At War with the Censors

January 23, 1991|By JAMES J. KILPATRICK

WASHINGTON — Washington. A week after the shooting war began, the news is good. Or is it? At the risk of raining on Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's parade, good journalists are pointing out a painful fact of life at the front. The news we are getting from Saudi Arabia is filtered news, strained through military censorship. Is it news-lite? Who knows?

Sen. Hiram Johnson of California is long forgotten, but he left a memorable remark behind. In one of his first speeches to the Senate in 1917, he observed that ''The first casualty when war comes is truth.'' We are not getting outright propaganda from our military leaders. No one is lying to us. The good news is believable.

But no one should be deceived. Through the ''pool'' system enforced by the Pentagon, all dispatches must first be cleared by censors. Correspondents are required to submit their copy to officers with no experience in newspapering and no appreciation of what is meant by timely news.

The censor's first purpose is to protect himself. If he has the slightest doubt about a paragraph, a sentence or a word, his immediate instinct is to kill the passage. In this way the censor will not get in trouble. If a story is delayed or banned altogether, the censor is indifferent. He cares not a fig about informing the people back home.

What is especially infuriating in the present situation is the conflict between censors in the field and public information officers at the Pentagon. Material that is censored there is released here. Malcolm W. Browne of the New York Times recently cited examples of this confusion. Other reporters on the scene have described censorship far beyond anything necessary to prevent valuable information from reaching the enemy.

Mr. Browne reported one instance of intolerable tampering: A reporter had used the word ''giddy.'' A senior officer insisted this be changed to read ''proud.'' Upon what meat do these our Caesars feed?

Information officers at the front have two duties. Their first is to protect genuinely sensitive information. Their second is not to classify everything as genuinely sensitive information. Their relationship to the press should be a relationship of mutual confidence and cooperation. It has become an adversarial relationship instead.

Mr. Browne quoted a senior Air Force officer as he began a briefing last week: ''Let me say up front that I don't like the press. Your presence here can't possibly do me any good, and it can hurt me and my people. That's just so you'll know where we stand with each other.''

To which one is tempted to reply: ''Those of us who have spent our lives in the news business don't like swell-headed bureaucrats either. We resent their officiousness, their petty intrusions, their imbecilic inference that only they know what is good for the people to know. They create an atmosphere in which doubt festers and disbelief is magnified.''

As a consequence of rigid field censorship, the American people should be skeptical. We are told what targets have been hit. Do we know what targets have been missed? When reporters are given permission to interview service personnel, the interviewees are carefully selected by commanding officers. No such interviews may be conducted in private. A censor must sit in. Reporters may go only where the military takes them; they may see only what officers let them see. In this fashion hard news is washed in the same way that oysters are washed. All the grit is removed.

Tied up in such straitjackets, reporters cannot do the job for which they are trained. They cannot ask the probing questions that should be asked. More accurately, they may ask the questions, only to have the questions deflected. The briefings we have seen on television have been models of military thinking -- the kind of tactical thinking that first protects one's rear.

Look. Of course there is a role for military censorship, though it is much less than censors believe. Certain information on troops and weapons reasonably may be withheld. Reporters have no right to know what targets will be attacked tomorrow. Everyone recognizes this.

Excessive censorship, needless censorship, is self-defeating. The news from the front has been mostly good news, rosy news, news of Scud missiles intercepted and prisoners taken. We may fairly assume this is the truth. But given the kind of censorship the Pentagon is imposing, we may make a further assumption. It is not the whole truth.

James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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