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War on terrorism revives tension between press, government

By The Associated Press,
freedomforum.org

09.25.01

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WASHINGTON — President Bush's "new type of war" on terrorism has revived tensions between reporters and government officials over secrecy.

Bush laid out ground rules two days after the Sept. 11 attacks: "Let me condition the press this way: Any sources and methods of intelligence will remain guarded in secret. My administration will not talk about how we gather intelligence, if we gather intelligence and what the intelligence says. That's for the protection of the American people. It is important, as we battle this enemy, to conduct ourselves this way."

Administration officials say they are clamping down on information about military movements because the speed with which news travels around the world means crucial details about the U.S. response can fall into the wrong hands.

But journalists are concerned that officials are limiting access to too much information.

Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, sent a letter yesterday to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, asking him to allow as much media access as possible to military responses to the attacks.

"RTNDA members and all journalists are acutely aware of the need to balance national security considerations with the duty to inform the public truthfully. No news organization wants to be responsible for putting U.S. fighting men and women in harm's way," Cochran said. "But we also have a responsibility to keep the public informed about key government activities, which surely include critical military operations."

Cochran also asked Rumsfeld to "open a dialogue" with members of the news media to ensure that journalists have access to as much information as possible. She said the government should base its current policy on the nine principles of news coverage of combat that were adopted in 1992 by the Pentagon after extensive meetings with members of the news media. (See Appendix IV in America's Team: Media and the Military.)

According to The Washington Post, Torie Clarke, the Pentagon spokeswoman, has been conferring with journalists and plans to meet this week with Washington bureau chiefs.

"Our inclination, our desire, is to put out as much information as possible, without, of course, compromising any operations," Clarke was quoted as saying in the Post. "We're very much working on this together."

The Pentagon scheduled a meeting today to discuss the possible deployment of a news media pool to cover any hostilities. Reporters in such pools have covered military actions from Panama to the Persian Gulf War, working in tandem with the Pentagon.

But journalists say while pools are sometimes the only feasible way to provide coverage, they are often used by the military to control the information that reaches the public.

Malcolm Browne, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter, said that during the Gulf War, the pool system turned the reporters covering the war into "essentially unpaid employees of the Department of Defense," the Los Angeles Times reported today.

Under the principles adopted in 1992 by the Pentagon and news representatives, "Pools are not to serve as the standard of covering U.S. military operations." However, the principles say pools should be used when they are the only feasible means of getting information and they should include as many journalists as possible.

Meanwhile, the administration yesterday also declined to release examples of evidence implicating the prime suspect in the attacks, Osama bin Laden — despite promises from Secretary of State Colin Powell a day earlier.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the evidence Powell promised must be kept under wraps because it will go to a grand jury, which operates in secret, and is derived from intelligence, which is classified.

"We just want some kind of broad information ... to show why the United States is so confident that he's the one responsible," said Lawrence McQuillan, White House reporter for USA TODAY. "I don't want to go telling Pentagon secrets, or reveal the next attack. But I do think a basic openness is essential at a time like this."

"That's what makes us the good guys," he said, referring to the United States.

Officials also have not been entirely forthcoming about Bush's consultations with other world leaders as he tries to build a global anti-terrorism coalition. Aides offered vague, upbeat assessments about Bush's talks yesterday with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and deflected questions about substance, including whether Canada's F-18 jet fighters might be used for joint patrols of North American skies.

"Canada's a close NATO ally, obviously, but in terms of what we're talking about with all our friends and allies around the globe in terms of military support, military planning, we're not talking about it," said national security spokesman Sean McCormack.

Joshua Meyrowitz, professor of media studies at the University of New Hampshire, said the current atmosphere gives journalists a chance to bolster their reports with historical context, thereby truly informing the public.

"There should be less of an emphasis on the daily schedule of officials, and what their announcements are. They no longer hide the fact that they are concerned with shepherding and guiding the press," Meyrowitz said.

Fleischer said most Americans support the need to withhold certain information. He told reporters yesterday, "I think you all will be the judge, if you believe the government has gone too far."

Journalists, however, said the secrecy itself makes that job tougher.

"It's something our republic depends upon, journalists playing the role of questioner," said Bob Deans, White House correspondent for Cox Newspapers. "Without understanding information that would, in fact, be classified, we're in a hard position to make a judgment of whether they've gone too far."

Meanwhile, broadcast news directors are asking the government to lift a ban on news helicopters and other news aircraft.

In a letter to the Transportation Department and Federal Aviation Administration, the RTNDA said the nationwide ban, part of the government's restrictions after the terrorist attacks, was hurting efforts to cover the news.

"Especially in these times, the public deserves news of its own community that is as complete and timely as possible, and the use of news helicopters makes that possible," said Cochran in the letter.

Cochran also said the ban may violate the First Amendment because it singles out news aircraft while allowing other aircraft "to fly without restriction," and it doesn't distinguish between "sensitive" and non-sensitive geographic areas.

FAA spokesman Fraser Jones said last week the ban was being reviewed, but he didn't know when the restrictions might be ended.

In an e-mail message to freedomforum.org, Cochran said the FAA had modified the rules slightly, but most news helicopters remained grounded. She said she hadn't received a response to her letter.

Related

America's Team: Media and the Military
A report on the relationship between the media and the military.  05.24.01

Ban on news helicopters frustrates press
'You can fly the type of flight identical to most news helicopters in all but three cities, but if your purpose is to report news, you're grounded,' says RTNDA president; FAA cites security concerns.  10.24.01

Media Studies Journal: Front Lines and Deadlines
Summer 2001 Media Studies Journal presents a range of perspectives on war reporting.  08.20.01

FOI advocates fear government clampdown in response to attacks
Conference participants say officials have withheld some information and may set up more roadblocks.  10.01.01

News media, administration struggle over press freedom, national security
Analysis 'Patriotism and transparency are kissing cousins,' says free-press advocate; restraint, are close relatives too, government insists.  10.12.01

Pentagon: U.S. troops in central Asia to remain off-limits to reporters
Military officials say they're willing to restrict press access to American soldiers if it means countries in region will cooperate militarily.  11.09.01

White House cautions TV networks about airing bin Laden tapes
Five major broadcasters agree to screen, possibly edit transmissions from al-Qaida before airing them after administration warns tapes may contain coded messages.  10.11.01

Larry Flynt sues Defense Department to relax news media restrictions
Meanwhile, Knight Foundation's Hodding Carter III urges publishers group to seek better access for journalists to cover Afghan war.  11.20.01

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