Military, media must uphold freedom

Arguments about wartime media access spark perhaps the most contentious debates over the First Amendment’s reach. As University Professor Jane Kirtley wrote in the Media Studies Journal’s summer issue, military and journalistic objectives are often mutually exclusive. Necessary military use of misdirection and secrecy fly in the face of responsible journalism, while the journalistic pursuit of timely and public reporting of facts can render a military objective unobtainable. Winning on the battlefield and in the public consciousness requires containment of certain information, events and images crucial to a reporter pursuing a story.

But both sides have a responsibility to themselves and their country, and the U.S. government – which controls the military and, in time of war, can legally control much of the press – must remember press freedom is a cornerstone of the society our military defends.

In this week’s edition of The Nation, Eric Foner wrote, “Our civil rights and civil liberties – freedom of expression, the right to criticize the government, equality before the law, restraints on the exercise of police powers – are not gifts from the state that can be rescinded when it desires.” Otherwise, for what are we fighting? It is not unpatriotic for an American to criticize his or her government’s actions, policies or ideas, nor is it anti-American to skeptically analyze a situation. People who did these things founded our government. In times of crisis, however, such facts are often forgotten.

During a recent National Public Radio broadcast, Jerry Seib of The Wall Street Journal said, “Americans have to start … doing a better job of understanding the bill of complaints against the United States in the Islamic world.” The show’s host returned, “But … it seems almost anti-patriotic to talk about such things at this moment.” Sentiments like this provide a glimpse at the unwillingness of certain sects of the public to differentiate between criticism – or, lately, even analysis – of government actions and disloyalty.

This vilification of scrutiny puts journalists in a tough spot. In the days leading up to a war and during wartime, the press’ adherence to facts and balance is essential. The role played by a free press is most important when a nation puts the lives of its citizens and its economic and social survival on the line. No other circumstance requires so much personal sacrifice, and at no other time are the lives and livelihoods of citizens more in jeopardy. As the threat to freedom increases, so too does the role of a free press.

But with freedom comes responsibility, and an irresponsible media organization can wreak havoc on a nation at war. The press needs to own up to a higher standard to win public backing for its freedom. People will not defend a media shirking its responsibility for higher ratings or readership.

Since the Sept. 11 tragedy, the press has, for the most part, lived up to this higher expectation of itself. Major networks suspended commercials in favor of 24-hour coverage of the attacks and aftermath. As a result, The Wall Street Journal estimated networks lost about $320 million in revenue while providing mostly commendable, fair and balanced coverage.

Yet even adherence to basic journalistic standards can incur public and governmental wrath, as was the case with the Vietnam “living-room war” when Americans were shown nightly images of a grisly, unpopular conflict. According to Kirtley’s article, this contributed to a longstanding rift between the military and the media. The military claimed the images fueled anti-war sentiments, with some even blaming press coverage for America’s loss. Remnants of ill will still exist in today’s Pentagon, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld could be the biggest roadblock the U.S. press might face. If Rumsfeld – an adviser to former President Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War – harbors anger over what happened during Vietnam, the American press could easily end up with another Desert Storm-era level of coverage.

During the Persian Gulf War, journalists faced ridiculous government censorship. Military handling of the press corps went beyond keeping specific troop movements or key military operations out of the public eye. Military personnel manipulated the press into a public-relations tool that promulgated myths of the success of new weapons systems and ignored any real analysis of the effects of allied attacks.

The censorship was bad enough it prompted several journalists to file suit against the government. CBS News anchor Dan Rather chastised the media coverage as playing the role of “lapdogs, not watchdogs.” What is most disturbing, however, was the lack of public awareness of press restrictions. Few seemed to notice they were not getting fair, balanced and, in some cases, true information.

Though legally the government has the right to censor the press in regard to war, officials must relax the strict regulations imposed during Desert Storm. The 1931 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Near v. Minnesota established confidential military information during wartime as grounds for prior restraint – meaning the government can not only censor stories but, if the story slips past, can order a newspaper not to print it.

A responsible press, public, and military must unify as much as possible to prevent this from happening. We must not lose our freedom by trying to protect it.