The Media Muzzled

Vietnam and Afghanistan Show why Limiting Press Access to War is Unpatriotic

Back in October, the president of MSNBC, Erik Sorenson, asked whether he thought the media would be able to give Americans an accurate accounting of the war in Afghanistan, replied, "We'll find out in five or 10 years what the real truth is." Last week, the conflict there all but over, Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post, concurred. In a live online discussion with him, a reader observed: "My impression is that the media have had less access to the facts about activities in Afghanistan than to the facts in any prior American military engagement since World War II." Downie responded: "Time will tell whether important information has been hidden from the American people by the administration."

Time will tell. I'd rather be told by The Washington Post.

Sometimes the government lies to us. Sometimes it is simply incompetent and hides the fact. And sometimes the institutions of the media cooperate. It's even worse in wartime. That's as American as jazz. And now that the Afghan phase of the war on terrorism appears all but over, it's fair to begin to wonder: Have any lies, any incidences of systematic incompetence or worse, been hidden from the American people during this war?

Illustration by Nathan Fox

It's impossible to say—and hardly just because of the Afghan engagement's supposed unorthodox and decentralized nature. The Pentagon, of course, has been perfecting its techniques for choking off information at least since the Vietnam War. The exact nature of the restrictions placed on the American press remain vague, but the patterns are clear. Reporters have had some access to U.S. warships, none whatsoever to high-level decision making—unsurprising for this administration, which was already the least open in memory before September 11. And in the field of battle? Said NPR's Steve Inskeep to the Washington, D.C., City Paper, "Nobody has really had any decent access to U.S. forces."

Even harder to discern is the extent to which media organizations are censoring themselves. It's happening, of course: the conservative Weekly Standard ran a December 3 cover article positively boasting of how many journalists (Dan Rather, Geraldo Rivera, Thomas Friedman) have been willing to cast aside the ethic of objectivity in service to the cause of patriotism.

To which most Americans seem to be replying: all to the good. The Pentagon says it's for the safety of the troops, for the integrity of our military operations. And in an era of patriotism, it seems a self-evident conclusion. But it ain't necessarily so. Cast your eyes over history, in fact, and it is relatively unencumbered access to what happens on the battlefield that looks more and more like the patriotic act.

Soldiers in Vietnam knew this. There, explains John R. MacArthur, Harper's publisher and author of the hair-raising 1992 study Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War, "The reporters took care of the soldiers, and the soldiers took care of the reporters." Whatever the myths that the relationship between the two groups was adversarial, MacArthur says, the soldiers knew their superiors were doing a poor job. They wanted to win. So they wanted something they knew would help their cause: independent observers—journalists—keeping tabs on their betters. Of course Vietnam seems now to be a special case; they "needed independent witnesses to protect them from the crazy second lieutenant leading them on a suicide mission," recalls MacArthur. No hint of crazy second lieutenants in Kandahar, no My Lais in Mazar-i-Sharif, as far as we know. The military's conduct and efficiency in Afghanistan appear sterling. But that doesn't vitiate the point. Once, the war in Vietnam appeared to be going well, too.

Throughout history many governments have agreed: blacking out battles from prying reportorial eyes has never been militarily self-evident. In-the-field war correspondence was invented during the Crimean War, by William Howard Russell of the London Times. It was the 1850s, and the British government was secure enough in its sense of right in their conflict against the Russians to let Russell wander where he might once the battle was joined. They were also secure enough to read what he found out. And what he found was entirely preventable starvation, misery, and sickness among the British troops. Parliament demanded an investigation. They ended up forcing the resignation of the Earl of Aberdeen, the incompetent prime minister. Russell found out what the truth was in the heat of battle, not five years later—and it helped Great Britain win the Crimean War.

During the Gulf War the leaderships of many countries in our coalition behaved the same way. While the White House pressured The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times to pull their war correspondents out of Baghdad, and the papers acquiesced, reporters from other countries stayed. And if anything, their militaries, though it may have pained them to admit it, may have been better off for it.

Our military might have been better off for the scrutiny as well: If we are not able to maintain the trust of other nations long enough to keep the viable coalition against international terrorism that George W. Bush says we need from Afghanistan onward, it will likely have something to do with the awful mistakes that happened under his father's watch in Iraq in 1991—and that were hidden from world opinion until 1992. Things like the cover-up of the savage dumbness of all too many of our "smart" bombs and the belated press discovery that the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton was behind the fabricated stories about Iraqis pulling babies from incubators to convince the world that Kuwait was a democratic innocent worth saving from Iraqi aggression. Why does the world hate us so much? One reason may be that no one likes being lied to.

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