- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 23, 2001

Is there a fair and constructive medium between the persistent press and the security-conscious Pentagon? Their relationship has become adversarial as reporters try to tease out stories from cautious spokesmen on a war that is not "sequential." This is not a made-for-TV conflict with talking points.
"The old model won't work," said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld yesterday, suggesting press and Pentagon could cobble together a reasonable new modus operandi for covering the war in Afghanistan that "made sense."
Mr. Rumsfeld assured reporters he would "give as much information as safely possible." He reaffirmed their role in a free world, addressed a question about his own credibility and explained why it would not be prudent for journalists to parachute in with special forces.
Though last Friday's scattered press reports on ground operations ultimately did not jeopardize anyone, Mr. Rumsfeld was plenty irked that a source at the Pentagon had leaked classified material. "It floors me that anyone would be willing to do that," he said. "It's terrible, terrible. I can't imagine people being that irresponsible."
Things are getting tense. Even as CNN and other networks vie for scoops through unorthodox means, White House and DOD officials have cautioned the media that instant information gratification is not possible. They suggest journalists use discretion or inadvertently risk aiding media-savvy terrorists.
The requests have not sat well with the media, though the military has placed some 40 journalists on Navy ships or Air Force humanitarian flights. It is not enough, say journalists who believe official spin is encroaching upon press freedoms.
In recent weeks, 26 press organizations released a joint statement to "express our concern over the increasing restrictions by the U.S. government that limit news gathering and inhibit the free flow of information." Some journalists hinted at censorship or claimed that an "inexperienced" administration forced them to pick between the First Amendment and their own patriotism.
Press restraints inspire journalists to "subvert the process and find a way around the blockades of information," said Ronald Yates of the University of Illinois' Department of Journalism.
Such is the nature of the beast. Media and military have had trying moments since the Civil War, according to Roy Clark of the Poynter Institute. There were halcyon, cooperative days between the two during World War II, and lean years during the Gulf War and conflicts that followed.
"The same patterns and rhythms return: The press never has enough access and the military fears too much of it," he said. "But the press loses its credibility if it demands 100 percent access. In turn, the military loses their credibility if they cut the press out of everything."
There is no easy solution. But Mr. Clark's suggestions echo Mr. Rumsfeld's plea that press and military work together.
"Self-censoring sensitive information is an important part of covering a war, as is reassuring and informing those on the home front," Mr. Clark said. "But there are still those who make false steps to advance the story an inch, and there's that bottomless pit of the 24-hour news cycle to receive it."
"Though we don't like the word 'propaganda,' I am in favor of the press playing a role in a form of truthful propaganda for a while," Mr. Clark said. "That way, they could create a good platform and a good case to argue for increased access."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide