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News media expect, but worry about, misinformation

From the Fall 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 5.

From the Fall 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 5.

Upon receiving word of terrorists attacks upon New York City and Washington, D.C., President Bush hopped onto Air Force One and spent most of Sept. 11 flying to New Orleans and then Nebraska before returning to the White House.

Fearing the event might raise concerns about Bush’s handling of the crisis, senior adviser Karl Rove and spokesman Ari Fleischer revealed that Air Force One was a target of terrorists, thus requiring the president’s plane to buzz around other parts of the country before returning to Washington, D.C.

Even as CBS News and Associated Press reports revealed the story to be false, Rove and Fleischer refused to back off their story, admitting that while they were never able to verify the claim, the threat seemed real at the time.

The event might very well go down as the first evidence of misinformation during the latest combat, signs where military officials intentionally offer wrong interpretations or create events to confuse or spin situations strategically.

“We have to look at everything very carefully and try to be sure, as much as possible, that we’re not used or misused by the government,” said John Henry, Washington bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle. “We’re supposed to be independent observers.”

Henry is a member of the Reporters Committee’s steering committee.

These worries come despite strong assurances from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his staff that, while they might not answer all questions from journalists, they would not lie.

“I don’t recall that I’ve ever lied to the press,” Rumsfeld told journalists during a Sept. 25 press briefing. “I don’t intend to. And it seems to me that there will not be reason for it.”

Pressed further, he added: “The policy is that we will not say a word about anything that will compromise sources or methods. We will not say a word that will in any way endanger anyone’s life by discussing operations.”

Rumsfeld echoed provisions of the Defense Department’s Principles of Information, a policy drafted in the 1980s by then-Secretary, now Vice President Dick Cheney guiding military information in combat. In part, the guidelines stated that a free flow of information would be free of censorship and propaganda and that telling the truth as quickly as possible was paramount.

But some press advocates worry that won’t happen amid the current war. The Persian Gulf War, for example, was fraught with misinformation and, some say, outright lies.

Jacqueline Sharkey’s exhaustive examination of press restrictions in her book “Under Fire — U.S. Military Restrictions on the Media from Grenada to the Persian Gulf” bears out some of these concerns.

As the war progressed, defense officials enjoyed bragging about their precision attack on the Iraqis, claiming an 80 percent success rate of U.S. Air Force missions and a 98 percent success rate of the Tomahawk missile.

It wasn’t until after the war that officials revealed that the statistics meant that fighter planes had taken off and dropped bombs on their targets, not that they actually struck the targets. The Tomahawk statistics referred to a 98 percent launch success rate, meaning that the missiles hadn’t gotten stuck in their launchers and achieved level flight.

Before a House Armed Services Committee in 1991, Pentagon analyst Pierre Sprey explained that for every missile that blew up a bridge, as many as 70 to 75 missed their targets. That, he said, translated to an actual success rate of less than 1.5 percent.

But Sharkey said the spin had been done, noting that videotapes of precision attacks and smart bombs remain ingrained in the public’s image of the Gulf War.

“This ability to control access to the battlefield combined with the Pentagon’s mastery of briefings and statistics and how to manage information to put the best face on this has combined with giving the American public a very misleading picture of what war is like,” Sharkey said in an interview.

Reporters weren’t able to reveal the misinformation until after the war when better access surfaced. Newsday‘s Patrick Sloyan won a Pulitzer Prize for a package of stories that revealed many of the discrepancies, including a report that many of the American casualties were due to friendly fire.

But Pete Williams, the Pentagon spokesman during the Gulf War, testified in congressional hearings that defense officials never intentionally misled reporters. He said the military provided better information and access as soon as it became available.

Col. David Hackworth, a decorated Korean and Vietnam veteran and longtime war correspondent for Newsweek, stressed that both secrecy and misinformation remain essential tools for fighting war. The success of the Normandy Invasion during World War II succeeded in part because of misinformation spread about a planned Allied tank attack on Germany for the same day, Hackworth said.

“A ruse is just as every bit as important in a military operation than the main attack,” he said. “You want the enemy to mistakenly shift his reserves.”

Hackworth said he’s furious that officers, particularly retired generals who find themselves hired as network commentators, forget to use these tactics and risk revealing the ruse. He’s especially disappointed with two ex-NATO commanders.

“They’ve both been spouting out military operations for their new masters, which is either Fox or CNN,” he said. “They are paid traitors. They should have their tongues ripped out.”

He’s not so sure that journalists, in general, are much better with secrets.

“From my experience, and this is one of the shockers, is that, in the last couple of decades, most military reporters don’t know a tank from a turd,” he said. “So they don’t know what is secure and what is not secure, what is important and what is not important.”

But Clark Hoyt, Washington editor for Knight-Ridder, said observers only have to look at Persian Gulf War coverage for evidence of journalists’ ability to sort secrets effectively. He noted that Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the forces in the Gulf, debriefed journalists the day before the Jan. 16, 1991, invasion and that an openly planned amphibious assault was cover for a ground attack.

“And no one leaked it,” Hoyt said.