Journalistic access and censorship issues arise as war looms

Libby George

The days of the storied Ernie Pyle relations between media and the military are as much a part of the past as trench warfare. Today, as soldiers prepare for battle, journalists are doing the same – literally and figuratively.

Last week the Pentagon announced it will train at least 500 reporters and “embed” them with military units.

Journalism professor Jane Kirtley is skeptical of the operation and said the two most important aspects of coverage – access and censorship – are still in question.

“The problem is the Supreme Court has never said journalists have a right to access,” Kirtley said.

With no established rights, the government can largely allow and restrict access for whomever they choose.

In its document outlining the rules of journalistic engagement, the Pentagon said there will be strict prohibitions on reporting of operations, and reports of live, continuing action cannot be released without the permission of the commanding officer.

While this new plan might ensure access to certain reporters, it will not necessarily lead to open coverage.

“If media are subject to prior review Ö the stories won’t get out in a timely fashion, or won’t get out at all, if the Pentagon doesn’t want them out,” Kirtley said.

She also said journalists who work closely with troops might develop a loyalty to them, which could taint their coverage.

Elina Fuhrman, a producer for CNN International who has covered the war in Afghanistan, said everything depends on the individual reporter.

“You end up working very closely with the military because you are in the same situation they are,” Fuhrman said. “Like any other government or nongovernment agency, they are interested in getting their story out.”

She added that it is up to the reporter to recognize this and see through it to the pertinent information.

“You only see what they want you to see, and your coverage has to reflect that,” Fuhrman said.

This method, however, is not being shunned by news executives, who are still reeling from the secretive, closed-off operations in the Persian Gulf War.

In that war access came in the form of press pools – which reporters to this day attest as unconstitutional. This granted access to a select few reporters who then had to “pool” their stories for all news outlets to use.

Mark Rahdert, Temple Law School associate dean and First Amendment expert, said this made critical coverage of the war difficult.

“They would make press agencies stand in line for access and quite openly favored those who wrote positive reports,” Rahdert said. “Those media outlets that didn’t cooperate were just excluded.”

Although reporters at the time complained widely that this violated their First Amendment rights, the conflict did not last long enough to be challenged. Legal challenges to the government’s action were never ruled on by the courts, who declared the issue moot since the war was over.

“The question really is whether the First Amendment rights of reporters are overcome by the military’s need to protect the country,” Rahdert said.

Root of the problem

Modern journalists – denied access to battles, bases and information – lament tight-lipped officials. But the adversarial relationship between the military and the press is a creation of modern times.

“Historically, consent to censorship has been the price of access,” Rahdert said. “(Journalists) have been willing to submit their news reporting to government surveillance.”

He said the exception to this was the Vietnam War, when journalistic access was not limited and censorship was not practiced.

The critical media coverage and resulting lack of public support for the war created backlash against the military.

“There was a feeling afterward that it was a mistake,” Rahdert said.

Kirtley said although military historians and officials admit it was not media coverage that caused the U.S. war loss, the events of the conflict raised skepticism on both sides.

“Part of it is a coming-of-age story,” Kirtley said. “It’s a loss of innocence on both sides.”

She said when the public discovered the military was providing misinformation and covering up instances such as the Mai Lai Massacre – when American soldiers killed an entire town of Vietnamese citizens – it made them cynical of military affairs.

Never a guarantee

While most Americans believe their freedoms are irrevocable, in wartime this is not always true – particularly with new kinds of war.

“In times of war, there’s always shrinking of civil liberties,” Rahdert said. “With the war on terror, there’s much greater concern of those reductions becoming permanent.”

Rahdert said examples of this stretch all the way back to the Civil War, when President Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus – a prisoner’s right to demand a hearing – when he wished to keep those voicing opposition to the war in prison.

During World War II, he said, President Franklin D. Roosevelt not only restricted the press from printing any photographs of dead soldiers, but also held secret tribunals to try suspected spies.

The difference, Rahdert said, is that Lincoln and Roosevelt ended these practices when the war ended.

“This is a war that won’t be over,” Rahdert said. “I’m not sure the public knows how much it’s giving up.”

Fuhrman said restrictions on the power to disseminate information could erode freedom.

“I think information around the world is power. That’s what gets people moving, that’s what gets them to do things,” she said. “If you don’t have information then you don’t have freedom.”

Kirtley said the freedom given to journalists in the future will depend on public reaction.

“If what the public perceives to happen is not what they see in the media, and that is because of access, I could see Congress stepping in and making a law,” Kirtley said.

She added that in the quick, bloodless conflict during the Gulf War, the media was silenced because of this very reason.

“The public’s reaction was: The press is telling us too much, we want the military to keep them quiet.”

Libby George covers politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]