Media Presses Government For Access

By: Todd Shields

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America, high U.S. officials often have stressed the need to tightly guard information about the unconventional war on terrorism. Last week, prominent news organizations said they were concerned that the Bush administration may be tightening too much.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) and the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) called upon Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to endorse principles of news coverage negotiated in 1992. And the Society of Professional Journalists joined the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) and 10 other groups in appealing for access to combat and information about domestic detainees.

“We are sensitive to the need to keep some information secret,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the RCFP. “However, as this war on terrorism continues, the American people will need more information, not less.”

The requests follow administration moves to block off information on several fronts. Some government agencies have deleted information from public Web sites; several Pentagon officials have urged military contractors not to talk to journalists; top officials at the White House have told all but the highest-ranking staff not to speak with journalists, according to a report in The Washington Post; and Attorney General John Ashcroft last week told officials to be cautious in responding to Freedom of Information Act requests.

In the military sphere, concern centered on whether journalists will be able to follow ship-borne coverage of air strikes with on-scene coverage of ground battles in Afghanistan.

ASNE officers said their letter was prompted partly by disappointment with access granted so far. “We think it’s sketchy at best, but that’s somewhat explainable by the nature of the activity,” ASNE President Tim J. McGuire, editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, said in an interview. “We don’t think we’ve seen a true test, but we think we’re about to” as U.S. ground forces enter Afghanistan.

In their letter, ASNE and NAA told Rumsfeld they “urgently” believe it important for him to “make a clear statement of support” for the nine-point statement of principles adopted by the Pentagon and the press after journalists complained of being sidelined during the Persian Gulf War. In a Thursday meeting with Washington bureau chiefs, Rumsfeld said he supports the principles — but withheld an ironclad endorsement — said several people who attended the meeting.

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