The press is on no one's side

Dan Rodricks

February 27, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

"The only ones on our side are us."

-- An American newspaper editor, on the news media's fight with the Pentagon over coverage of the Persian Gulf war.

True enough. There is no coalition allied in defense of the press's freedom to cover a war. Not this war, anyway. Especially not this war. As a matter of fact, some news organizations, the television networks in particular, have given up the fight. The Pentagon won. The Persian Gulf war is not another Vietnam, President Bush said, and that applies to press coverage as much as it does to the military prosecution of the war.

There are few friends of the press out there this time around -- even fewer than in peacetime, and that ain't saying much.

With overwhelming public approval for the war, there is no way Americans were going to stand by and let the press whine its way into breaking the Pentagon's grip on news coverage. Doing so would have suggested some disloyalty. Agreeing with the Pentagon in this particular debate constituted a vote of confidence in the military establishment. The generals are winning the war in impressive fashion; they were right about everything, so they must have good reason for the restrictions they put on reporters.

They would not have imposed a complete news blackout when the ground war commenced without such a good reason (though we still don't know what it was). And besides, reporters and editors can whine all they want, but most Americans are probably happy with the way the war has been conducted -- at a great distance, with no gore on their TV screens. A man told me the other night he was content to wait until after the war to hear all the gruesome details. Americans know what war is, he said, they don't need the press.

There are many counters to that statement, but I'll give just one: If the American public really knew what war was, there might not be any wars. At least that was a fear of those, including President Bush, who felt the Persian Gulf war was a just war but worried that Americans suffering from Vietnam hangover would not support it. The war's prime backers feared Americans had been rendered wimpy by the memory of Vietnam, so they made adjustments. They neutralized the press, forced it into the role of disseminator of official, authorized, approved news. The Pentagon, then, was suffering from its own form of Vietnam hangover. They didn't want the press presenting a negative image of war. War, in their minds, had an undeservedly bad image after Vietnam.

People die in war, of course. And who knew how the mission in the desert would go? The United States and its allies would win, but at what cost? If the war took a little longer than anticipated, if casualties mounted, no one at the White House or the Pentagon wanted TV crews at Dover (Del.) Air Force Base to tape the arrival of cargo planes bearing the bodies of U.S. soldiers back home. In every way possible, the Pentagon set out to limit the emotional impact of war on the American people.

And they succeeded.

Had Operation Desert Storm not been such a stunning success, we probably would have had even tougher restrictions placed on the press, especially during this land-battle phase. Even then, however, it would have been a long time before Americans became impatient and started demanding more aggressive press coverage.

A long time. Like maybe the turn of the century.

It's rare that I hear people complain that the press is not aggressive enough. Many people view the press as irreverent, obnoxious, unreasonably hostile toward government leaders, obsessed with bad news. In short, they see the news as Sam Donaldson. Seldom do I hear a citizen raise a stink over a TV station or newspaper not being aggressive enough in its pursuit of truth.

That's too bad because, in many ways, the press deserves that kind of kick from the public it claims to serve. (Where, after all, were we when the savings and loan crisis was brewing?)

Absent public pressure, the news media goes about setting its own reporting standards -- some high, some low. And we fight battles that no one else out there really cares about -- battles with government agencies that hold secret meetings, with prosecutors who want reporters to reveal their confidential sources, with courts that try to seal records of public proceedings, with generals who want their wars to have a positive image.

So that editor I quoted was right. In this fight and many other fights, no one is on the press's side. Which means the press is on no one's side. Which is a good side for the press to be on.

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