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War correspondents

William J. Brennan, Jr. Defense of Freedom Award Recipients, 2002

Comments of MLRC Chair Robin Bierstedt of Time, Inc.:

We are here tonight, as you know, to honor war reporters; and with us is a group of distinguished journalists who have covered wars from Vietnam to the Middle East, Afghanistan to Iraq, and all the battles in between.  One of our panelists experienced the Gulf War from inside an Iraqi prison.

War reporters have never had an easy relationship with the military.  During the Civil War General Sherman believed that war correspondents were "spies and defamers with the impudence of Satan."  He wrote, "In giving intelligence to the enemy in sowing discord and discontent in an army, these men fulfill all the conditions of spies and have brought our country to the brink of ruin."

Journalists who report on wars risk not just the usual slings and arrows of public opinion, they risk their lives.  Unlike other reporters who are simply reviled, war reporters are reviled and killed.

In the early months of war in Afghanistan more journalists than US troops have been killed by hostile fire.  Reporting in a war zone has always been hazardous.  It is still hazardous, but now there are other risks, risks that threaten First Amendment interests, denial of access, disinformation, and diabolical spin.  Is war reporting becoming an oxymoron?  It is not what it used to be when reporters joined soldiers in foxholes.

A government official was once asked how much information should the press be given about a war?  His answer: "I tell them nothing 'til it's over, and then I tell them who won."   And that was said in the good old days of World War II when relations between the press and the military were relatively good.

In Vietnam, to quote Bob Simon, "You just go down the road wherever it took you to get the story."  The resulting coverage, of course, was not government sanctioned, and it ultimately had such a powerful effect on public opinion the US government was forced to withdraw.  The government did not make the same mistake in the Persian Gulf, where access to troops was by guided tour.

As Walter Cronkite said in a speech recently, "We have no history now of the Persian Gulf War.  We have only what the military reporters wrote and that is what their bosses told them."  In Afghanistan access was even more restricted.  For a while in Afghanistan reporters could talk to members of the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, but not US soldiers.

When a group of reports and photographers tried to reach victims of friendly fire near Khandahar last December, they were actually held captive by US commanders in a military warehouse.  The Pentagon itself is controlling information more tightly than ever.  Donald Rumsfeld joked that his daily briefing was, "hollow and empty."  But no information is perhaps preferable to bad information.

After a bid raid near Khandahar last fall the general in charge reported that the attack overall was successful.  But when Seymour Hersh did some real reporting on the incident, his sources said that the mission had been a "total goat fuck."

I guess that is what the military says when things do not turn out so well.

The public apparently does not care.  In a public relations war, Rumsfeld and Company are winning handily with an approval rating that is about double that of the press.  Over the past year newspapers have actually been condemned by their readers for revealing too much information about operations in Afghanistan.  And executives of major news organizations have acknowledged that they are increasingly making decisions based on public approval.

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