Unleash the Press

Unleash the Press

The White House has learned from the past—from the conflicts in Vietnam, Grenada, Panama and the Balkans—how to ensure an acquiescent press.


For the straight-faced Pentagon press corps–assured by so many commentators that irony ended on September 11–Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's pointedly ironic remarks on October 18 about war news must have come as a great surprise. "Let's hear it for the essential daily briefing, however hollow and empty it might be," Rumsfeld gibed, in open mockery of the beat reporters' request for regular updates from the Afghanistan front. "We'll do it. Five days a week, not seven." The straight men, converted to court jesters, laughed heartily at the Secretary's joke.

Thus do we witness the death throes of independent war coverage by a free press, a once-popular notion that reached its apogee in the latter stages of the war in Vietnam. Rumsfeld is old enough to remember the infamous "Five O'Clock Follies" in Saigon–dubbed as such by a skeptical media–at which US military spokesmen spouted all manner of upbeat nonsense to bored reporters. But in those days most of the media knew that the briefings were shot through with lies–they made fun of the briefers, not the other way around. Today the government is prosecuting its military campaign in near-complete secrecy, confident that journalists will salute without the slightest irony.

How we got to Rumsfeld's joke is not, of course, very funny. The military establishment, particularly within the Army, was deeply wounded, not only by losing the actual war in Vietnam but also by losing the image of morality and innocence that accompanied US soldiers into battle in World War II and Korea. The smartest among them decided to promote the absurd idea that the press "lost" Vietnam by demoralizing the American people with inaccurate, sensational reporting born of too much access to the battlefield. The public relations war planners were ably assisted by journalists like Peter Braestrup, who argued, for example, that the Tet offensive, while clearly a public relations defeat for the United States, was in reality a decisive military defeat for the Vietcong. Hence, protested the revisionists, the television images of besieged American GIs in Hue unfairly portrayed a losing cause, when victory was still within our grasp. We could have won the war!

Attached to this theory was the equally specious suggestion that US reporters were fundamentally unpatriotic and cynically scoop-hungry, happy to reveal military secrets that would get American soldiers killed. In truth they were overly patriotic in the early years of Vietnam. And as for fatal security breaches, they never occurred–not once–though that hasn't stopped the government propagandists from establishing ground rules for coverage worthy of Catch-22: "We would much rather have open reporting," purrs Pentagon spokesperson Victoria Clarke, as long as it doesn't endanger the troops. But it always turns out that "open reporting" compromises "operational security."

Successive administrations and the Pentagon, impressed by British media control of the Falklands/Malvinas war, refined their wartime PR strategy with each post-Vietnam operation: During the Grenada invasion they simply kept quiet and left the press behind; in Panama they formed combat "pools" (small, closely supervised and noncompetitive groups of reporters required to share information) that departed Washington well after the first wave of troops had landed and then were confined to a military base until most of the action was over; in the Gulf War the pools were enlarged, but their military minders made sure that they never arrived in time to see any killing. Not only were pictures of corpses banned during the Gulf War but pictures of coffins were banned as well. The first Bush Administration was distressed by split-screen TV images showing rows of pine boxes from the Panama invasion at Dover Air Force Base, while the adjacent President glorified the sacrifice of US troops in Operation Just Cause.

During the bombing of Belgrade, in a weird turn of political correctness, the Clinton PR apparatus even forbade reporters from revealing the last names of bomber pilots for fear their families might receive hate mail. The Clintonites had learned their lesson about information management the hard way in Somalia in October 1993, during the so-called UN peacekeeping mission. There, US reporters were run out of the capital by Somali violence against journalists and by dire warnings from the US military. Fortunately, a courageous Canadian reporter, Paul Watson of the Toronto Star, stayed on to witness the bloody disaster that ensued when US Army Rangers helicoptered in to try to seize the warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid. Watson's photograph of the half-naked corpse of an American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu shocked the nation, and Clinton pulled out the troops, minus Aidid.

The current Bush public relations team fears a Somalia scenario even more than pictures of dead Afghan civilians. Jubilant Taliban soldiers stomping on mutilated Americans might chill the hot-blooded majority, gulled since Grenada into thinking wars can be fought cleanly, surgically and casualty free. Consequently, the Pentagon hasn't even bothered to form the national media pools promised ten years ago in its last round of negotiations with the Washington bureau chiefs of the major newspapers and TV networks. It hardly matters whether the Defense Department invokes official censorship, since getting to the scene of combat will be next to impossible. As with the Kosovo campaign, in which Serbian state television provided the best pictures, the land of the free will essentially be left with the Al Jazeera network for its war coverage. The Taliban hates war correspondents even more than Colin Powell does.

The White House news policy is unremarkable, given that all governments lie in wartime and all governments try to stem the flow of bad news. What is remarkable is the passivity of the US media. Evidently afflicted with a guilt complex after Vietnam, the owners of the major newspapers and networks long ago ceased to protest Pentagon manipulation, and now they feel justified by simple-minded polls that show reflexive support for "military security." Ted Turner was the last media baron to stand up to the government–over its objection to Peter Arnett's presence in Baghdad during the Gulf War–but he no longer owns CNN and Arnett doesn't work there anymore.

The most revealing statement about the supine state of the media comes from Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler: "There's got to be a forceful advocate at a high place in the administration who also understands that the press's ability to carry out its mission is important." Why not his chairman of the board, Donald Graham, or Arthur Sulzberger Jr. of the New York Times?

Does anyone care about the principle of informed consent, implied though not specified in the Constitution? Does anyone think the people need to know what the military is doing in their name? Or, put another way, does anyone think that citizens have a right to change their minds, based on accurate, corroborated information about the war? What about soldiers led by incompetent commanders; don't they need witnesses too?

The Nation, along with other small publications and Agence France-Presse, sued unsuccessfully to break up the media pool racket in 1991. The lawsuit was mooted by the end of the Gulf War, but the judge wrote a favorable dismissal, so perhaps a new legal challenge is in order. Meanwhile, we can watch Al Jazeera, based in freedom-loving Qatar, and hope for the reappearance of Paul Watson.

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