At a time when public diplomacy abroad and public reassurance at home should be a crucial component of the war on terrorism, U.S. government officials are moving forcefully to restrict or compromise the primary agent of both efforts the American press.
From the highest office in the land to ordinary citizens on the street even from among their own ranks journalists are challenged by two democracy-debilitating assumptions: 1) that the more accommodating the press, the more accountable the government, and 2) the less we know the safer we are.
In recent weeks, the White House, federal agencies and Congress, as well as members of the public, have proposed that the press surrender some of its independence and thoroughness in the name of patriotism and security.
No reasonable person would argue that the press should be told every government secret or that it should print or publish everything it knows. But the press has proven time and again that it can handle news in times of crisis with restraint and responsibility. Yet many are using the current crisis to impose restraints and deny access for reasons having more to do with controlling information than with national security.
Nearly a dozen federal agencies have dismantled their Web sites or removed information from the sites. News helicopters are still grounded, even though most airline and private aircraft returned to the air a few days after Sept. 11. Cameras and film belonging to the press and the public were confiscated at the World Trade Center and further photography banned. Journalists’ reporting on U.S. military operations has been confined essentially to official briefings and announcements.
Those restrictions are troubling enough. But the list of government actions to restrict or pressure press coverage goes far beyond that, ranging from outright denial of access to subtle or not-so-subtle warnings for the press to back off.
President Bush severely restricted briefings to members of Congress in order to stop leaks of sensitive information to the press and public. White House officials asked network and newspaper officials not to broadcast or publish entire interviews with Osama bin Laden or other terrorist leaders and criticized NBC for carrying an interview with former President Clinton.
Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer warned during a press briefing that all Americans "must watch what they say."
At the Defense Department, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told us to expect much more secrecy. The Pentagon instructed all defense contractors to cut off contacts with the press. The National Imagery and Mapping Agency made an exclusive deal with a commercial satellite company that prevents press access to valuable images for reporting the news. An unidentified military official said disinformation might be a part of the Pentagon’s arsenal.
At the State Department, Secretary Colin Powell told the Emir of Qatar that he should curtail the airing of bin Laden interviews on Al-Jazeera, a TV network in the emir's country. The department also put pressure on the Voice of America not to air an interview with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.
At the Justice Department, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a new policy on Freedom of Information Act requests. Its likely impact is greater delay and denial of access for the public and press.
Unprecedented secrecy has accompanied the largest roundup of Americans since the Palmer raids in the 1920s and the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans in World War II. The Justice Department has arrested or detained an estimated 800-plus Middle Easterners and Arab-Americans in this country alone. Yet information about charges or suspicions has not been available, suspects’ and witnesses’ names have been withheld, search warrants have been sealed, court appearances have been closed, and gag orders have muzzled lawyers.
Both houses of Congress are poised to pass legislation providing expanded powers for government authorities to monitor telephone, e-mail and Internet traffic, thus chilling press sources, journalists’ ability to do their job, and ordinary citizens’ right to anonymous speech. Legislative efforts to protect companies reporting computer vulnerabilities to federal agencies would blow a gaping hole in the Freedom of Information Act. In the House, a bill described by opponents as an “official secrets act” would make felons of government whistleblowers and witnesses or co-conspirators of journalists.
Members of the public also have joined the war on journalism. Readers, listeners and viewers are telling the news media that they shouldn’t be covering the nation’s vulnerabilities to biological, chemical, nuclear and infrastructure terrorism and sabotage. Many have questioned the patriotism of journalists who raised questions about the whereabouts of the president or vice president. CNN has been criticized for its efforts to get bin Laden to answer six questions. Twenty journalists who toured a bombing site in Afghanistan at the invitation of the Taliban also were critcized. A CNN/Times poll found that 72% of Americans felt that withholding of information from the news media was not a problem.
Finally, journalists themselves have engaged in self-censorship or pressure on peers. Newspapers in Oregon and Texas fired columnists for criticizing the president. A consortium of major news organizations postponed indefinitely publication of a $1 million analysis of ballots from last fall’s presidential election in Florida. On Oct. 8, CNN Airport Network cut off in mid-sentence a report on its airport monitors about a passenger rushing the cockpit in a Chicago-bound plane.
All of this severely constricts the flow of information to the American public. Information is not only a guarantor of our freedom, but also of our security. For example, lack of information was a significant factor in the systemic government failure to act on national security threats that led to the horrors of Sept. 11. Federal agencies and their congressional overseers failed to see or address the lapses that left Americans exposed to terrorism. That is because federal agencies failed to share information with one another, with congressional committees, with the press and with the American people.
Sadly, that is also because the press and the public failed to demand that information.
Apparently, our leaders and many of our citizens continue to believe that we should put our primary trust in secrecy and ignorance. Thus, we are not demanding more information, but less. We prefer a kinder, gentler press to a more vigilant press.
That is a very dangerous mindset. When information grows scant and the press grows timid, punditry and prattle rush to fill the credible-information void. Paranoia, panic and poor policies are the likely result.
As we discovered during the days immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and four airliners, the press is most valuable during times of national crisis. It provides immediate information, accurate accounts and a podium from which public officials can speak to Americans, as well as the rest of the world. More important, the press helps a nation engage in a conversation with itself, rebuilding the sense of community and dispelling rumor with fact.
That’s exactly why the framers of our Constitution arranged for the press in America to be free and independent and, yes, to tell us scary things when warranted. Living free means living in the sunlight. Otherwise we are destined to slink about in the shadows like our enemies.
Being unaware of danger is not the same thing as being safe from danger.