by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
February 23, 2002
A Great American Journalist
THE PENTAGON'S WAR AGAINST THE PRESS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- If you want a good idea of what's missing from the news coverage of our ongoing "war on terrorism," take a trip down to your local library or bookstore and check out the anthologies "Reporting World War II" and "Reporting Vietnam," both published by the Library of America.
Compare what you've been reading in the papers and hearing on radio and television over the past few months with the work of such greatreporters as Homer Bigart, Ernie Pyle, A.J. Liebling, Martha Gellhorn,Malcolm Browne, Michael Herr, Gloria Emerson and Peter Arnett -- just toname a few -- that are found within the covers of these two collections. The difference is astounding.
We're only a few months into the war in Central Asia, but the lack of reporting that accurately shows what American troops are going through is noticeable. The only way we learned the stories of those fighting in Central Asia have been when they are killed or wounded. Eyewitness accounts of battle have been few, and reporters have had almost no access to U.S.forces.
In World War II, Korea and Vietnam, the bulk of the war news came from correspondents in the field. They went into battle and wrote about what they saw. Since October, the bulk of the war news from Central Asia has come from the Pentagon. Even though American reporters were in Afghanistan, they often had to find out what was really happening from their colleagues covering the Pentagon briefings.
For example, the stories of civilian casualties during U.S. raids in Afghanistan are only now being extensively reported in the American press because American reporters were unable to check out many of the places where the raids occurred until recently. And reporters are still having trouble finding out what happened.
A couple of weeks ago, Washington Post reporter Doug Struck was trying to enter a village where three civilians were killed. Struck was turned away at gunpoint by U.S. soldiers who threatened to shoot him if he attempted to enter.
The reporters who covered World War II faced stringent military censorship. They moved freely with the troops, but every word of their dispatches was subject to review before it could be released to the public. The balance between operational secrecy and informing the public was maintained and Americans were able (most of the time) to see how the war was going.
Unfortunately, that's not the way Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the rest of the military establishment wants to see "America's New War "covered by the press. Their plan is simple -- give out as little information as possible; spin what little information that is given out so it can be only interpreted favorably; appeal to the patriotism of the reporters so that they fully support the operation; shut off all access to anyone who disagrees. We only see and hear Rumsfeld and the generals and admirals, butwe haven't heard from the men and women doing the fighting -- the human aspect of the war. That too is deliberate. Take away the on-the-scene reporting and war becomes a sanitized abstraction where the ugly realities of battle are swept under the carpet. But you don't just lose the ugliness of war by keeping out the reporters. You also lose the scenes of bravery and professionalism that apparently have been part of this war. The troops do the fighting and the dying, but only the generals and admirals are allowed to take credit. This sort of coverage cheats the public. While it's been easy to get away with it while the war remains popular with the majority of Americans, whatwill happen when public opinion changes?
Few if any reporters during World War II questioned why the war was being fought. In a war of national survival, there are few dissenters. Vietnam was not that kind of war, although some tried to frame it that way. The news reporting in the Vietnam War was more questioning and more critical because the survival of the free world did not depend on what happened there. The coverage also was more critical because of the easily observable difference between the spin of the military briefers and thereality of how the war was being fought as seen by reporters in the field. It was this disconnect between the official version of events and reality that caused people to stop supporting the war in Vietnam. Graphic war coverage on television didn't have nearly the effect as the realization that our government was lying about almost every aspect of the war.
The Pentagon blamed the news reporting on the war, not its own lies and strategic failures, for U.S. failures in Vietnam. Instead of resolving to be more honest with the American people, it resolved to make sure the press would have almost no access to future conflicts. The Pentagon, not the press, would control the narrative.
Not that the Pentagon has to work all that hard to insure conformity among the press. The press apparently is doing a fine job on its own. According to a report released in January by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, U.S. news coverage overwhelmingly favoredofficial viewpoints. Only about 10 percent of the coverage dissented fromthe Bush administration's views, and most of those stories involved the debate over federalizing airport security. Critical coverage of the war has been and remains virtually nonexistent in the corporate press. It is very clear that the current campaign in Central Asia is not awar of national survival. To build Osama bin Laden up into the equivalentof Adolf Hitler is an insult to our intelligence.
Iran, Iraq and North Korea are in no position to wipe the U.S. off the face of the earth. Without independent reporting that understands the motivations and structural causes of terrorism and accurately assesses its true threat to the world, what we end up with is simplistic, jingoistic reporting that frames everything in terms of good (the U.S.) versus evil (everyone who disagrees with the U.S.) and excuses any need for critical thought.
For reporters to dig deeply, think critically and thoughtfully question what the U.S. government is doing in wartime is not being guilty of "moral relativism," as the conservative bullies now policing American life for any signs of war-related "thought crimes" would have it. It is called independent journalism, and something that is needed now.
We need to see and hear about every aspect of the war from how the troops are faring in the field to honest discussion of policy goals. Anything less than this is mere propaganda.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for morethan 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).