Not the time to cry censorship

Of course the public wants the Pentagon to censor journalists. And the media should try to understand why.

Published December 4, 2001 10:28PM (EST)

In a dogged quest for sainthood, the good and gray of American journalism gather regularly to assess the state of their profession and to find out how little the public approves of the job they're doing. At a Brookings/Harvard forum last week there was, not surprisingly, some good news in the wake of Sept. 11 -- a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism showed much more hard news than fluff on TV, and a poll from the Pew Research Center showed that over three-quarters of the public think coverage of the war on terrorism has been good or excellent.

Yet any satisfaction with the media's sudden ascent into relevance and seriousness was tempered by figures showing that many people believe the press to be biased, inaccurate and an obstacle to society solving its problems. Such deep-seated skepticism suggests that it will take more than two months of crisis to bury the legacy of O.J., Monica and Gary Condit.

It was the public's bad faith toward the idea of press freedom that provoked considered alarm in the one working journalist on the Brookings panel of distinguished media mavens. "The results of the poll that I find worrisome is that the public is so willing to accept censorship," said Jill Abramson, the Washington bureau chief for the New York Times. And indeed the news seemed to be a slap in the face to a press corps mired in a battle with the Pentagon to get information about military operations and access to the front lines. According to the poll, conducted by the Pew Center for the People and the Press, 53 percent of the public think that it is more important for the government to be able to censor news that may threaten national security than for the media to report what it believes to be in the national interest. Fifty percent believe the military should have more control over war news. Of those who believe that the news from Afghanistan is being censored, 80 percent of those surveyed think such censorship is good.

"I wish that public support could be a resource on the media's side here to get more access and have a more open way of covering the war," said Abramson, citing the way in which reporters were able to cover the Normandy landings during D-Day and report on World War II in general.

That very evening, on the television news, Americans were able to watch urgent, confused footage shot during last week's Taliban uprising at a prison fortress in Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. Amid gunfire and alarm, a CIA operative, identified as "David," scrambled for cover and tried to call in U.S. military support. "There's hundreds dead here, at least, and I'm not ... I don't know how many Americans are here, I think one was killed. I'm not sure. I'm not sure. There was two at least, me and some other guy," he said. The "other guy" turned out to be John "Mike" Spann, a CIA agent who was the first U.S. operative killed in battle in Afghanistan. A second piece showed the aftermath of the Northern Alliance's suppression of the uprising -- bodies strewn across the compound, some with their hands tied behind their backs, which, as network correspondents pointed out, suggested that they had been executed.

Such footage rebuffs those who have argued that journalists have been unduly constrained by Pentagon secrecy in covering the war. The public has never been able to observe with such vividness the events surrounding the first combat death of a U.S. soldier in a military campaign. As Daniel Schorr, one of the few journalists working today who began his career during World War II, pointed out on NPR, it wasn't long ago when a reporter would have been "accused of treason" for revealing the details of such a covert operation and the face of a covert operative. "Times have changed," he said. Indeed, even the suggestion in the other piece of footage that an ally might have committed an atrocity would have been left on the cutting room floor in World War II.

And yet, many journalists continue to cite the freedom of the press in wars past in order to illuminate our supposedly benighted present. John Balzer, in a column in the Los Angeles Times critical of military "lockout" on coverage of the war, noted, "Imagine, we were victorious in World War II with Ernie Pyle and Ernie Hemingway and all the gang riding along in the jeeps and bomber planes." But employing such logic is a mistake. First, it is a public relations mistake, because it has led to the kind of sanctimonious pen-rattling over "access" and the "right to know" that does little to endear the media to a public largely concerned about the safety of its troops. But secondly, and more importantly, it is a mistake because it is wrong, because it relies on the myth of a "golden age" of war reporting. Such a notion obscures the ways in which media coverage of war today is equal to and sometimes superior to that of the past.

Take World War II -- not merely because it was the example used by the Times' Abramson, but because it is the most significant and least controversial war of modern times. Reporting was a logistical nightmare for accredited war correspondents. Even though they were assimilated into the military (with the honorary rank of captain), sometimes trained with the troops (in order to accompany them on amphibious landings and parachute drops), and usually enjoyed the confidence of both soldiers and commanders, the scope and size of the war continually thwarted comprehensive coverage. As Peter Braestrup notes in "Battle Lines," a superb account of the American press at war, "many -- perhaps most" of the war's major actions were, initially at least, reported from rear-echelon headquarters -- including the massive D-Day landings of June 6, 1944, in Normandy, when only a handful of reporters went ashore. Once on the beach, they faced the technical challenge of transmitting copy. The army communications system for American reporters broke down for 28 hours during the Normandy invasion, and much of what America read during that time period came through the London offices of the Associated Press.

But by far the most important consideration for a reporter -- at least in the absence of direct enemy fire -- was censorship. Almost every story on the course of World War II passed through the military's censors, no matter how intense the battle or apparently trivial the information. In practice, the degree of censorship often depended on the commander in charge, at least in the early stages of the war. The Navy, for example, was aggressively censorious within minutes of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; and the chief of naval operations, Adm. Ernest J. King, showed little inclination to reveal the grim toll of American defeat in the Pacific that followed, even when operational security wasn't an issue. Wary of bad press at such a critical stage in the war, FDR allowed Gen. MacArthur's impossibly upbeat and self-serving accounts of American action in the Philippines to pass as news. If morale at home was sustained, the news of the general's success, as Richard Connaughton notes in "MacArthur and Defeat in the Philippines," induced "disgust" in his doomed troops.

By contrast, New Yorker correspondent A.J. Liebling recounts in his book "The Wayward Pressman" a 1942 anecdote about a correspondent warning Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower of some "troublemaking" articles on "the color question" in the military that were about to be cabled back to the United States by another journalist. A second reporter reminded Eisenhower that censorship rules barred "Negro stories of this type." But Eisenhower insisted the article should be sent on uncensored. Pressed by other journalists to reconsider, Ike stood firm: Better in the long run, he is reported as saying, "for the news, good or bad, to flow freely." As Liebling put it, "the picture of first-rate (!) correspondents arguing for censorship and the West Point Lieutenant General against it is priceless"; but the incident calls to mind George Orwell's observation that official censorship was less iniquitous in World War II than the self-censorship of orthodox opinion.

In fact, the last redoubt of the red pencil actually helped reporters in one important respect. Military commanders could talk freely about operational matters secure in the knowledge that if they said anything that might compromise security, the censors would cut what the reporter had forgotten to leave out. Still, the risk presented by seemingly innocuous detail was highlighted just a month after the Battle of Midway in 1942. The Chicago Tribune and its reporter Stanley Johnston were hauled before a federal grand jury for publishing information about the strength of Japanese forces that could have alerted the enemy to the fact that the U.S. had broken their secret codes. Though no punitive action was taken, the importance of security was driven home.

In the run up to D-Day, where the outcome of the war quite literally balanced on the ability of Allied troops to surprise the Germans, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) issued a series of censorship rules and guidelines (reprinted from "Battle Lines"):

(1) Reports likely to supply military information to the enemy to the detriment of the Allied war effort.
(2) Unauthenticated, inaccurate or false reports, misleading statements and rumors.
(3) Reports likely to injure the morale of the Allied Forces.

The following is a selection of some of the more obvious things which the enemy intelligence always wants to know:

I. What our plans and intentions are.
II. How strong our forces are, and of what formation and units they are composed.
III. Where our forces are.
IV. What ports, bases and airfield we are using.
V. Where our supply dumps are, the extent of our supplies and what they comprise.
VI. Any new equipment or weapons we may have.
VII. Details of any new tactics we use, and of new tactical uses of existing weapons.
VIII. What effect his attacks, gunfire, bombing have had on us and whether he has accomplished his purpose (e.g., hit the target in an air attack).
IX. What our casualties are, either in number or by percentage.
X. What the state of our intelligence information is.
XI. Any information about our use of radar and radio
XII. Any information about our codes and cyphers.

Journalists would do well to think about how they would report today's war on terrorism under such restrictions.

Constraint, however, did not come without some professional reward. To some, the limitations on reporting opened up the possibility of a more reflective, insightful and literary kind of journalism. The most famous example came from the United Press' Ernie Pyle. Pyle's ability to connect with the uncommon life of the common soldier won his column space on the front of newspapers across America, admiration from his subjects and a celebrity he, unfortunately, never lived to comprehend. But it was also prose unsullied by the gruesome reality of injuries sustained in combat, and those indecorous moments -- of cowardice and brutality, the kind that saw Pyle killed by a Japanese sniper's bullet in 1945 -- that exist alongside the ennobling grace of courage.

In World War II, few photographs of dead or seriously wounded Allied soldiers were published. And there were fewer, if any, published accounts of friendly fire -- such as the mistaken shooting down of American paratroop transports over Sicily in 1943, or the accidental bombing of French civilians during the Normandy invasion and breakout. The contrast with today is striking. Members of the press, both American and international, aggressively cover civilian casualties from combat. Within hours of air strikes against Tora Bora, Dan Rather and American news organizations were able to report claims that the U.S. may have hit, and killed, civilians in nearby anti-Taliban villages.

It is here that we find the most significant historical change that the press has helped bring about. Total war -- the untrammeled exercise of military might against an enemy -- is virtually impossible in an age where the horror of civilian death can be communicated instantly to play on the public's conscience. Some in the military may rue that loss of control over strategy; but it is certain that civilian casualties in recent wars are considerably less, and cared about considerably more, than at any other point in history. This may be scant comfort to those on the ground who bear final witness to an off-target 500-pound bomb, or to some on the left of American politics who find little justification for American military action under any circumstances; but it is progress.

The course of each war accounts for secrecy and censorship in different measures -- to protect the troops, to sustain morale, and to conceal government failure and military incompetence. When it comes to reporting the latter, the press has an invidious task, for the consequences may very well hurt the troops and demoralize the public. There is much to complicate the issue of censorship and press freedom by looking at considerably less popular conflicts, such as Korea and Vietnam. But their misfortunes do not alter one abiding historical truth about members of the American public: Their first concern lies with the safety of their sons and daughters in uniform. That the role journalism plays in war cannot quite supplant that concern is illustrated by Eric Sevareid, one of the most eloquent of Edward R. Murrow's "boys" (CBS and the other networks were not comfortable with the idea of "girl" war correspondents).

Out of a despondency that he could never quite capture the reality of being a soldier at war, Sevareid finally came up with a reason why, which, nervously, he decided to tell his listeners in 1944. The conclusion is as follows

Only the soldier really lives the war. The journalist does not. He may share the soldier's outward life and dangers, but he cannot share his inner life because the same moral compulsion does not bear upon him. The observer knows he has alternatives of action; the soldier knows he has none. It is the mere knowing which makes the difference. Their worlds are very far apart, for one is free, the other a slave. The war must be seen to be believed, but it must be lived to be understood. We can tell you only of events, of what men do. We cannot tell you how or why they do it. We can see and tell you, that this war is brutalizing some among your sons and yet ennobling others. We can tell you little more.

War happens inside a man. It happens to one man alone. It can never be communicated. That is the tragedy -- and perhaps the blessing. A thousand ghastly wounds are really only one. A million martyred lives leave an empty place at only one family table. That is why, at bottom, people can let wars happen, and that is why in a certain sense you and your sons from the war will be forever strangers.

If, by the miracles of art and genius, in later years two or three among them can open their hearts and the right words come, then perhaps we shall all know a little of what it was like. And we shall know, then, that all the present speakers and writers hardly touched the story.

Sevareid wondered whether he had gone too far, but he was quickly contacted by his secretary, Hildy, from New York. CBS had been inundated with mail. "You must have reached the hearts of millions," she said. In covering war today, journalists have much to learn from World War II, not the least of which is: what they cannot know about war.

By Trevor Butterworth

Trevor Butterworth is a research fellow at the non-partisan, non profit Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington DC. He is former editor of the media criticism web site

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