Skip to content

War breeds conflicting views of American journalism

From the Fall 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 3. On Oct. 10, White House spokesman…

From the Fall 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 3.

On Oct. 10, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer announced that National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice had held a remarkable telephone conversation with the heads of the five major television networks.

She asked that they not air videotapes from terrorist Osama Bin Laden in their entirety without screening them, citing a variety of national security and propaganda concerns.

The network executives agreed that they wouldn't run the video "live" and would review the tape before airing excerpts.

The Reporters Committee telephone started to ring immediately. Foreign journalists, in particular, sought comment on why the American media seemed so unconcerned about being censored by the White House. The quick answer was that under American law, it wasn't censorship. Rice's concerns were officially phrased in the form of a request. In fact, the White House, based on Fleischer's description of the conference call, was very conscious of the fact that under the First Amendment, it could request but not demand restraint in the use of the videotapes. But these subtleties in First Amendment law often are not recognized by foreign journalists.

Further, they didn't believe the American media were being aggressive enough in seeking out independent sources of information. Why would the American media agree to not publish American troop movement information? Why would they run pictures of American flags in their newspapers and on the air? Why would they wear flags on their lapels if they were trying to be independent news providers? Why is video from Afghanistan of civilian victims of bombings available from Al-Jazeera but not from CNN?

Meanwhile, the phone also rang from American reporters wanting to know what could be done to get greater access to information from the Justice Department and the Pentagon. Journalists were distressed that they couldn't get information about more than 800 people secretly in custody nationwide either on alleged immigration violations or as material witnesses for grand juries. They were angry they weren't allowed close enough to the World Trade Center to report on recovery efforts. They were concerned that access to military units, with the exception of a couple of aircraft carriers, was cut off. Most of all, they were incredulous and outraged that Attorney General John Ashcroft rescinded a government-wide directive supporting minimal use of Freedom of Information Act exemptions, replacing it with an assurance that the Justice Department will support denials of FOIA requests from the media and the public.

Such different perceptions of the American media are disconcerting.

Were American journalists being too aggressive and insensitive to the needs of national security or were they behaving as ignorant, patriotic dupes of the White House?

In the short term, the American media will be forced to rely on official government sources of information, and it is going to rankle. But the longer the war on terrorism is waged, the more creative the American media will become in independently accessing information. All it will take is one Big Lie from the Bush administration regarding the war effort, and the trust currently shown in the government by the press and the public will be gone. Coverage will be more critical of U.S. actions.

In the meantime, American journalists will continue to be very conscious that they are "Americans." They may not be fully objective, but they will strive to be fair and accurate.

This issue of The News Media & The Law explores the difficulties the media have had thus far covering the war on terrorism. It also reviews the relationship between the government and the media in past wars dating to the American Revolution.

The Reporters Committee recently joined with 10 other media groups in writing to numerous Bush administration and congressional officials outlining concerns about access to information during these difficult days. It is reprinted on page 16, and can be found on our Web site (www.rcfp.org).

This is the first cover story focused on the War on Terrorism. Unfortunately, it probably will not be the last. — Lucy Dalglish