Enough is Enough

Shortly after the end of the American Civil War, journalist F. Colburn Adams wrote, "The future historian of the late war will have [a] very difficult task to perform ... sifting the truth from falsehood as it appears in official records."

Similar to the oft-repeated axiom that truth is the first casualty of war, Adams' observation succinctly summarizes the nub of the conflict between the military and the news media. The military's mission is to fight, and to win, whatever conflict may present itself-preferably on the battlefield but certainly in public opinion and the history books. The journalist, on the other hand, is a skeptic if not a cynic and aims to seek, find and report the truth -- a mission both parties often view as incompatible with successful warfare, which depends on secrecy and deception as much as superior strategy, tactics, weaponry and manpower.

Accordingly, the military and the media seem destined to be forever at odds. Many, though by no means all, of the generation of officers who served in the Vietnam War, as well as those succeeding them, have never really forgiven the press for the "living room war" that brought home images of combat's death and destruction. Thoughtful observers such as Col. Harry G. Summers, who testified before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee near the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, acknowledged that "blaming the media for the loss of the Vietnam War was wrong. The media, and television in particular, [were] good at showing the cost of the war. But [the] cost of anything has meaning only in relation to value . It was not the news media, which reported the price, that lost the war. It was the government which deliberately failed to establish its value."

The enduring perception, however, that the media "lost" the war in Vietnam persists in some military circles. In the wake of the bitterness following that Southeast Asian conflict, it is perhaps not surprising that the Pentagon and the White House reconfigured the equation-retreating from a policy of open coverage tempered only by voluntary adherence to security guidelines, and instead adopting strict control of both battlefield access and press dispatches from the front.

For many media observers, the nadir of media-military relations in modern history occurred during the Reagan administration when Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger decided that the press would not be allowed to witness the invasion of the island of Grenada. Plans for the invasion had been kept secret, but once journalists learned that U.S. forces had landed, they immediately tried to cover the story. U.S. ships and aircraft turned back at least two boats and a plane chartered by the news media, and several reporters already in-country were held incommunicado. Some days later about 100 journalists were taken to Grenada in military planes but reported that they were closely supervised, kept far from the action and thwarted in their attempts to transmit their own footage to the U.S. public.

Although reporters eventually gained access to the island, the news media continued to grumble. Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine, even sued Weinberger and others in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., seeking an order prohibiting the access restrictions and a declaration that the government's actions had violated the First Amendment. He didn't get either one.

In what was to become the template for a series of frustrating court decisions, District Judge Oliver Gasch dismissed the complaint, finding that the decision to impose a press ban was properly within the military commander's discretion and, moreover, that the Grenada situation was unlikely to repeat itself. A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit -- including then-Judge Kenneth Starr -- affirmed the dismissal on grounds of mootness.

This pattern repeated itself in subsequent conflicts. A Defense Department panel, chaired by Maj. Gen. Winant Sidle and including two retired journalists, proposed a press pool, to be deployed at the outset of covert military operations. The theory behind the compromise was that the press pool would give media representatives real-time access to military operations without compromising security. But journalists complained that the military kept the pool reporters isolated, away from the conflict, during operations in Iran and Panama. Then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney was lambasted, not only by the press but even in a 1990 Pentagon report, for his "excessive concern for secrecy."

Then came the Persian Gulf crisis. When U.S. troops went to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Shield, the press pool did not go along. It was several days before journalists, carrying Saudi Arabian visas the State Department arranged for them, were deployed to Dhahran. The new "ground rules" and regulations eventually included the notorious "security review" process-which the military insisted was needed to protect operations but which the media saw as pernicious censorship designed to thwart independent reporting. Print reporters were particularly frustrated as their stories were delayed for hours, sometimes days; broadcast journalists seemed to face fewer obstacles in preparing and airing their live transmissions. Regardless of the medium, those in the press pool all complained that their access to military operations had been severely impaired and that -- far from being "business as usual" -- the press was subjected to unprecedented censorship. And so, in the best American tradition, the journalists sued. Nine organizations and four individual journalists filed a federal suit in New York, seeking an injunction against enforcement of restrictions on movement. The suit also called for the speedy dispatch of news reports for anything other than legitimate security reasons. A second suit, filed shortly thereafter, sought similar relief and also challenged the exclusion of specific news outlets from the pool. Yet another federal judge disappointed the press. U.S. District Judge Leonard Sand of New York, like his D.C. counterparts, found that both the "uniqueness" and the need for speedy resolution of the gulf conflict made it impossible to render an opinion on the constitutionality of the military restrictions in that particular theater.

Uneasy negotiations between the press and the Pentagon, lasting more than eight months, followed. They culminated in a new set of nine principles for combat coverage, which the Pentagon adopted in May 1992. The principles espoused "open and independent reporting" of military operations as the norm, with pools to be used only for short periods and for limited purposes. The military reaffirmed the concept that public affairs officers would be liaisons, not censors, and pledged to transport the pools and to facilitate the transmission of journalists' stories.

The final sticking point, however, concerned the phantom "10th principle": security review. The Washington bureau chiefs of major media organizations who had represented the press viewpoint insisted that journalists would abide by clear "ground rules" similar to the simple guidelines during the Vietnam War but would resist prior review by government officials. The military contended, in words recalling the famous dicta in the U.S. Supreme Court's 1931 Near v. Minnesota decision, that "it must retain the option to review news material, to avoid the inadvertent inclusion in news reports of information that could endanger troop safety or the success of the mission."

And there, for the most part, the official record ends. Subsequent military operations elsewhere simply failed to present the same opportunity for government restrictions. As the Persian Gulf conflict demonstrated, the nature of warfare was changing, and news-transmission technology was changing, too. The possibility of real-time dispatch of written, audio and video reports from the front became a reality, adding verisimilitude to the military's hyperbolic insistence that news coverage could literally aid and abet the enemy. Yet at the same time, the advent of Internet communications rendered the threat of censorship via prior review less feasible. This has left the military with the choice of either letting in the press and resigning itself to open and robust coverage, perhaps by "rogue" journalists far less willing to abide by Defense Department principles, or trying to block media access -- the very scenario that veteran journalist Walter Cronkite had deplored in congressional testimony near the end of the Gulf War.

The drawback to a government-imposed news blackout, from a military perspective, would presumably be that while the American people might tolerate or even embrace such a policy for a short time, no military operation could continue without public support in the long run. In a democracy like the United States, the public expects to get news, and they expect to get it from sources other than the government.

During the Gulf War, of course, the public did get news -- or at least what it thought was news -- on a regular basis, 24 hours a day, complete with spectacular video footage. My own experience, admittedly anecdotal, was that in the days following the Gulf War, when I spoke to audiences made up of the general public, none had any inkling that the press's movement and dispatches had been restricted.

In other words, the media themselves did not adequately inform the public that the rules of the game were not what they might have expected. Most news consumers blew right past those "agate-type" disclaimers in the newspapers that the military had reviewed the stories.

If a new administration tries to impose Draconian restrictions, the media can and should adopt a strategy to oppose them. The press must protest, of course, but it must simultaneously convince the public that, above all, it will do everything possible not to imperil U.S. lives or the integrity of military operations while also pledging to tenaciously and courageously chase the story -- offering the independent perspective that the Founding Fathers deemed essential when they drafted the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court remains lukewarm at best, and hostile at worst, when it considers press access.

The media also should forget about lawsuits. Their track record in the courts has been abysmal on this issue, not only in the cases of Grenada and the Gulf War but also in subsequent related actions, such as the unsuccessful attempt to report on the return of soldiers' bodies to Dover Air Force Base. The Supreme Court remains lukewarm at best, and hostile at worst, when it considers press access to locations not generally open to the public, such as prisons. Although the court observed in Branzburg v. Hayes (1972) that news gathering enjoys some First Amendment protection, I see little prospect that the current justices will expand those rights in the foreseeable future.

Which brings me to my final recommendation, a modest proposal that I anticipate will please no one: If the military subjects the media to unacceptable restrictions on coverage of military operations, the only ethical solution is to refuse to cover them at all. I can hear the howls of protest as journalists from all quarters insist that it is not only their right but their duty to cover the news. They must do what they can to get the story-even under less-than-optimal conditions, they'll say-on the theory that incomplete information is better than none.

In principle, I agree; but experience has shown that the military, given the opportunity, will do everything possible to use the media as instruments of propaganda, to shape public opinion and to garner support. This is perfectly understandable, but it is inimical to a free press and a free people. It is up to the press to resist, and it must. So, by all means, agree to abide by reasonable "ground rules" if you can do so without compromising your journalistic integrity. But be wary of accepting facilities or support from the military. Recognize the risks inherent in relying on the Pentagon's good offices as your means of covering conflicts. And make it abundantly clear to your readers and viewers when you are denied the opportunity to cover a story in the way that you see fit and that they would expect.

As a last resort, be prepared to say, "Enough," when the military draws yet another line in the sand.

Jane Kirtley is the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Previously she was executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington, Va., for 14 years.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.