Press Must Speak Up For Its Rights

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Editor’s note: This editorial ran in the Oct. 1 issue of E&P.

By last week, the Bush administration was practically running out of new ways to emphasize just how different this first war of the 21st century would be from any other conflict in history. At one press conference, two weeks to the day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld fired off the differences with the staccato rumble of a Gatling gun: “It is a much more subtle, nuanced, difficult, shadowy set of problems.”

Whatever subtle and nuanced military stratagems await Osama bin Laden and other terrorists targeted by this new war, it is increasingly clear that this administration intends to rein in the U.S. press with the same old tactics of silence, secrecy, and sequestering. Rumsfeld was at pains last week to assure reporters that the military would not spread disinformation through the press. Journalists should take Rumsfeld at his word and hope he never betrays them or his honor.

But the other men running this war have already compiled a miserable track record when it comes to giving the American people, through the press, the responsible access necessary so they can judge for themselves what the military is doing in their name. Let us never forget that in 1989 — when Vice President Dick Cheney was defense secretary and Secretary of State Colin Powell chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — the Pentagon promised that its early-alert pool system would ensure press access to military operations. The pool idea itself was a reaction to the 1983 invasion of Grenada, which was conducted without a single U.S. journalist present and with all reporters kept from the island for days afterward. Cheney and Powell pulled off pretty much the same trick in Panama by mobilizing the press pool from Washington — and ensuring reporters would miss the critical early action of that splendid little war.

Two years later, Cheney and Powell kept reporters who were assigned to “cover” the Persian Gulf War corralled in briefing rooms hundreds of miles from the action. Cheney even imposed a total news blackout on the ground war until he wanted to publicize the swift and decisive victories the U.S. forces were achieving.

Whatever press arrangements the military and the Bush administration want — and we can guess it’ll be pretty much limited to: “Keep wearing those nifty flag pins on TV” — journalists should press their advantage now for the greatest possible access. Judging by polls showing press-approval ratings reaching nearly 90%, Americans are applauding the comprehensive and responsible job news media have performed in reporting last month’s attacks and the nation’s recovery.

Americans may not like the press much when it is obsessing on Monica Lewinsky or Gary Condit, but they depend upon it during national crises. Certainly, Americans will not want a blinkered or censored press when their sons and daughters are sent to the shifting and shadowy front lines of this anti-terrorism war.

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