Press foe in war is military brass

April 13, 1999|By Richard Reeves

NEW YORK -- These are the times that try reporters' souls -- such as they are. We are prisoners of war. It is almost impossible to cover war as it happens because the logistics of coverage, and therefore the coverage itself, are controlled by the military.

Military officials have a story to tell, and they want it told their way. That way involves such critical variables as deceiving an enemy, elements of surprise and the morale of troops. Military officials need the communications networks of the press to spread their messages, but they do not trust reporters, commentators and editors to craft those messages in the mold of the military's view of the national interest.

"National interest" in that definition is whatever helps the cause and encourages the taxpayers and their elected representatives to cheer and pay for our own men and women in the field and in the air. "National interest" to the press is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth right now or any other time we want it -- or, at least, all the facts we can absorb at any moment.

Military officials lie as a matter of course (they would say as a matter of necessity) to protect and defend the rest of us. We would say they lie, as often as not, to cover up the miscalculations and mistakes that inevitably and quite regularly occur in the chaos of any kind of combat.

The context for all that, in our time, is Vietnam. In that "conflict" -- the United States never declared war -- there was no official censorship, although correspondents were usually dependent on their own wits and military transportation to get to where they thought the action might be. The press has helicopters only for traffic or O.J. Simpson alerts.

I have never talked to a high-ranking officer who did not sooner or later say it was the press that caused us to "lose" that war, which was never officially called a war. The press view is encapsulated in the last few words of that sentence: It was a war, but "they" lied about that and almost everything else from heady beginning to pathetic end.

Right or wrong, the military learned a lesson. In this day and age of communication, censorship is almost impossible to enforce, so the military and their civilian overseers have chosen quarantine. You can call it detention or imprisonment, whatever it takes to keep reporters and cameras away from the action. Then they tell a story with their own pictures and words, via PNN, the Pentagon News Network -- and, these days in Kosovo, its British affiliate.

So the United States invaded Grenada, but kept reporters off that little island until it was over. A CBS News crew tried to get there in a chartered boat, but was blocked by U.S. Navy officers, who politely informed the newsmen that if they would blow them out of the water if they kept going toward Grenada.

In the invasion of Panama, to get our former friend, Manuel Noriega, correspondents were imprisoned, essentially, until the bloody mess was cleaned up. To this day, no one really knows the number of people who died there and how.

In the invasion of Iraq, the press was detained in the relative luxury of Saudi Arabia. Anchormen pretended they knew what was happening in stand-ups in front of blue high-tech-looking little domes, which looked like missile tubes but were actually the plastic tops of cabanas at the pool of Dhahran International Hotel.

That was the war, remember, in which we were told about the wonders of the Patriot missiles -- which later reporting indicated never actually hit anything, not once. But "later reporting" is the point; later reporting has no effect on military action or civilian morale. Secrecy and lying are ways of buying time to do what you might not be able to do if people were watching.

So it goes. The quarantine strategy works so well not because of the brilliance of military strategy but because of the vanity of the press -- and this is true of things like covering the White House, too. We are paid to stand up there on deadline and tell folks what is really happening, but usually we don't know, or know only part of it. But we don't want to admit that to our readers or viewers -- or our bosses, or ourselves. None of us is likely to stand up and say we are being used and then pronounce our own ignorance.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/13/99

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