Call for censors can drown out freedom's cries

MICHAEL OLESKER

February 26, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

First there was Saturday night, when the man at the party led hurrahs for the news blackout. Three cheers for censorship? Is this my America? Then Sunday, my friend from the radio station spoke frantically of incoming missiles from listeners. And then Monday: The lady on Malden Avenue, with flags flying behind her, said I should be ashamed.

"Ashamed?" I said.

"All of you reporters," she said. "Why can't you let these people run the damned war and stay out of it?"

The lady on Malden Avenue made me feel guilty by reason of occupation. The man at the party made me wonder what state of mind I'm living in. My friend from the radio station gave me some of the answer.

"They're killing us on the air," said my friend, who makes a living with a radio talk show. "All the callers, they're all screaming about media interference and reporters who should mind their own business. Whose business do they think we're looking out for?"

The night before, Saturday night, I went to a little party in Northwest Baltimore where somebody said, "Let's put on the war."

On television, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, was announcing that the ground war had begun. You could feel the adrenalin pumping a little faster in the room, the combination of drama and dread.

But then Cheney stopped. There would be no more news, he said. Instead, a 48-hour news blackout would be imposed, so as not to yield any possible information to the Iraqi forces on allied movement.

"Yes," came a strident voice from across the room. "Yes. Don't give those bastard reporters anything."

Around the room, there were heads nodding affirmatively. The war was about to get bloody, and everyone would have to sacrifice. The mood seemed to be: Why not sacrifice a few reporters? Or, for that matter, a few freedoms?

The next day came the call from the radio station. You need only to have listened casually to local talk shows to know the message they are getting: Who do these reporters think they are?

"We're in a combat zone on the air," my radio friend said. "It's one caller after another. The media, the media. Why can't they just leave everything to the military and butt out?"

That was the message on Malden Avenue, too, where the lady said I should be ashamed on behalf of all reporters. Behind her, on this block of row homes in the heart of what's known as TV Hill, there are American flags flying from maybe a dozen front porches every day.

And it's stirring to see. It's people's heartfelt way of saying: I'm doing my little part for those kids over in the desert. I'm with them in spirit, if not in body.

"Why don't you just leave them alone?" said the lady on Malden Avenue.

"Leave who alone?" I asked.

"The generals," she said. "And the president. Just leave them alone to fight the war."

And so, to everyone in town making such statements, we pose a simple question:

Why?

Does anybody think reporters want to give away military secrets? Did World War II reporters give out secrets of the atomic bomb project or the D-day invasion, which they knew about in advance? Do people think reporters want to be linked personally -- or have their newspapers or their TV networks linked --with some story that results in lost American lives?

Those questions answer themselves, don't they?

But something else is going on here. The blackout wasn't about military news, it was about bad news. See, the politicians and the generals learned in Vietnam that we get edgy when the news is bad. They don't want us edgy.

But, when the news turned out surpassingly good, they chose immediately to dispense chunks of it. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf himself broke the blackout, claiming it wasn't fair to the families of service people.

But that leaves us with other questions: Why do we condemn reporters for asking questions that are on everyone's minds? Didn't we learn anything from Vietnam, when we were lied to so consistently? Do we simply want to be distanced from war's killing -- physically and psychologically -- until it's over?

In the wake of the last war, Garry Wills, writing in the New York Times, talked of nations at war routinely hiding uncomfortable truths. They do it, he said, not only to fool the enemy, but to lift morale at home.

"The people at home," Wills wrote, "gladly submit to these lies. Those not fighting assuage any guilt they may feel by a different kind of obedience. They volunteer their willingness to believe as a proof of their devotion to the cause. The injunction to silence makes those submitting feel virtuous, important and involved."

Only now it becomes more than silence. It becomes aggravation over the airwaves with reporters who are merely trying to report reasonable truths. It becomes cheering for a blackout that went away because it wasn't needed in the first place.

It becomes a proud display of flags on Malden Avenue. The flags are beautiful to see. They express pride in a nation and the freedoms in which it believes.

But let's not throw out the freedoms to protect them. And let's not blame the messengers for the news. And let's not forget the lessons of some previous wars, when we took our leaders at their word and they routinely took advantage of us.

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