Smoke Signals


If and when a press corps of 3000 to 5000 lands with the U.S. military in Iraq, should they be prohibited from broadcasting the war live, using their videophones and satellite dishes? Yes, under some circumstances, says Nightline anchor Ted Koppel, who was in Baghdad two weeks after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait and plans to cover the next war firsthand, too. He raised the issue of censorship on November 13 in New York, before an audience of First Amendment lawyers. The occasion: a panel on war reporting sponsored by the Libel Defense Resource Center.

“What I’m saying,” Koppel announced in a Patton-esque baritone, “is if I’m running a war and I’ve got representatives of ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, Al Jazeera, and the BBC, and they’re out there with my troops and they’ve got the technical capacity to feed back what is happening live, so that the folks who are sitting in Baghdad have only to turn on their set to CNN and they can see what’s happening on the front lines from the American vantage point—I’m saying it would be criminal to permit that.”

Koppel’s argument did not attract any converts on the panel, which included The New Yorker‘s Seymour Hersh, The New York Times‘ John Kifner, and 60 Minutes‘ Bob Simon—veteran war correspondents with 160 years of experience between them. Kifner covered the Gulf War; the other three started in Vietnam. In the 1960s, TV war footage was shipped back to the U.S. for editing, and reports appeared two and a half days after they were shot.

“You have to be absolutely pure about it,” snapped Hersh, whose coverage of the 1969 My Lai massacre won a Pulitzer. “I say, if you learn about it, publish it.”

Kifner, whose many assignments in the Mideast earned him the name Kifner of Arabia, said he understands the principle that the media should not publish information that could endanger lives. “But I don’t think you go beyond that,” he said.

Koppel picked up on this point in a phone interview with the Voice. “Live TV coverage could realistically endanger U.S. troops in combat,” he said. “The military ought to have the right to censor that.” However, he added, some clarity is called for. “I think we and representatives of the Pentagon need to get these issues ironed out.”

On the panel, Simon, who once spent 40 days in an Iraqi prison, declared the live-broadcast issue irrelevant, because operations are now conducted undercover. Combat situations in Iraq will be “lightning fast,” he predicted, with “Special Forces coordinating aircraft. It’s not going to be large divisions and brigades moving laboriously across the sands of Iraq. It will all be happening before we know where or when it’s happening, and the reporters will all be mesmerized at the briefings, and that will be it. It will be total information management and the real reporting will be done in Washington, not on the ground.”

To back up a bit: the First Amendment dictates that the government cannot censor news before it is published. In the classic 1971 case, the Supreme Court informed Richard Nixon he could not stop the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the Vietnam War. According to law, if authorities want to censor a news report, they must prove that publication poses an extreme danger to national security. But today’s ever-present threats to national security have lowered the bar for what is considered acceptable censorship.

During the Gulf War, the Pentagon established new ground rules for the media, such as granting access only to a small group of reporters and screening dispatches to prevent the release of classified information. Major news companies participated in negotiating these rules and accepted them without protest. But some renegades still think that was wrong. “I don’t think it’s our job at all to have meetings with them,” Hersh said, referring to the ongoing dialogue between the press and the Pentagon. “We should be insisting on complete access. . . . But we don’t even begin to insist on that. We’re so beaten down. We’re so cowardly in our profession.”

“The Washington press corps is complicit,” Simon added ruefully. “The game that’s played in Washington—and it’s always been played this way—is the trade-off of access for patronage. If you agree to sing their song, you’ll be invited for an audience. This is happening to somebody at CBS I can think of, somebody at NBC, somebody at The Washington Post. They go easy on the president and his people, and they keep on getting invited back and getting more access.”

Not that the access matters—Simon says much of what the administration gives reporters is spin, masquerading as information. Take it from Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank, whose October 22 story accusing President Bush of “distortions,” “exaggerations,” and “flights of fancy” resulted in a White House campaign to discredit him. Interviewed on NPR, Milbank dismissed the idea that he had been punished. “I have exactly as much access as I had when I began,” he explained, “which is to say, not very much access at all. This administration does not release information.”

Koppel’s panel found other subjects to deconstruct: the phenomenon of the Pentagon press conference, in which Donald Rumsfeld makes reporters look dumb while rarely disclosing any news of note; and the administration’s strategy of using cable news sound bites to get its message across. With the exception of Colin Powell, Bush’s people have no use for news analysts. “They don’t want to come on 60 Minutes,” said Koppel. “They don’t want to come on Nightline. They really don’t want our formula. They want to take it in small bite-size chunks and put it on CNN and Fox and MSNBC.”

As proof of the administration’s skill at media manipulation, Simon cited a recent poll which found that 66 percent of Americans believe Saddam Hussein had something to do with September 11—though no evidence of such links has emerged.

“I’ve never seen a group this methodical, this ruthless,” said Hersh.

Media-military relations continue apace. On November 16, the Navy and Marine Corps launched a seven-day course for journalists who plan to travel with troops (not to Iraq, but to any combat situation that might arise). A Department of Defense spokesperson told the Voice that 350 to 400 journalists signed up for what she described as “basic military training, how to move under fire, how to put on camouflage.”

Asked if the Pentagon has developed ground rules that prohibit live broadcasts from combat zones, the spokesperson confirmed that “there are certain things we are going to be concerned with that will hinder the immediate broadcast of stories.” She said “operation managers” will make those decisions, depending on the situation.

For one thing, the military doesn’t want the media sending satellite signals that might tell the enemy where the troops are. And then there is content. “If, during an interview, classified info comes out, we will ask [the media] not to run it,” said the spokesperson. “If they go ahead and run it, would that jeopardize their access in their future?” She indicated that it would.

On the panel, Kifner explained a trade secret. “I’ve had very good experiences . . . with the military,” he said, “but basically it’s because the guys I was with were willing to bend the rules. . . . If you did it the official way, you would never do anything.”