A high-tech information war

Censorship: Anti-terrorism campaign does not justify goofy restrictions on the media.

October 15, 2001

THE IDEA IS both simple and elegant.

We have a free press in this country because of a belief that the unbridled exchange of ideas and information creates an educated populace, which can then make the right decisions about matters of public importance. In general, government restrictions on that process amount to undue interference.

Hold onto that thought. Keep it close to your heart and mind. Because over the next few months, that theory will be tested as perhaps it never has before.

Witness the recent administration efforts to curtail press coverage of the U.S. campaign against Osama bin Laden's terror network.

On Wednesday, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice urged U.S. television executives to consider carefully whether to air videotaped statements from bin Laden or his lieutenants on their networks. The administration has also asked newspapers not to publish texts of those statements.

The same day, the Pentagon suspended its daily war briefings. The Pentagon was also still groping with fundamental information issues like the use of national media pools.

Undoubtedly, this administration faces challenges that were previously unimaginable. Satellite TV and the Internet pose previously unimaginable threats to the efforts to control damaging media leaks and to maintain support for the war effort.

And certainly, self-imposed restraint on the part of media producers and editors has always been necessary during wartime.

News judgment that might ordinarily move a media organization to air or publish information must be reconsidered in the context of the nation's current campaign, and the nature of its enemy.

That's particularly true of television executives, whose competitive needs to be the first to disseminate information could lead to hasty, rather than cautious, judgment.

But enhancing government media restrictions is a bad idea -- not only because it won't work, but also because of that principle we told you to hold onto earlier.

The United States is fighting this war in part to preserve democracy and freedom, neither of which can truly be achieved without an informed public.

We need to keep the information flowing and work with each other to sort out what's true and what's not, what's real and what's fiction in this whole effort.

That's how we'll win the war against terror. That's how we'll win the fight for freedom.

Already, the media work with reasonable restrictions on the dissemination of important government information. Recently, for example, many media organizations, including The Sun, sent reporters to U.S. warships in the Middle East on condition of not disclosing that an attack on Afghanistan was imminent.

There may be other instances in the next few months in which good judgment should inspire editors to hold back on information that could put the nation's troops or civilians in danger. But editors, not government, must be the arbiters of what's fit to air or print.

For a free society that's fighting to retain its freedom and procure it for others around the world, no other alternative is acceptable.

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