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Front Page » March 12, 2002 » Opinion » Military, media cradled in freedom's arms
Published 4,610 days ago

Military, media cradled in freedom's arms


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By RICHARD SANTOS
American Legion commander

A recent article by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd takes the United States Pentagon to the woodshed. Dowd criticizes the military and its seemingly cozy relationship with Hollywood.

At the same time, Dowd, along with a number of television network executives and talking heads, derides the military for giving the stiff-arm to legitimate journalists trying to cover the battlefield war on terrorism

Dowd, Dan Rather and other network news executives are up in arms over a number of completed movies and planned television projects blessed by the U.S. Department of Defense .

Dowd cites collaboration between the Pentagon, "Black Hawk Down" producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Bertram van Munster of "Cops" to make a television docu-drama about the war on terrorism. She also is upset that the military apparently is cooperating with a VH1 show called the "Military Diaries Project," in which a number of soldiers will become instant television celebrities by training digital cameras on themselves.

"I'm outraged about the Hollywood-ization of the military," Rather told Dowd. "Somebody's got to question whether it's a good idea to limit independent reporting on the battlefield and access of journalists to U.S. military personnel and then conspire with Hollywood."

"The Pentagon would rather make troops available as props in gung-ho videos than to explain how their commanders let Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida leaders escape or targeted the wrong villages" Down said.

Well, Dowd, Rather and others of their ilk are misguided about military and entertainment collaboration And they are wrong regarding unfettered access of the press to the front line.

The military and the entertainment industry have long joined hands - not for sinister reasons, but to call on loyal Americans to support the government's wartime efforts

Frank Capra's film collaboration during World War II is a prime example. Through World War II, press censorship was voluntary. It was overseen by the U.S. Press Division of the Office of Censorship, staffed mostly by furloughed newspapermen. Back then, when it came to national security, reporters were American first and journalists second. That's the way it should be today.

The military is commissioned to protect American citizens against threats, domestic and foreign. It is a machine trained in the practice of war. The press, on the other hand, regards itself as guardian of the people's right to know. Both are cradled passionately in freedom's arms.

The press jealously guards its prerogative to seek the truth regardless where it might lead. The military closes ranks to protect its citizen soldiers in time of armed hostilities. The divergent philosophies create a conflict pitting a free press and its overriding mission to inform the American public against the national-security interests of a military going about its constitutional duty.

Few reasonable Americans would handcuff the press in its quest to shine light on evil hiding in shadows. But reasonable Americans also believe a free press does not have the night to endanger military men and women peril protecting America's way of life.

Barring uncovered criminal or unconstitutional vagaries, the press should let the military do what it does best without distraction. The press has no constitutional free pass to accompany America's fighting men and women to the front lines. The military cannot - and should not - be hampered in the execution of its war mission by a press corps seeking real time, play by play pictures.

The press can play a legitimate role in reporting on military matters and operations. However today's media appears to be more interested in finding fault and being first to break the story. The military appears to mistrust the media, perhaps as a result of perceived mistreatment by the press during the Vietnam War. The media are, for the most part, limited to press pools comprising a few selected representatives. Instead of witnessing frontline battles, reporters and correspondents must rely on military briefings and press releases to get most of the information it was not always so.

Prior to the 1950s, the media enjoyed nearly unfettered access to the military and frontlines of the battlefield. The press, in turn agreed to embargo time-sensitive stories and exercised prudence based on the military's judgment of the sensitivity of certain information. In a 1997 dissertation, David Davies chronicled a prime example of press-military cooperation during the World War II era.

For four months, William Lawrence of The New York Times wrote articles for the government about the invention and deployment of the atom bomb. It was not until the bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima that Lawrence's articles were published. The Times reporter considered the opportunity to work in secret for the government to be an honor for him and his newspaper, wrote Davies.

The difference between the past and present is the way the media defines itself. Many journalists now consider citizenship secondary to craft. One major network anchor is on record as admitting he would not attempt to warn American soldiers of an eminent attack if he were on the battlefield with an enemy force. It is this story-first mentality that the military mistrusts, and for good cause.

Competitive pressure among the media could force network news and cable executives to splash clandestine digital images of U.S. troop movements or the existence of a new bomb via satellite to viewers around the world, tipping off wartime enemies. The last presidential race in Florida is a prime example. Television cable and network news executives were so eager to be first to declare a winner that some broadcast wrong information. Not only did they get it wrong, their attempts to correct earlier erroneous reports resulted in more misinformation. Journalists, in the zeal for ratings, points created a false sense of crisis.

The haste to report election-night projections before polls close is accepted practice. But premature reports are sometimes wrong and affect the outcome of some races. Playing fast and loose with political careers is one thing. Risking the safety or life of soldiers for the sake of ratings is another. In the age of satellite television, a number of the additional viewers are sure to be on the enemy's side.

In its principles of information, the U.S. Defense Department pledges to make available timely and accurate information so the public, Congress and news media may access the facts about national security and strategy.

The policy requires the military to:

•Make information fully and readily available, consistent with statutory requirements, unless its release is precluded by national-security constraints or valid statutory mandates or exceptions. The Freedom of Information Act will be supported in both letter and spirit.

•Provide free flow of general and military information without censorship or propaganda to the men and women of the armed forces and their dependents.

•Assure that information is not classified or otherwise withheld to protect the government from criticism or embarrassment.

•Withhold information only when disclosure would adversely affect national security, threaten the safety or privacy of U.S. government personnel or their families, violate the privacy of the citizens of the United States or be contrary to law.

The Pentagon has a responsibility to protect all Americans, including journalists.

Worrying about journalists who may be tagging along during combat operation is a distraction that endangers the lives of American soldiers. It is not worth it. The U.S. Defense Department Principles of Information are sufficient to safeguard legitimate needs of a hungry media.

Perhaps Dowd and journalists supporting her thesis should note the words of F. Raymond Daniell, a writer for The New York Times who covered the Lindbergh kidnapping and Scottsboro Boys stories in the 1930s.

"There is not any story in the world that is good enough to justify risking the life of a single American soldier," stated Daniell.

I agree.

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March 12, 2002
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