Censorship and the War on Terrorism

Gerti Schoen: Do you believe that the censorship that was going on during the Gulf War in 1991 will be repeated under Bush Junior?

John MacArthur: Yes, it will be repeated. They are still debating whether the pool arrangements of 1991 which confined reporters to small groups of strictly controlled reporters is going to be eliminated, and there will be no reporters at all invited on any military operation. I think they might allow reporters on ships as long as they're far away from the action, but I think there will be an even tighter censorship attached to this operation, it is going to be worse. It is useful that the people who promulgated the censorship during the 1991 war are once again in charge, Colin Powell and Dick Cheney. And the press has absolutely no leverage. We might sue again, some small lawsuits, some civil libertarians may do so, but it's hopeless. This will be the most censored war in history. Bush said in his address to the nation that some victories won't even be visible. That means that the war is intended to be fought in secret, so of course the failures and defeats will also be invisible.

But how much do reporters depend on the government? Can't they just go out and observe on their own?

Not easily. The traditional relationship between the American army until Grenada was to bring reporters along with officially accredited reporters and give them a chance to observe, depending on the war. In some wars there have been more official censorship than in others. In WWII, Korea, and Vietnam it was understood that reporters were allowed to accompany units into action. It's just that in Vietnam we lost. And the politicians since then have found it convenient for something that they should be blamed for, and they use it as an excuse to crack down to the point where it seems there will be no reporters at all. It won't just be censorship, but silence.

So far there doesn't seem to be a lot of coverage about the threat of censorship in the mainstream media.

No. The press has lost the habit of independence in this country. When it turns to war, when it turns to foreign policy crisis, you have Dan Rather saying what he said on Letterman, whatever the president says I should do. Just tell me where to line up. Fortunately some newspapers are not like that, the New York Times seems to be keeping a level ahead, and the International Herald Tribune has been very good. There is still some balance but in terms of fighting for the right to cover the war on behalf of the American people it is finished. The battle was lost in the Gulf War and the press is in a hopeless position. I am not even sure they want to cover it, there isn't even the spirit any more that was in Vietnam, of skepticism, and the sense that the patriotic thing to do is to tell the American people the truth and to try to be a impartial as possible and not to be the cats paw of the government. But when I say this on TV the reaction is overwhelming, there is tremendous hostility to the free press in this country.

When you look on the web or in the paper, it seems like there is still a debate going on.

Yes, there is still a debate going on but not in the mainstream press. I was on CNN and on Fox News and did interviews, but that's very little time being devoted, you're not seeing big articles about the pentagon's press policy, at least not yet. And the war hasn't started yet. When we invade Afghanistan the test is going to be whether there will be a debate if it's covered properly. The networks are already volunteering in promoting the war. Rather is saying that he will support the president. He is the most famous anchor in America. It's disgraceful. There is also a martial spirit on the Fox Networks, in the NYT, Lou Dobbs.

What is the general mood at CNN about this?

I was on in the middle of the night that went fairly well. But Ted Turner doesn't run CNN any more. In 1991 he ran it and he allowed Peter Arnett to stay in Baghdad during the US bombings. The question is if freelancers or reporters were able to get into Afghanistan and try to cover the war. What will the American army do, when they run across them? Will they arrest them and send them across the border or allow them to continue and then help them? The suspicion is that this administration will arrest them and hold then and send them over the border.

They couldn't do that with the BBC or the foreign press.

Sure they could. They just detain them, suspect them to be spies or Afghan agents, they do whatever they have to do to fight the war in secret. That's the whole point to permitting the generals to fail in secret. William Russell of The London Times, the first great war correspondent, reported on the terrible condition in the British military camps during the Crimean War (1854-56). The parliament was so shocked by the demoralization of the troops, the disease, the lousy food, that beyond whether this was a justifiable war or not, they were so appalled that the general was exchanged and they made wholesale changes in the leadership of the military.

But what do they have to fear since the whole world seems united against terrorism.

They have a lot to fear. When they go in and start killing civilians, it makes us look bad. If the Taliban counterattacks kill a lot of American soldiers and we are in for another Vietnam, another long struggle, that's also bad publicity, and they don't want it to come out in the American press. The less bad news you report the more room you have to maneuver to have positive propaganda. It was done all the time in Vietnam; civilian casualty was sold as big success. Even with roaming reporters pretty much doing what they wanted.

I have the impression that the media are shifting and starting to report why the attack happened.

My impression is that Americans live in a perpetual present. This is the country with the shortest attention span in the civil world, and it is a cultural problem. We don't know anything that happened 6 months ago much less 20 years ago when we supported the Afghan resistance and Bin Laden against the Soviet Union. No one remembers that we were Saddam´s ally and supporter during the Iran-Iraq war. Nobody remembers. In Germany and France there is an educated community of people that knows that. Here people just don't know. Every time I bring it up I get these blank stares, what do you mean?

Would it be any different under a Gore administration?

No, it would be exactly the same.

How exactly did censorship work during the Gulf War?

Public relations officers read all pool reports. The pool reporters were from the news organizations, the networks, and the big newspapers. The pool would go out, draw straws, and one reporter would go on the action. He'd come back and share all this information, so there is no competition allowed, and each version of the pool report would have to pass censorship before it could be sent back to the news bureaus in Dahrain. It was very effective censorship.

What role will freelancers play during this coming war?

To some extent the world will have to depend on freelancers and brave correspondents of news organizations who refuse to play ball and walk on their own. There are still a few, but it is very difficult to be on your own in such a hostile environment without the support of the publisher.

Are the journalists victims of some kind of mass self-censorship?

Yes, people are afraid to say the politically incorrect thing or ask the un-PC question because they don't want to be seen as not supporting the victims emotionally. But I think the main patriotic thing for journalists to do is to try to tell the truth. And let the people decide what our democracy is supposed to be about. I've watched the BBC on C-Span; it's like night and day. I read Le Monde every day. Both news organizations are absolutely pro-American but there is a real debate going on.

How does the development in Hollywood play into this, that they only want to produce fluffy love stories instead of action movies?

It won't last because people love that stuff and this country runs on money. They're not going to be able to sell love stories all the time. It won't be long before we have a lot of new Rambo movies, but the hero will be in Afghanistan and kill guys in turbans.

Gerti Schoen is a German journalist based in New York.

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