The Media, The Military, and Striking the Right Balance

The military and the Administration have ample reason to distrust some reporters and editors

This war will severely test the inherently uneasy relationship between the government—especially the military—and the media. The chafing has already begun. While the Bush Administration so far seems largely to have avoided the outright deceptions practiced by its predecessors, it has exhibited an unhealthy impulse to control the news by leaning on the media not to publish enemy "propaganda." And while much of the news coverage has been superb, some journalists have exhibited a reckless indifference to endangering military operations and the lives of our soldiers, and a reflexive hostility toward the military.

If we are going to get this right, the government must not resort unnecessarily to secrecy or to lightly tarring independent journalists as disloyal. The media should not frivolously cry "censorship." And each should work harder to understand the views and accommodate the needs of the other.

The delicacy of the task is exemplified by the Administration's requests that the media filter public statements by Osama bin Laden and his fellow mass murderers before airing them. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice took a small but worrisome step down a slippery slope when she urged network executives not to broadcast bin Laden videos without first reviewing and editing them down to brief excerpts. Although her warning that bin Laden might be sending coded messages in Arabic to operatives planning new attacks was plausible, any such messages could almost as easily be sent through foreign networks, the Internet, or the mail. And while Rice's more emphatic concern about indiscriminate airing of enemy propaganda was understandable, some such propaganda is undeniably newsworthy. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer clumsily lurched farther down the same slope when he urged newspapers not to publish full transcripts of enemy rants. His suggestion that terrorists would look to printed English-language translations for coded marching orders was as far-fetched as his notion that little-read transcripts could be an effective propaganda vehicle.

Such official efforts to influence editorial discretion are fraught with danger, likely to be futile, and sometimes self-defeating. Fraught with danger because when the government is talking, it is but a short step from making reasoned critiques to questioning the loyalty of reporters and editors. Futile because bin Laden's propaganda has little impact outside the Muslim world, where people will watch unedited bin Laden videos elsewhere if CNN does not show them. Self-defeating because the videos are the best public evidence by far of bin Laden's role in the September 11 mass murders and his moral depravity.

Similarly ill-advised was the State Department's pressure on the government-funded Voice of America radio to shelve an interview with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. The VOA's hard-won reputation for balanced and independent news coverage accounts for its remarkable following in Afghanistan, where surveys show that 67 percent of all men tune in daily. If it becomes a one-sided official mouthpiece, skeptical listeners will switch to the BBC or the virulently anti-American tirades that pervade most other broadcasts in the Middle East.

History provides ample reason for Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne's view that "the coming struggles between the government and the media over the public's right to know will have less to do with protecting individuals and operations than officials may argue. All governments have an interest in shielding themselves from reports of failure. The easiest alibi for cover-ups is to claim that the truth is dangerous." But the military and the Administration also have ample reasons to distrust some reporters and editors.

Dionne confidently claims that "no reporter I know" wants to be responsible for "blowing the cover of individuals or military operations." Perhaps he does not know Loren Jenkins, senior foreign editor of National Public Radio, who explained his ethical principles to The Chicago Tribune: "Asked whether his team [of reporters] would report the presence of an American commando unit found in, say, a northern Pakistan village, [Jenkins] doesn't exhibit any of the hesitation of some of his news-business colleagues, who stress that they try to factor security issues into their coverage decisions. 'You report it,' Jenkins says. 'I don't represent the government. I represent history, information, what happened.'"

Of course, "what happens" might well be influenced—and American operations and lives endangered—by the kind of reporting that Jenkins vows to do. Are he and NPR aberrants? Well, consider a televised 1987 roundtable discussion among some military men and two famous journalists. The hypothetical question for the journalists was what they would do if, after accepting (as both said they would) an invitation to travel behind enemy lines, they found themselves with an enemy unit preparing to ambush unsuspecting American and allied soldiers. Peter Jennings said with evident ambivalence that he would do his best to warn the Americans. But then, Mike Wallace asserted without hesitation that good reporters (clearly including him) "would regard it simply as another story they were there to cover." He berated Jennings and rejected the moderator's suggestion that he might have some higher duty than filming the slaughter of his countrymen: "No. You don't have a higher duty. No. No. You're a reporter!" Whereupon Jennings, embarrassed by his lapse into human decency, reversed himself and agreed with Wallace.

The military men were horrified. "What's it worth?" a former general (Brent Scowcroft) bitterly demanded of Wallace. "It's worth 30 seconds on the evening news, as opposed to saving a platoon." Marine Colonel George M. Connell spat out a more concise reaction: "I ... feel ... utter ... contempt." Amen.

All this gives a hollow ring to former television correspondent Marvin Kalb's assertion, in an op-ed in The New York Times, that the Administration "must recognize that in this fight the press ... is a valuable and necessary ally, if treated with ... trust." This is the same Kalb who had previously mused in another op-ed, in The Washington Post: "Certain operations are to be super secret. If a reporter learns about one, should he report it?... And if he doesn't report it and the operation turns out to be badly conceived and costly in casualties, does his reticence serve his profession or his country? To these questions, there are no easy answers, no glib guidelines."

Here's an easy guideline: No decent journalist, no decent American, would ever risk endangering the lives of American soldiers or—in this of all wars—the secrecy of military operations for something as petty and self-serving as a lousy little scoop. Or, for that matter, a great big scoop. Kalb's implication that reporters with access to fragmentary leaks are better qualified than military commanders to judge whether secret operations are "badly conceived" is breathtaking in its arrogance. (Full disclosure: Kalb has been critical of my own work.)

Jenkins, Wallace, Jennings, and Kalb exemplify a mind-set that holds that beating the competition—even to stories that would soon become public anyway or that smack more of sensationalism than of educating the public—is so transcendent a value as to justify virtual indifference to any harm that journalists might cause (or fail to prevent). If you were a military commander, would you want to help people like these get close to ground operations in Afghanistan, secret or otherwise? Would Jenkins's assertion (to The Tribune) that military officials "never tell you the truth" instill confidence in his own trustworthiness and fairness?

This is not to suggest that the Administration and the military should slam the doors in the face of all reporters. Most, or at least many, can be trusted. And keeping the media at a greater distance from combat operations than security requires would contribute to a bitterly adversarial military-media relationship. This, in turn, would likely hurt the war effort in the long run by inviting relentlessly negative coverage and fanning public distrust. Nor is this to deny that the media's most vital mission—keeping the government honest—requires both healthy skepticism and the fortitude to dig out and publish bad news, even in the face of official and public wrath. Sometimes, as in the 1971 Pentagon Papers case, good journalism also calls for publishing important news in the face of transparently unwarranted stamps of official secrecy and attempted official censorship.

But in assessing alleged security risks, the media should give due weight to the fact that the officials often have more complete information and far, far more grave responsibilities. We cannot and should not recreate the uncritical media cheerleading of the World War II era. But we must avoid the corrosive military-media hostility that started in Vietnam and has since been fed both by official deceptions and by the mindless anti-military bias inculcated in many of us by our college professors. This war—unlike Vietnam—really does pit good against evil, civilization against barbarism, life and liberty against nihilism. Journalistic neutrality is not a tenable stance.