WASHINGTON -- Led by former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, members of the media accused the Pentagon yesterday of waging war in the Persian Gulf on the freedom of the press.
Limiting coverage of combat units to small groups of reporters overseen by military escorts who can censor and delay reports has "trampled on the public's right to know," Mr. Cronkite said at a hearing of the Senate's Governmental Affairs Committee.
"It is only the lightest form of exaggeration to suggest that the U.S. military is also at war in the Persian Gulf with the news media," said Cragg Hines, a Houston Chronicle reporter who just returned from Saudi Arabia.
Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said restrictions on war coverage were necessary to protect military secrecy and the press' safety, and to keep the battlefield from being overrun by the 1,400 reporters now in the Persian Gulf.
"I don't think we have any other choices right now," Mr. Williams said. "We can't say, 'You all come to the battlefield.' It's not practical."
The journalists' complaints drew limited sympathy from senators eager to state their beliefs that some censorship is necessary and to applaud the military's performance in the war. A Los Angeles Times poll recently indicated that 57 percent of Americans would support even greater censorship of the press in the gulf.
"I believe the Pentagon is doing an honest and honorable and effective job in making sure the American people have the information they need," said Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis.
Reporters at the hearing said that they understood the need for secrecy in wartime but that the censorship they face often seemed capricious or was intended to spare the military embarrassment.
Malcolm Browne, a New York Times reporter, said he knew of a Wall Street Journal reporter who had two stories held up by a military censor for 60 hours, at which point they were no longer newsworthy.
When the stories finally came back, the only change was insertion of the word "perhaps" in a single sentence, Mr. Browne said.
The system in which reporters can join combat units only as part of small groups known as "pools" has particularly frustrated reporters. Many reporters have complained of being unfairly kept out of pools after writing stories that irritated military commanders.
Several senators criticized the media's coverage of the war, particularly reporting by CNN's Peter Arnett from Baghdad, Iraq.
Sen. William V. Roth Jr., R-Del., said the reporting from Baghdad "gives Saddam Hussein an opportunity for a victory in a second war -- the propaganda war."
But Mr. Cronkite said Mr. Arnett was a critical eyewitness to history. "I certainly would have put myself in Baghdad if I had the courage," he said.