Columnist and associate editor, New York Newsday
“Now we had a couple of dress rehearsals. We had Grenada in 1983, and Panama in 1989, when the press was virtually kept out, kept away, not allowed to see what was happening. “
When I started out in the business of reporting, on a police beat, more than 30 years ago for the New York Times, I was in awe of everyone, including John Roegan of the Daily Mirror, both of those institutions now deceased. Roegan was a large man, who fished out of Sheepshead Bay during the day and drank his way through his police beat chores at night. But he was part of the club that I craved membership in. And so, there I was, green and worshipful, standing in attendance for the slightest kind word from Roegan or any of the other police beat veterans. And it finally happened, one night, Roegan, back from a day of fishing and sunburned, beckoned me over to his desk where he sat slightly pixilated in his undershirt. “You know kid,” he rasped, “You work for the best paper in this city.” I was dumbstruck, I swelled with pride. And Roegan was perfectly serious and he went on, he said, “Yeah, you wrap fish in those other papers — it spoils. But in the Times the fish keeps. It’s a great paper.” It’s moments like those tend to put your self-importance in perspective. I’m glad you laughed a little at that story, because the rest of my remarks are going to be relatively sober. And they may sound harsh in a way. I’ve been known to offend people in what I write and what I say. Some won’t agree with me, and that’s okay too. My purpose is to provoke thought and maybe get you thinking about something in a manner or from a perspective that you hadn’t done before.
The topic is about the press’s self-image. About how we perceive ourselves as fearless crusaders, charging after the truth, letting no obstacle stay us from completing our mission. And there are certainly times when this bold image, without all the hoopla language , is a reasonably accurate one. Regrettably, however, the times when we put on the brave and daring costume are much too rare. Far more frequently than we would like to admit, we are tame and sluggish and even timid, allowing ourselves to be spoon-fed by a wide array of snake oil salesmen and spin doctors.
I’m only going to use one example tonight: how the press was co-opted and controlled by the government during the Iraq war. I picked this example because the failure of the press was so obvious. It didn’t stand up to a White House that was determined to sanitize the field of battle, to make Iraq a “good news” war. I also picked the topic — picked Iraq as an example — because (and I dearly hope I’m wrong about this) it could become the government’s model for the control of future coverage not only of military actions but of other major events as well.
First, a little bit of history. What happened in Iraq was really a direct result, a backlash, from what happened in Vietnam. Many in government and elsewhere came to believe, because I think it was convenient, because losing is a terrible feeling, came to believe that the press was responsible for the loss of that war. I believe that’s a false notion. I believe that was a mistaken and misguided policy. I think we would never have won that war, short of erasing that country from the map with atomic weapons. We were in the wrong war for us. But in any case, the press became a target for many people. And there was a backlash. And the implication of the criticism of the press, because we were the ones who were sending back the stories saying the war wasn’t working for the United States, or the images on television, which I think got the critics even more angry than the print stories — the implication of all that was that the press was lacking in proper patriotism, that maybe we weren’t very good Americans. That’s a nasty accusation. But none the less it existed. Those who feel this way or felt this way or both, decided that they had to find a way to erase Vietnam and also to put the press in it’s place, and that would far from the front lines, no front row seats any more.
Now we had a couple of dress rehearsals. We had Grenada in 1983, and Panama in 1989, when the press was virtually kept out, kept away, not allowed to see what was happening. The press did some complaining but not terribly loudly, maybe a whimper and a pout here and there. The public didn’t seem to care. And we’ll talk more about that later. The White House and the Pentagon smiled smugly and said, “We’ll negotiate with you.” But they never had any intention as they talked about negotiating with the press of making serious concessions. The result was the imposition of the most stringent restrictions on the press in our modem history.
So when Iraq rolled around, this war that was going to erase Vietnam, we had a set of rules imposed on the press that included the exclusive use of pools, that is groups of reporters picked to represent all other reporters, and four or five would go off in a bus and they would be allowed to look at this, some military unit or soldiers at mess eating their meal, or what have you. And they would come back and tell their peers all about it, and people would write stories and the pool reports would be posted so that you, another reporter that didn’t go out in the poor — you could use it. Totally controlled, you could never go out without your baby-sitter from the Pentagon, without your handler. There was a set of ground rules about sensitive matters. And you had to follow those. The press had no intention of not following them. In every war that we can remember, the press followed all the security rules to a “T”. We never broke them. In Vietnam the rules were voluntary. You observed them without having to be punished or told, without having an ax held over your head. And they were not violated.
But this time, they were compulsory. And to make them work, the government said your copy has to go through censors. And it did. They couldn’t find much to censor. The reporters weren’t telling any military secrets. They weren’t putting any units at risk. They weren’t talking about troop movements. But there were things that had to be censored. When one airborne unit, the night before a series of raids, watched a porn movie at their base, the reporter who was there put that in his story. That was censored. We couldn’t talk about real life. Bad-macho language, used by pilots from missions saying, “We got the S.O.B.’s…” And that’s the kind of thing that pilots say when they come back from a risky mission. That was excised.
So we have these baby-sitter taking small groups of reporters, only a few at a time. The baby-sitters pick the sites you can go to. They pick the people you could interview. And as you interview, they stand over you, hovering and intimidating. It’s hard to get secrets when there are no secrets to be told. And everybody’s intimidated. If you decided that you would circumvent this system, and go around the pool restrictions, and go off on your own to find a military unit — which as we remember, the press did all the time in W.W.II and Korea and Vietnam. You could go anywhere you wanted. You had full access. And for the press, access is everything. If you can’t see it, you can’t write about it. If you did such a thing, the rules said you would be detained. That just means you get arrested. About 2 dozen reporters were arrested in the course of the war. And they were sometimes held overnight. And sometimes their credentials were briefly lifted, but all of them got their credentials back after being hassled for a while. They still didn’t get to go out on their own without punishment.
As we know, the war was all about destroying the enemy from the air. Yet, unbelievably no reporter was ever allowed to fly on a single bombing mission. Something you did all the time in W.W.II, Korea and Vietnam. This is what President Bush meant when he said this will not be another Vietnam. He might as well have said it won’t be another Korea or W.W.II. How different this was from those other wars? For the press? Virtually free access to the front lines in those other wars, no access this time. It may help to recall what Dwight Eisenhower did in 1944, May of ’44 just before D-day. He sent an order to unit commanders in the allied expeditionary force. The order told his commanders to give accredited correspondents “the greatest possible latitude in the gathering of legitimate news. They should be allowed to talk freely with officers and enlisted personnel and to see the machinery of war in operation in order to visualize and transmit to the public the conditions under which the men from their countries are waging war against the enemy.”
Nothing remotely resembling that ever happened in Iraq, just the opposite. And of course, what Eisenhower was talking about was rather pressured, because the importance of war coverage lies in providing, or any real coverage of any major event — the texture of the situation. The texture of war, the context of war — Which is pretty horrible. The point being, as grim as it is, and bloody as it is, and chaotic as it is, people have a right to hear about it and read about it and see it. Because if these people, the American public in this instance, are going to send off their husbands or wives or fathers or brothers to war, they have a right to know what they’re sending them to.
When asked to explain why this system had been imposed, Washington said it was for military security. But as I have already mentioned, there was no security problem. Reporters had never breached the security rules in other wars and they didn’t in Iraq.
“As we know, the war was all about destroying the enemy from the air. Yet, unbelievably no reporter was ever allowed to fly on a single bombing mission.”
The second reason they gave was there were too many reporters running around. Sometimes there were 800, 900, a thousand. it would have bollixed things up in the desert. That’s a little bit more of nonsense. When reporters went to the field, actually on their own, and circumvented the pool system, very often before they got arrested they would find a unit commander who was extraordinarily happy to see them. The reason is he was just as much a professional as the reporters, and he was proud of his men and he wanted them memorialized in print or on television. So we weren’t going to bollix things up. If a unit commander didn’t want the reporter there, he would simply say, “Get out of my sight.” And you know, any reporter knows that in war time that man controls the field of battle, and you don’t argue with him, you go away.
The third reason the Pentagon gave was that they were worried about our safety. And then of course, we laughed because we’d never known them to be worried about our safety before. The serious response to that is that when reporters do go into risky situations, they are entirely responsible on their own, for their own safety. Period. It’s a mockery to say they were worried about our safety. These restrictions had nothing to do with military security and everything to do with making this a popular war, in other words political security.
Some people have asked me when I’ve written about this, “Well, with all these restrictions, what did we miss from this war? What didn’t we get that we would have gotten?” Well, I mentioned the general things we didn’t get. We didn’t get that texture. We didn’t see except in the very exceptional circumstances and usually afterward, some documentary footage that had been rejected by the networks during the war. You would see bloody scenes. As I said, those scenes may be unpleasant, they may ruin people’s breakfast, but if we are going to send people to war, we as a public have to be informed. Have to feel, know, understand what it is we’re sending them into.
To give you an example of how the reporting took place I’m going to quote a little bit from a book called, The Hotel Warriors, by John Fialka, who was from the Wall Street Journal‘s Washington Bureau. And he wrote about an evening when there was a bombing alert, a SCUD alert, and he was in with a lot of other newsmen, he was in the [Dhahran] International Hotel. And they all ran down to the air raid shelter in the basement. That basement was usually a kitchen area used by the Hotel. And he writes, “When I was sitting on basement floor after that, trying to concentrate on a book, through the filmy lenses of my cheap Soviet-made gas mask, a radio reporter behind me, began narrating what was happening. The reporter was talking into the phone to his own home office. ‘We are sitting here in Dhahran as at least four SCUD missiles are approaching,’ he announced breathlessly, through one of the few phones active in the basement shelter area. How did he know what was happening I wondered,” Fialka writes, “As this man stuck his microphone in front of the air raid siren to give his listeners back home a sample of its banshee-like howling. Then I heard it. Boom! Boom! Boom! There seemed to be several muffled explosions in the vicinity of the Hotel. Then there were more booms as the radio reporters hair-raising narration continued I began worrying that my wife would be listening. She would be terrified, but all that I could tell her for sure was that there was a bunch of us sitting in a kitchen wearing these masks that made us look like giant insects. None of the SCUDS hit Dhahran that night. Later I decided that the reporter was guessing at the numbers of approaching SCUDs by counting the number of booms, which I thought were actually made by nearby Patriot missile batteries. Those batteries launched several missiles at each incoming target.
But much later, as most of us were packing our bags to go home, I discovered the real source of the booms. Our kitchen shelter was located under a large walk-in cooler, serving a Hotel restaurant on the floor above. Several times an hour, the restaurant workers went in there, slamming the door behind them. Boom, Boom, Boom! In retrospect, it seems funny. But for a number of American radio listeners that night, the real war was the Dhahran International Hotel’s cooler door. They deserve better than that.”
On the other side of the coin, Dick Cheney called it the best covered war in history. Cooler doors: boom, boom, boom. But when the press later saw what chumps the government had made of them, the big papers and the networks complained again, as they had after Grenada. But the war was over. And it was much too late. And by the way, the complaint was much too polite. The government started some new negotiations, and they have come to a new set of rules and you won’t able to determine the real difference. There are some cosmetic differences. But we won’t know how it works, obviously, until the next situation. But I doubt very much, since the government was so happy with the first result, that they will change it in any significant way.
The public seemed to like it that way too. Like every other journalist in America, I have read the results of the opinion surveys that show how unpopular we are with the American public. How approving that public are of Pentagon restrictions. I’m human. I’d like to be popular. But that’s not the job of the press. Our job is to be responsible, to tell people what we have seen and heard and learned. If they are annoyed or displeased by the stories that result, we have to live with their displeasure. We cannot retain our self-respect if we react instead by deciding not to write stories that might displease the majority. Yet in effect, that was precisely what most of the mainstream media organizations did on the Iraq war. They became timid and nervous. And what was it they were timid and nervous about? I think it was about the possibility of being called unpatriotic and un-American in the middle of the most popular war that anybody could remember. Now I don’t know how to win the public’s respect except by doing our job better. We can’t do it by trying to be popular. That is definitely not our job. We can’t take polls on what people want to read and then feed it to them.
“We cannot retain our self-respect if we react instead by deciding not to write stories that might displease the majority.”
Now, I don’t expect everyone in America to agree with me, and as I said before I don’t expect everyone in this audience to agree with me. But if the press is to do its proper job in our society, we are going to have to break the precedent that was set first in Grenada and then in Panama and finally in Iraq. And it’s not going to be easy, because the government has set a new precedent and they have it their own way. And they have public opinion behind them. So what would we have to do in a practical sense to break this precedent. One thing, and I know this may sound a bit silly to a lot of people, but I am going to suggest the idea of civil disobedience. If the government is going to arrest you and you try to circumvent those rules, you try to get to where the story is, try to go to the front lines, which is where the war is, then maybe you have to make them arrest you. You simply have to go do your job. And maybe every large media organization should say to the government, “Look, we’re going to have several of our reporters work under the system of rules you’ve imposed. And then we’re going to have several reporters who won’t. And we want that other coverage. And if you want to stop them, you will have to arrest them, the burden is on you. They will not be giving away military secrets, they will not be bollixing up your military operations, they are professionals. But they are going to do their job.”
I don’t know any other way. But I think we are very nervous about doing something like this, since we are already unpopular among the public for a lot of reasons, not necessarily just this one. Some of those reasons are perfectly valid. I think the press is worried about taking that kind of an extreme tactic. Am I suggesting in any of my remarks that the press is perfect, that it is entitled to special privileges, to go where it wants? Not in the least. But when your government is having a war, and Americans are fighting, it has become a tradition in this country for the press to cover it.
About our imperfections, yes, there are a lot of times when you have seen us behave like spoiled children in an arrogant fashion, in a self important fashion. Behaving just as if we do have special rights, as though we are the holders of all knowledge. But in my opinion, the greatest failing of the press is not in this bad behavior, but in not living up to our fundamental responsibility as a recognized piece of the democratic process. And that responsibility is to bring information to the public in an unvarnished form, and to be fair at the same time in doing this. That, I think, is what is supposed to be our compact with the country. And I think the public doesn’t see us performing that compact very well. Maybe sometimes the public finds us too superficial and frivolous. I’m not going to dwell on this in these remarks, but maybe the public looks at us and says, “Hmm, they seem to have a lot of courage and daring and bravery when it comes to peephole journalism, to keeping the records on who is sleeping with whom. But they don’t seem to have quite the same level of courage when it comes to complicated stories, difficult stories, savings & loan stories, BCCI stories, the Iraq war.
Getting back to the matters of substance. When reporters play yes-men and yes-women to the government, we not only damage ourselves, but also our country. I wonder how many reporters and editors have such a short memory that they’ve forgotten our loud chorus of agreeability and affability when Lyndon Johnson bamboozled us with his fabrication of that Gulf of Tonkin incident. It’s a good memory to hang on to.
During the Iraq thing, a group of people and some civil libertarian lawyers decided to file a lawsuit. I joined in the lawsuit with other writers and some small media organizations, most of them would be described as liberal organizations, the ViIlage Voice, Mother Jones, LA Weekly, Harpers Magazine, William Styron joined. The suit sought to tear away these controls on reporters movements. It said they were unconstitutional, an unconstitutional interference with freedom of speech. And it laid out a very careful case of the precedents that had already been set in other wars by the Commander in Chief, who allowed freedom of access, voluntary observance of the security rules. The government’s answer to that lawsuit was that under the constitution, the President is Commander-in-Chief, and to challenge “would be impermissible at any time and is unthinkable in time of war.” Well, unthinkable is not a legal word, it’s a political word. It’s one of those labels that suggests that anyone who entertains such a thought, the thought of giving the press access to the war, just might not be a good American. The smear seemed to do its work. Its work was to intimidate. Because the mainstream press did not come in and join that lawsuit. Even though its birthright was really at stake. How did this lawsuit come out? The government dragged its feet, and it stonewalled, and finally the war was over. So the lawsuit became moot. And the federal judge in New York, who ruled on it and said the situation had now changed and this was now moot, did something else however. He rejected completely the government’s argument that it was unthinkable to question what the government was doing in war, toward the press or anyone else. It was not unthinkable to stand up and dissent. So there is that little consolation from the ending of this lawsuit.
“But when your government is having a war, and Americans are fighting, it has become a tradition in this country for the press to cover it.”
The television networks, the major ones, never even considered joining that lawsuit. Much of the television community in fact, wasn’t disturbed at all about the press restrictions. They were getting what they needed — from roof tops and other sites in the war theater. Pretty pictures. Pictures of missiles coming in, pictures at the briefings of the bombs going boom, right down the chute. Perfect bombs. Precision bombing. Of course, no one told us at the time that only 15% of the bombs were these computer guided bombs. The rest of them fell all over the place. So we got these wonderful pyrotechnics on television. And most of the networks were pretty happy about it. It was pretty much a made-for-television war. And so, in dealing with these controls, television proved almost a willing sacrificial lamb. It was part of a trend. Before I go on, I want to say what I’m talking about here when I talk about television is not television reporters, or even in the sense when I talk about the print press am I talking about reporters. I’m talking about people who run the places. Because reporters alone can’t do this. I’m talking about network executives here. Television’s news departments had fallen under the thrall of corporate profit pressures. Aggressive journalism had begun fading and tameness had set in. Tameness in the face of the government and in the face of popular disfavor. Disfavor that had been — in small part — engineered by the government.
The networks seemingly came to the conclusion that since their financial success depends on the ratings of their prime time entertainment programs, they must at all costs avoid actions that might invite public displeasure. They might also have been thinking about their licenses that need renewal from time to time by the government. And since the government had shown consummate skill at turning the public against the press, government favor had to be curried. Sometimes the network’s motto might as well have been, “Offend government not.”
Disturbingly, television’s drift downward into supineness coincided with a trend in print journalism toward copying television’s news format. Shorter stories, more soft journalism, more gossip, more celebrity news. Some have called it fast-food-news, or Mac-news, for short. Publishers apparently did their surveys and ran their focus groups and came up with a finding that their newspapers ought to look more like television.
I think print journalists will be ordering their own demise if they put on television’s clothes. Print journalism may once have had a real kinship with television. But now I think we have virtually nothing in common anymore with television news. At least certainly not in situations like the Gulf War. That war demonstrated how happy the networks were with their zippy Nintendo footage that the government was feeding them. They behaved like puppies having their bellies scratched. They rolled over as if Washington’s press restrictions didn’t matter more than a flea bite. When we talk about negotiating with the government for a change in these rules, I would suggest that the print press sit down at a separate table, that we not negotiate jointly with television. Let television make its own negotiations because its agenda is different and it’s a visual media. We don’t have to call names, we simply have to say “we have our own needs. And we shouldn’t be sitting with you because we can’t mesh the two.” Because if we win in the print press join television we’ll be rolling over too. And I don’t think it’s going to make us popular. It’s much more likely to make us irrelevant.