By: Todd Shields
During the Good War against Germany and Japan, journalists tended to trust government to do the right thing. They submitted to censorship, and complaints centered around what was cut, not whether the censor could do so. According to1944 Pulitzer Prize-winner Dan DeLuce, a war correspondent for The Associated Press, “We didn’t have much of an adversary relationship.”
How different from today. As America digs out from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and digs in for a protracted war against terrorism, the Pentagon and the press are trying to work through mistrust built up in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf and elsewhere. Early indications are relations will be rockier than those experienced by the 90-year-old DeLuce in Italy and Yugoslavia.
Last week, even as reporters clambered aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, tensions rose. U.S. troops deployed in at least four Asian nations, but rebuffed coverage. The national pool for covering military operations remained idle. Amid continued bombing of Afghanistan, the Defense Department said it wanted to cut briefings from daily to twice a week.
It was enough to frustrate some journalists. “These people have put a cloak on information that is unprecedented,” said Chuck Lewis, Washington bureau chief for Hearst Newspapers.
Late in the week, the Bush administration asked newspapers to consider limiting coverage of statements from suspected terrorists. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said newspapers, by running unedited statements, could be “putting it into the hands of people who can read it and see something in it.”
The request drew a skeptical reaction. “The American public is savvy enough to sort through multiple voices and opinions,” said Chris Peck, editor of The Spokesman (Wa.) Review and president of Associated Press Managing Editors.
“This is not the time to let terrorists erode our nation’s history of open inquiry.”
Some editors, striving to keep sensitive security details out of post-attack copy, consulted with government officials. Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. said such talks led him to strike material from stories “maybe three or four times… They’re small individual facts in large stories.”
Others chafed at the inaccessibility of U.S. forces in Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and other countries. “We’re disappointed because the point of the pool is to get the media to areas where unilateral coverage is difficult if not impossible,” said Sandy Johnson, Washington bureau chief for the AP.
Top Pentagon spokesperson Torie Clarke said the pool might not be activated for days or weeks. Saying journalists prefer independent reporting, she pointed to those who had made their way to Bahrain and then onto the Vinson. When told that daily bombing brought daily briefings in the past, she issued a caution.
“It’s just not a good premise to say, ‘In all previous conflicts this is what we’ve done,'” Clarke said. “This is not like previous conflicts.”