Official control of coverage, errors in war reports fuel debate on media WAR IN THE GULF

January 20, 1991|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Three days into the fighting, the U.S. government continues to exercise tight control over news of the war, withholding information about the extent of the bombing and the destruction in Iraq and restricting interviews with troops and returning pilots.

At the same time, journalists, particularly on television, have periodically failed to distinguish fact from rumor, and the public has received false and misleading reports.

As a consequence, editors and news executives on one hand and military and political officials on the other are uneasy about the war coverage so far.

The journalists feel they, and by extension their readers and viewers, do not have the information they need to assess how the war is going, information that reporters and editors believe could be provided without compromising security.

The officials believe that the unreliable information that has occasionally been broadcast is evidence that journalists cannot be trusted. "I spend more time putting out fires than dealing with real information," said Marlin Fitzwater, the White House spokesman.

Both sides concede that they are fighting the last war, the one in Vietnam.

Journalists mistrust the government, and especially the military, in large part because of their experience of having been deceived in Vietnam, where officials consistently painted a much rosier picture of the war than turned out to be justified.

"Given the record of significant deception, reporters and the American people are entitled to skepticism," said Marvin Kalb, a veteran television correspondent who is now director of the Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

Similarly, the military believes that the free rein journalists had inVietnam led to reporting that seriously damaged morale and turned the country against its own troops.

There is general agreement on two other points growing out of the Vietnam experience.

The first is that if the press had more access to unfavorable information -- evidence, say, that equipment was malfunctioning or that a particular tactic had gone awry -- the journalists would focus on it. It is in the nature of journalism that bad news tends to be overemphasized and good news underplayed.

The second point growing out of Vietnam is that if the public knew how gruesome the fighting was, more people would turn against the war. There is even a suspicion among journalists here that the government wants to keep news of casualties in Iraq to a minimum to keep Arab allies from turning against the United States.

If members of Congress reflect public opinion on the question whether the government is controlling the news too tightly, then the public, at least now, is clearly on the side of the military.

At a briefing for lawmakers on Thursday, Representative Mary Rose Oakar, D-Ohio, complained to Defense Secretary Dick Cheney about the degree of control. Her question was greeted with a chorus of groans from colleagues, and Mr. Cheney brushed off the question by saying he saw no problem.

"Not everybody was against me, but most of them certainly were," Ms. Oakar said later.

The main complaint from editors is that by selectively releasing information, the government has prevented reporting of the scale of the military operation.

"We are not getting any information that really fully and properly describes the magnitude," said Max Frankel, executive editor of the New York Times. "We don't know how many are participating, how much ordnance is being dropped. It's hard to remember this is a non-stop, massive operation, the likes of which we may not have seen before."

Other editors agreed and said they could not understand why, after the fact, the government could not describe the extent of destruction or provide some word about casualties.

"I can appreciate the national security concerns," said David Gergen, editor at large of U.S. News & World Report, who was director of the White House office of communications in the Ford and Reagan administrations. "But it appears to me that there is too strong a tendency to lean toward less coverage the better."

The government's view, shared by many military experts, is that journalists do not understand the extent to which certain details could be helpful to the enemy and even endanger the lives of U.S. pilots.

The main concern of government officials is the misinformation that has found its way onto the air.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.