Something is burning this week, but it’s not the site of the former World Trade Center. It’s what’s left of the First Amendment—and every self-respecting journalist should sign up for the rescue mission. Of course, by the time the first war of the 21st century is over, there may not be much left of what liberals used to call free speech.
In its place has come a heinous kind of propaganda in which antiwar sentiment is dimmed and right-wing pundits denounce their counterparts on the left as madmen and enemies-from-within. According to the party line, the public must choose: Either give up your right to free speech or live in the terrorists’ camp forevermore. And since the public is willing to make the sacrifice, goes the argument, the press should be, too. During wartime, you see, anyone who criticizes the government is a traitor, and any journalist with access to military intelligence a potential threat to national security.
The fallout started soon after the WTC attack, when the Justice Department sought the power to tap voice mail and e-mail without a court order. According to Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum, “In such an atmosphere, voices of dissent grow silent, probing questions by the press are viewed as unpatriotic and subversive, and whistle-blowers within the government are quieted.”
Indeed, McMasters says, if a proposed ban on leaks of classified information had been in place last week when Orrin Hatch told reporters that the U.S. had intercepted a call from a suspected terrorist, Hatch “could be facing a felony charge.” The Pentagon was not pleased and the White House quickly stanched the information flow to Congress.
Fear of being blacklisted may explain why mainstream media are downplaying all kinds of stories that connect the WTC attack to ill-conceived homegrown policies—from America’s decision to train Afghan rebels in the 1980s to U.S. support of Israel’s crackdown on Palestinians to U.S. sanctions against Iraq, which are believed to have caused the deaths of some 500,000 children.
Those are uncomfortable stories to tell. But journalism is not a popularity contest, and in a democracy, there is no requirement that we offer unconditional support for a war. “The prosecution of war involves political decisions,” says David Corn, Washington editor of The Nation. “The commander in chief need not be micromanaged, but he also need not be given a blank check. The media should do all it can to provide the full context of the decision-making process.”
All the same, it’s not easy to cover a war that is largely waged undercover. According to recent reports, Operation Infinite Justice will combine air attacks with small commando raids by Special Forces troops trained in the arts of kidnapping and assassination. The troops are already assembling at remote air bases in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and northern Pakistan, from which helicopters will drop them into Afghanistan.
Such raids are impossible to cover. “If they kill five people and they take out a terrorist cell somewhere,” says Corn, “the Pentagon is not going to have a press conference. They don’t disclose this stuff at all.”
The challenge of covering a covert war will only be made harder by media restrictions that were imposed by then defense secretary Dick Cheney during the Gulf War. In accord with Cheney’s 1991 ground rules, a limited pool of reporters was given access to combat zones. Pool reporters were chaperoned at all times by a public affairs officer, and their dispatches were censored to prevent the release of “sensitive” information. Soldiers were banned from giving off-the-record interviews, a practice that had seriously damaged military PR during the Vietnam War. Critics say the point of such censorship is to hide military flaws.
According to McMasters, some top Pentagon people continue to believe that the Vietnam War failed precisely because “the press had too much freedom to cover it, and the American people got too much information.” From the point of view of these cynics, Dan Rather wrote in the Harvard International Review this past spring, reporters are potential adversaries who must be spoon-fed lies with the greatest care and precision.
During the Gulf War, the mainstream media’s willingness to accept the new censorship led to an “ignominious defeat,” says John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s and the author of a book on censorship during the Gulf War. For example, the media exaggerated the success of U.S. bombing raids and downplayed enemy casualties. CNN’s Ted Turner was one of the few who defied the press rules, says MacArthur, by allowing Peter Arnett to continue broadcasting out of enemy territory in Baghdad.
In 1991, Harper’s, The Nation, and the Voice, among others, sued the government, claiming that Gulf War restrictions violated the First Amendment. But none of the TV networks or major dailies signed on, and the lawsuit was dismissed by a judge who deemed the issues important but better left for another day. “All I know is, my fellow publishers are very bad about this,” MacArthur sighs. “They imagine that they’ll beat the competition by ingratiating themselves with the Pentagon.”
In 1992, press reps met with Cheney to renegotiate the restrictions. But MacArthur calls the meeting a “face-saving effort” that changed nothing, and McMasters concurs.
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.”