The press in war

January 25, 1991

"In wartime," Winston Churchill once remarked, "truth is so precious that she must always be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies." Churchill's dictum seems particularly prescient today given the dilemma facing American news organizations trying to sort out the facts of the Persian Gulf conflict.

The truth is, the needs of the military and the press in wartime are inherently in conflict. The media want to gather as much information as possible and present it in a timely fashion; the military worries that such activities may help an opponent unmask deceptions or anticipate future operations.

Therein lies the dilemma. To win, the allied forces must mislead, deceive and confuse Saddam. Yet the democratic process also entails a contradictory requirement that the military level with the American people and Congress -- a difficult balance when Saddam is watching the same broadcasts as the folks at home.

The result is the kind of cat-and-mouse game witnessed recently between official spokesmen and journalists frustrated by bland briefings that obfuscate rather than enlighten. It was evident at Wednesday's press conference by Defense Secretary Cheney and General Powell. Both men were obviously stung by complaints the military was less than forthcoming about Operation Desert Storm's progress. Yet their "new" information hardly added to what reporters had already gleaned from other sources.

By definition, military operations are shrouded in the "fog of war" -- the inherent unpredictability of combat and the constant deception practiced by both sides. Under those circumstances, "truth" is indeed a rare commodity -- and far more likely to be unearthed by future historians than by journalists on the spot.

Yet tradition supports both coverage of the conflict and the expectation that officials will cooperate with those who gather news. Given the contradictory demands of military security and democracy, it's a wonder "news" about the war makes any sense at all.

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