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When Bush and company found themselves fighting two wars simultaneously, it proved a massive boon to the president’s efforts to stifle the press. As the cliché goes, truth is always the first casualty of conflict. Still this administration went further than any before it.
As attacks began in Afghanistan, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced in October 2001: “I recognize the need to provide the press—and, through you, the American people—with information to the fullest extent possible. In our democracy, the work of the Pentagon press corps is important, defending our freedom and way of life is what this conflict is about, and that certainly includes freedom of the press.”
Wouldn’t that have been nice?
Neil Hickey shows in a comprehensive 2002 article in the Columbia Journalism Review that “[j]ournalists have been denied access to American troops in the field in Afghanistan to a greater degree than in any previous war involving U.S. military forces.” Hickey detailed how Defense Department spokespersons spoonfed a carefully selected news diet to correspondents and did not give them access to the land and sea bases from which air attacks on the Taliban were being launched. This left much of the mainstream press unable to confirm the success or failure of any missions, and made journalists reliant almost solely on Pentagon press briefings—something that, even then, the administration tried to restrict.
The Defense Department’s briefings were held five times a week in the days following September 11, but the Pentagon cut them to twice a week by early October of that year. Hickey writes that the journalists assigned to the briefings—in a show of spine not often seen in the years to follow—protested vigorously, and the Pentagon finally conceded and reverted to daily briefings. Rumsfeld, of course, did not hide his unhappiness with having to speak with journalists who he had so recently praised, and jibed: “Let’s hear it for the essential daily briefing, however hollow and empty it might be.”
Two incidents early in the war with the Taliban presaged the secrecy to come:
On December 5, 2001, an errant bomb from a U.S. B-52 fighter plane killed three American soldiers and wounded 19 others. U.S. field commanders not only refused to provide journalists access to the scene after the incident; they actually confined them to a warehouse to keep them away from victims, rescuers, and medics.
The press protested fiercely—Sandy Johnson, the AP Bureau Chief in Washington, called it “outrageous.” “A gross abuse of the ground rules for the press pool,” said Jill Abramson, Washington bureau chief of The New York Times. The Pentagon actually apologized, Hickey writes. Yet only 15 days later, Afghan forces detained three photojournalists working for U.S. news outlets near Tora Bora. The detentions reportedly came at the request of the U.S. military, Hickey writes, and the journalists’ images of American troops were seized—even though the Pentagon had already openly discussed the presence of U.S. troops in the area.
The Pat Tillman incident, where the Pentagon deliberately misled reporters about the circumstances of his death, was certainly a third foreboding example of the Pentagon’s disrespect for journalism. This is to say nothing of the outright lies regarding Jessica Lynch.
Iraq was no different than Afghanistan, and in many respects even worse. The administration’s now infamous efforts to protect Americans from the sight of their war dead actually had its origins in his Bush’s father’s administration. Back in 1990, a presidential press conference was held about the U.S. intervention in Panama just as the first American casualties from the conflict were arriving in the United States. The elder Bush told reporters he was suffering from “neck pain” at the beginning of the conference and jokingly walked like a duck to demonstrate his stiffness. Unfortunately for the president, the three major networks had just moved to a split screen, with caskets being unloaded on the other side as George H.W. Bush made like Daffy. The White House was incensed, and the ban on casket images soon followed. The belief that this secrecy is driven by “respect” for our fallen war dead is difficult to square, but it’s easy to see the political need to protect both Presidents Bush from the political consequences of their actions.
War always invites attacks on free speech, but rarely have they been leveled at those who merely transmit the truth of battlefield operations, with no implications whatever for proverbial “loose lips.” The ethical complications of the embed program were neatly summed up in an October 2006 episode involving CNN, when the network aired footage showing Iraqi insurgent snipers shooting at U.S. troops. “Does CNN want America to win this thing?” Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) asked in an interview, and he wrote in a letter to Rumsfeld that “CNN has now served as the publicist for an enemy propaganda film featuring the killing of an American soldier.” Still, the message was received or at least shared by many in the military.
As we wrote here recently, the United States is now embedding fewer journalists, and directing them toward areas with more positive developments. “It’s very clear that they are trying to push us away from active areas of combat and trying to push us to places” where reconstruction and training are underway, said Associated Press bureau chief Robert H. Reid. “It’s very difficult to pick an embed unit and be relatively assured you will see active combat.”
Then there are the jailings. The United States is still holding freelance photographer Ibrahim Jassam, despite having been ordered by the Iraqi Central Criminal Court to provide evidence against him or release him. Many other journalists have been detained over the course of the war—in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
That’s the upshot: excessive secrecy, restriction of access, the manufacture of misleading news items, and the frequent intimidation and sometimes prosecution of journalists who simply try to do their jobs and keep the American people informed about the actions of their government. Reversing these practices may not be first on the list of an administration dealing with more crises than it can comfortably count, but “change” is clearly needed as much in the administration’s treatment of the media as it is the areas of the economy, foreign policy, environmental policy, science policy, and, well, everything else.
If we are to become a vibrant democracy once again, the Bush administration’s war against the press a war in which we can neither afford, nor applaud, its victories. After all, we have met the enemy, and it’s us…
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Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at http://www.mediamatters.org/altercation (http://www.mediamatters.org/altercation). His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, was recently published by Viking.
George Zornick is a freelance writer in New York.