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.