By a division of 57 percent to 34 percent, Americans believe there should be more military censorship of Persian Gulf war news, according to a poll by the Times Mirror News Interest Index. We think that's bad news -- bad for the media, the public, the military and the policy makers.
Censorship keeps news the public needs out of its hands. It also inevitably produces bum stories. There was a story in one American newspaper that said the Navy had been denied a role in stopping the massive oil slick. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the theater commander, labeled it "bovine scatology, better referred to by the troops as B.S."
We believe he is right and the source for the story was wrong. But as long as he and the administration keep a tight censorship lid on what reporters can and can't see, who they can and can't talk to, where they can and can't go, there will be stories based on erroneous or even mischievous tips. A free nation's journalism can't exist on handouts, even when the handouts are honest.
For example, carefully selected photographic and eyewitness accounts of the air war are being presented to the public in such a way as to suggest not just allied superiority but near invulnerability. The military commanders know this raises public expectations of a brief and almost bloodless (American blood, that is) war. They keep saying this is too "euphoric" a mood -- but their cautious words are overwhelmed by their packaged news of the fighting that suggests otherwise.
General Schwarzkopf is an extraordinarily winning spokesmen for a military campaign. President Bush couldn't ask for better than he and Gen. Colin Powell. The two generals' performances are a large part of the reason why the public is satisfied with censorship. They project competence, professionalism, honesty and integrity. But by not allowing the press to report about war in all its complexity, ambiguity and humanity, they help create a false public opinion about what is really occurring.
They should remember that public opinion is volatile and fickle. If it is falsely pumped up too high by misleading good news, it can quickly be deflated by bad news, even if that is misleading. The hawk/dove ratio as measured by the Gallup Poll quickly went from 61-23 to 41-41 in 1968, after what appeared to be a few American reverses in Vietnam. Had the public not been misled in the first place, the change in mood might not have been so dramatic.
Let the press report the bitter with the sweet from the Persian Gulf. The public, whose sons and daughters are fighting the war, deserves that. And the military deserves a public that has a realistic knowledge of their war as it really is.