Since World War II, the pinnacle of achievement in front-line combat journalism has been expressed in the name Ernie Pyle. Dodging bullets and mines, this celebrated giant among reporters lived among American soldiers in the war’s most dangerous battles, seeing the war the GIs saw. His reports carried home the stories and the spirit of the nation’s fighting men, and all Americans loved him. With the possible exception of the passing of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ernie Pyle’s death in the vicious fighting on Okinawa was the saddest day of the war for Americans on the home front.
Public reaction to Pyle’s stories taught us a just cause, presented plainly and honestly, breeds its own support by the mere presentation of the straightforward truth about its justifications, objectives and program of action. The facts, it seems, really will speak for themselves.
Unfortunately, the Pentagon’s most recent proposed public relations strategy is hardly a fireside chat. In a proposal more reminiscent of Josef Stalin than FDR, the Office of Strategic Influence – a secret propaganda department – has designed a disinformation strategy aimed at providing “news” favorable to U.S. actions. The plan’s details, slowly leaked by outraged Pentagon officials, reveal a program of invented sources, phony e-mails, false data and carefully doctored story ideas.
The OSI proposal should be loathsome to every freedom-loving American who wants to read a newspaper or watch the evening news and know that the stories reported – though often fluffy and occasionally erroneous – are at least presented by independent citizens whose first priority is to use every resource they have, turn over every rock and work every source to get their fellow citizens the information they need to participate meaningfully in this nation’s deliberative democracy. The mere existence of the plan has already done damage to the government’s and media’s credibility by planting the seeds of doubt and suspicion in the public mind.
The president has called the nation to arms against terrorism – and now against the “axis of evil” – in the name of justice, righteousness and freedom. Honest and accurate journalism that depicts those values at work in defense of the United States can only add to the public’s support for striking back after Sept. 11, and if “unvarnished” reporting in the Ernie Pyle tradition convinces the public the war on terrorism has strayed from the cause they signed up for, they are entitled know that as well.
Because it cuts into this right to know, evaluate and decide, the OSI’s plan is disgusting. It is loathsome. It is un-American and undemocratic. It is a contemptibly unmitigated disgrace to the American experiment. It is yet another sign foretelling the Orwellian apocalypse that stands perpetually within stealing distance of the rights Americans habitually take for granted, a fate held at bay only by a parchment shield signed in 1789. This plan is a strike at the lifeline of American democracy, the unfettered news reporting that makes meaningful citizen-government in such a large and diverse nation possible, and the American people should make it clear that such a program is undeniably and unequivocally unacceptable.