Soldiers not chaperones

Perhaps the pen is mightier than the sword, but it probably does not look too formidable in the face of an M-16 assault rifle. Washington Post reporter Doug Struck would be able to comment on this far better than we, after U.S. military personnel shooed him away at gunpoint from the scene of a U.S. missile strike in Afghanistan on Monday.

Reports differ on the details of what happened – the Department of Defense said the soldier told Struck he could not proceed or he “could be shot in a firefight.” Struck said they told him he “would be shot” if he went forward. It is clear, however, that U.S. soldiers pulled a gun on a U.S. citizen who was trying to enter an unclassified area in a foreign country.

The soldier’s wording in this instance is not central to the issue. But barring an unarmed reporter from lawfully gathering information – with the use of an M-16, no less – is certainly cause for alarm. One of censorship’s most abhorrent masks is that of security, a facade the U.S. military has a history of presenting all too often.

It is true the U.S. military has often acted valiantly in the past to protect the lives of journalists, most famously during the Vietnam War. In those cases, when the military offers their protection for journalists in the field and the journalists accept, the soldiers are to be commended and deserve more than the media’s gratitude.

But there are times when that offer is not presented, nor would it be welcomed. And in those situations, it is not up to military personnel to determine whether a situation is “safe enough” for a journalist. Reporters do not take assignments to embattled areas assuming someone will take care of them. It is a dangerous job and, unlike soldiers, reporters have the option of saying, “No.” After they accept, however, it is up to them and their editors how to proceed, as long as they do not put soldiers’ lives in danger through either reporting their movements or pulling them into a firefight.

We recognize the awkward position this puts military personnel in. How would they come off looking if, for instance, Struck had proceeded to the site, come under enemy fire and was left there by soldiers because their commander deemed it too dangerous or incongruous with the mission to defend him? Should this occur, the media must responsibly and truthfully cover the event, noting that the journalist put himself in harm’s way as part of his job.

The military cannot be allowed to become the media’s chaperone overseas. Though it could foster distasteful or tragic situations, the alternative – Desert Storm-era, spoon-fed coverage, for instance – has already proven to be unacceptable.