14. News Media Lose the War With the Pentagon
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:
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."
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
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
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.
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
"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 admin-istrations 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."
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,