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[] NYT 17.10.01: How To Cover A War,
New York Times
October 17, 2001
How To Cover A War

By Marvin Kalb

WASHINGTON -- The problem is as old as the republic, only it's now getting worse: How much information is the press, and therefore the public, entitled to get during wartime? And how can the press, burdened by government and budgetary pressures, do its job effectively?

In times of crisis, the government moves instinctively to tighten controls over the flow of information, arguing that national security has to trump the public's right or need to know. Unsurprisingly, after Sept. 11, the public agrees. The anthrax scare adds urgency to the argument that this is a war like no other in American history, and everyone, including the journalist, must get on board.

The press, grousing as always about inadequate information and access, now finds itself in an awkward trap: it wants to pursue its professional obligations to cover a complicated story in vigorous fashion, yet it feels constrained at a time of lofty patriotism from questioning or criticizing the government. It is uncharacteristically muted, cautious, ready (however reluctantly) to play ball with the White House for what the Constitution calls the "common defense." While understandable at the moment, is such a course of collaboration wise in the long run?

Last week, for example, the White House urged American television networks and newspapers to "exercise judgment" and drastically curtail publishing or broadcasting "propaganda," including possibly "coded messages," from Osama bin Laden. Unspoken was the dangerous implication that the press was, perhaps unwittingly, playing into the enemy's hands. Within hours, fearing a public backlash, network executives promised more judicious editing in the future. None wanted to be seen as refusing to cooperate with the administration's crusade against terrorism.

But, even if the administration succeeded in blackballing Mr. bin Laden from all American networks, he would still continue to appear on foreign networks, like Al Jazeera or the BBC, which would then use global satellites to carry his image and message back to the United States. Propaganda warfare in an age of global satellites is a tricky and complicated business.

Another problem concerns the manipulation of news budgets in large media conglomerates. Before Sept. 11, budgets were growing tighter, because news executives continued to insist on unrealistically high profits. Staffs were cut and the number of foreign bureaus drastically reduced. At TV networks and local stations, and at most of the nation's 1,500 newspapers, foreign coverage was an embarrassing joke. The upshot was that the public was shortchanged and totally unprepared for the war against terrorism. Now, many news organizations must lean heavily on local stringers and green reporters.

When the war ends, will the budgeteers of the newsroom, who have little or no journalistic training, return to their old ways and continue to cut news budgets? Or will they meet their new obligations and provide the resources to cover an increasingly complex world? Unfortunately, all the evidence suggests that most networks and newspapers will return to the good old days of Monica, Diana and O.J. They fear a drop in circulation and ratings, which they ascribe to a public distaste for serious news.

In many ways, of course, this war is different from previous wars. In one way, however, it is disturbingly familiar to journalists: they know many of the players from the Persian Gulf War. Vice President Dick Cheney was secretary of defense in that era, and Secretary of State Colin Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They briefed and pooled reporters with rigid discipline. They wanted ? and got ? a very clean, efficient war, replete with smart bombs that played as well on television as the latest Nintendo game. Not until months later did we learn that the bombs' I.Q. was deficient and that they often missed their targets.

Clearly, during the gulf war they did not trust a press they could not control. And they still don't. When the war in Afghanistan shifts from air to ground operations, the administration, already freaked out by leaks, is likely to reduce the number of briefings, sharply restrict access to the battlefield and wave the flag still higher.

In 1996, between assignments, General Powell revealed his true attitude toward the press when he told reporter Barrie Dunsmore that if the United States had been losing a battle and the press had published the story, thus informing the enemy, "I'd have locked all of you up . . . [and] the American people would have stripped your skin off." One reason the Pentagon relishes its new relationship with Uzbekistan is that in a closed society it is harder for the media to observe its maneuvers. As one Air Force officer noted: "We can put aircraft there where CNN can't film them taking off."

The Bush administration is rallying a wounded country to fight an uncommon war. It must recognize that in this fight the press is not the enemy ? it is a valuable and necessary ally, if treated with the trust that its role in a free society warrants.

Marvin Kalb, a former television news correspondent, is the author, most recently, of "One Scandalous Story: Clinton, Lewinsky and 13 Days That Tarnished American Journalism." 

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