The Return of Censorship

War Means Never Having to Tell the Truth

Under the legal doctrine of prior restraint, the government must meet a very high threshold before it can stop the media from publishing a particular account. For example, if the news report revealed troop movements during war, that would be considered a real threat to national security. But very few government secrets are so precious. In 1971, when the U.S. government tried to stop The New York Times from publishing a secret study of the Vietnam War, the Supreme Court allowed the printers to roll.

Historically, says MacArthur, "no reporter has ever committed treason," that is, reported a story that damaged military operations or put troops in danger. On the contrary, the press tends to exercise voluntary restraint. In 1961, the Times knew about the Bay of Pigs attack before it happened, but toned down the story at President Kennedy's request. Kennedy later told the Times' publisher, "I wish you had run everything on Cuba. I'm sorry you didn't tell it at the time."

So far, the ground rules for the new war have not been announced, but indications are not good. On September 19, the Taliban ejected CNN's Nic Robertson, the last Western journalist in Afghanistan, saying his safety could not be guaranteed. Rumor has it the Pentagon doesn't want any pool reporters this time around. The Department of Defense's Captain Riccoh Player did not return a call for comment.

Given the likely media blackout, MacArthur predicts, "This may turn out to be the freelancer's war." But even a brave loner who gets across the Afghani border could be ratted out by a competing pool reporter or arrested by a U.S. battalion. Says MacArthur, "This may be the first war where an American reporter is killed or garroted by a Green Beret for getting in the way."


ccotts@villagevoice.com

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