millions of Afghans face starvation, and the next day NPR reported that Doctors Without Borders had condemned the US food drop as “propaganda” and, further, that the bombing had caused the UN World Food Program in Pakistan to suspend its daily shipments of 700 tons of food into Afghanistan. In reporting this, NPR did not rely on handouts from the Pentagon; rather, it went into the field and developed its own sources of information. (In fairness, Washington says it plans to increase greatly the size of its food drops once it is safe to do so.)
Another, more serious example of the press’s credulity has been its coverage of the US intelligence services. In light of the failures to predict the September 11 attacks, the press has almost unanimously concluded that the United States needs to beef up its spying abroad and to “unleash” the CIA to fight terrorism. In a piece for The New Yorker, for instance, Seymour Hersh, relying heavily on sources within the US intelligence community, lambasted the CIA for turning away from the rough-and-tumble methods it used during the cold war. “Look,” one agent told Hersh, “we recruited assholes. I handled bad guys. But we don’t recruit people from the Little Sisters of the Poor–they don’t know anything.” A piece in the New York Times‘s Week in Review section echoed Hersh. “The CIA’s spies are ill-equipped to fight a dirty war in the world’s back alleys,” lamented Tim Weiner, who went on to cite the need for American intelligence to rebuild its capacity for “old-fashioned espionage” and satisfy the “urge for covert action to combat an invisible foe.”
These articles offered no independent assessments as to how much impact such a buildup could actually have in combating terrorism. Even more troubling, they showed no awareness of the serious costs of past US covert operations, from the Congo to Cambodia to Latin America. This omission seemed especially dismaying in the case of Hersh, who over the years has broken so many stories about clandestine mischief abroad.
Clearly, the United States needs to improve its ability to confront invidious groups like Al Qaeda. We are indeed fighting a new kind of war, and it requires new types of responses. Yet the unthinking acceptance of premises like the need to “unleash” the CIA does not advance the discussion. More than ever, US journalists must avoid the temptation to engage in groupthink and–without seeming reflexively adversarial–must ask sharp questions. In the end, the danger they face is not just censorship, but self-censorship.