14. News Media Lose the War With the Pentagon

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

Source: The Nation, 72 Fifth Avenue New York, NY 10011, Date: 5/11/92, Title: “The Media’s War,” Author: Jacqueline E. Sharkey

SSU Censored Researcher: Amy Cohen

SYNOPSIS: In the wake of protests over press restrictions and censorship during the Gulf War, the Pentagon and major media representatives have negotiated guidelines for coverage of future conflicts. However, the agreement, hailed as a posi­tive step in the relationship between the military and the media, appears to be worth-less.

Supported by Washington bureau chiefs, the American Society of Newspa­per Editors and high-level executives from electronic and print media, the agreement is designed to prevent the Pentagon from controlling the media as it did in the Per­sian Gulf, where journalists were confined to pools that had limited access to the battlefield.

A major flaw in the agreement is that no consensus was reached on “security reviews,” which deal with the critical prior restraint aspect of censorship. More im­portant, however, is the fact that the Penta­gon has a well-documented history of vio­lating media coverage agreements such as those drawn up in the wake of both the Grenada and Panama invasions, where journalists were prevented from covering much of the fighting. In fact, the only significant change to previous coverage agree­ments is the inclusion of more restrictive measures.

 Under the proposed agreement, re­porters who violate the Pentagon’s guide­lines for protecting military secrecy and U.S. troops can have their combat creden­tials suspended and be expelled from battle zones. Ironically, these guidelines have not been written yet, and the Pentagon is not required to consult with journalists before writing them.

“What the Pentagon is doing is giving itself a club to use over journalists,” says Scripps-Howard reporter Joan Lowy, who covered the Gulf War. “They’re going to write these ground rules, but we don’t know what they are yet. And then if you don’t go by their interpretation … as they interpret them under security review, they’ll kick you out. It’s a very effective form of censorship.”

Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, believes the very existence of the proposed agreement is an admission of how weak the media’s position is now. She says that endorsing the agreement is “writing your own death warrant.”

In the meantime, major media execu­tives proudly proclaim the agreement as “a victory for common sense that few pre­dicted a year ago.” Others perceive it as merely additional evidence of the great media sellout to the administration, as noted in the synopsis “The Great Media Sell-Out to Reaganism.”

COMMENTS: Jacqueline E. Sharkey is author of Under Fire — U.S. Military Restric­tions on the Media from Grenada to the Persian Gulf. Published by the Center for Public Integrity, a public-interest organiza­tion founded by investigative reporters to promote in-depth coverage of federal gov­ernment activities, Under Fire was the first book to document the disastrous effects of the Defense Department’s media regula­tions in the Gulf War. Sharkey’s article for The Nation grew out of the book.

Sharkey reports that the revision of the Pentagon’s wartime media-coverage rules received little major media expo­sure.

“The New York Times and the Wash­ington Post ran short stories buried inside the A section,” Sharkey says, “but network news programs and the news weeklies largely ignored the issue.

“This is especially serious in light of the fact that the media had acknowledged (albeit late and reluctantly) that they had been manipulated by the Pentagon and the White House during the Gulf War and had presented a misleading and highly sanitized view of the conflict and its conse­quences to the American people. Never­theless, just 14 months after the war ended (and the mea culpas about the media’s poor performance had begun) news ex­ecutives agreed to `revised’ rules that will enable the Pentagon to impose the same type of de facto censorship of images and information during the next U.S. military operation.

“Committing troops to military opera­tions abroad is one of the most serious decisions a democratic government can make. This has become a crucial issue in the United States during the past 10 years as the Reagan and Bush administrations have used `limited wars’-in Grenada, Panama and the Gulf as a foreign policy tool that also has bolstered their approval ratings in the polls. In each of these wars, the press was increasingly controlled, and the information increasingly sanitized.

“Retired Army Col. David Hackworth­ America’s most-decorated living soldier, who covered the Gulf conflict for Newsweek-has pointed out that this situ­ation, combined with low U.S. casualties, has given the public a distorted picture of war and its consequences. This could have serious repercussions for the country dur­ing the next conflict, when American ca­sualties could be much higher.

“What people need to evaluate whether their government should send its troops to war-and whether that decision was worth the price that had to be paid-is independent, objective information. That is exactly what they will not get the next time the United States engages in a military operation, because the `revised’ wartime ­coverage rules will enable the Pentagon and White House to control images and information once again. People have a right-and a need-to know that their abil­ity to obtain enough information to evalu­ate elected leaders and their policies ad­equately has been seriously compromised by the media’s surrender to the Pentagon.

“During the U.S. military operations in Grenada, Panama and the Gulf, the White House and Pentagon restricted press ac­cess and controlled information not for national security purposes, but for political purposes, to protect the image and priori­ties of the Defense Department and its civilian leaders, including those of the presi­dent, the commander-in-chief. White House and Pentagon officials benefit greatly from lack of exposure about the ways in which the `revised’ rules for cover­ing future operations will allow the govern­ment to control perceptions, and there­fore public opinion, about decisions to go to war.

“The major media also benefit from lack of coverage about this issue. At a time when public confidence in the media has fallen significantly, news executives have to be concerned about what would hap­pen if the American people realized that the press had sacrificed their interests­ and their need for first-hand, objective information in wartime-because of pres­sure from the very political institutions with which the press is supposed to have an adversarial relationship.”

Research material from Under Fire has been used by various news agencies for follow-up stories and the book is being used in political science and journalism classes in Washington, DC, Texas and Colorado. Following The Nation article, Sharkey debated Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Pete Williams about the revised rules, and previous ver­sions used in Grenada, Panama and the Gulf, during a session for media and mili­tary personnel arranged by the Freedom Forum and shown on C-SPAN, and on a CBS-Radio talk show.

While other journalists now have criti­cized the media for going along with these new rules, Sharkey points out that much of this debate has not been reported in major media. “The public remains uninformed about what these rules represent,” she concludes, “or the repercussions they will have on the American people’s ability to obtain in-depth information about the causes and consequences of future wars.”

PLEASE NOTE: For more information about Under Fire-U.S. Military Restric­tions on the Media from Grenada to the Persian Gulf, write The Center for Public Integrity, 1910 K Street NW, Suite 802, Washington, DC 20006.