Press Versus Pentagon

July 01, 1991

Saddam Hussein wasn't the only loser in the gulf war. So was the American press, ambushed by a pool system it helped devise after being totally excluded from the Grenada conflict in 1983. The military, bolstered by public opinion, used the pool system to limit and control coverage in ways that amounted to the grossest kind of censorship.

Journalists have long accepted military censorship before publishing or broadcasting their reports so as to safeguard members of the armed forces and U.S. interests. What is unacceptable is a new form of prior restraint to deny the press access to the battlefield or to troops in combat. Such tactics during Operation Desert Storm prevented the American people from learning about war in all its dimensions -- not only the heroics but the horror.

Leaders of 17 news organizations, including the Times Mirror Co., owner of the The Baltimore Sun, have presented to Defense Secretary Richard Cheney a disturbing account of Pentagon practices and a set of ten proposed principles to govern future BTC arrangements for news coverage of the U.S. military at war. Although Mr. Cheney in the past has been unresponsive to press complaints, we trust that in this bicentennial year of the First Amendment he will reconsider.

We are dealing here with the military's reaction to Vietnam. In response to free-roaming press coverage that turned the nation against that conflict, the Pentagon barred all journalists from Grenada, the first U.S. conflict in history where there were no eyewitness reporters to tell the American people what actually was happening.

This led to negotiations between the Pentagon and media representatives, who accepted a pool system only for coverage of surprise actions, little realizing how it would be turned against them. The system, in which accredited reporters are assigned to combat units, failed during the Panama operation in 1989 when Mr. Cheney did not permit coverage of the first assault units.

The gulf war, with its protracted buildup, its bombing phase and its 100-hour ground sweep, presented a wholly different situation. Pools were indeed set up, always under military escort. They were often so harassed and hampered that journalists trying to see action "independently" came up with the most illuminating stories.

In their memorandum to Secretary Cheney, the media leaders declare: "The use of the pool system as a form of censorship made the gulf war the most undercovered conflict in modern American history. In a free society, there is simply no place for such overwhelming control by the government."

If there are to be negotiations with Mr. Cheney, the information media will have to concede that the sheer size of today's press corps and the demands of modern warfare require sensible regulation. But both parties need to keep in mind that the issue is not the military versus the press but the responsibility of both to guarantee to the American public the right to know.

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