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The Media and the World Around Us

By Daniel Schorr / July 17, 1998

Americans are becoming increasingly unaware of the world around them.

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Calvin Trillin expressed it in a 1991 poem: "Whatever happened to Cyprus? So what's with the Greeks and Turks? ... Are all these getting along now? Or killing each other in private?"

The media, by and large, are part of the problem.

In World War II, correspondents wore uniforms with the "assimilated rank" of Army captain or Navy lieutenant commander. That symbolized that we were all on the same side. Censorship, and self-censorship, had general support because the war had general support.

But in the Vietnam war American authority and the American press found themselves no longer on the same side, in part because Americans were not all on the same side. Journalists came to believe they were being lied to. Out of the painful perception that their government could lie to them, and perhaps to itself, came a breed of watchdog journalists like David Halberstam, Seymour Hersh, Stanley Karnow, and Peter Arnett. So if World War II gave us a class of journalists with a clear idea of right and wrong and a willingness to accept their government at face value, the Vietnam war, especially in combination with Watergate, gave us a class of journalists disillusioned with government and uncertain about right and wrong.

Vietnam gave us the birth of the "living room war," the televised war that would one day make the camera and satellite more important than the reporter. Also out of that war came the conviction of military professionals that the press had given aid and comfort to the enemy - perhaps had become the enemy. Having seen what pictures from Vietnam did to undermine enthusiasm for that war, the military could fairly conclude that the less the US public sees of a war, the better.

War through military lens

In the Gulf war of 1991, the military was determined that the public would see the war the way the military wanted it seen. Its elaborate structure of press control - keeping reporters constantly escorted and under surveillance - was facilitated by the fact that most of the war was an air war, reported mainly from what the Air Force was willing to show. It was, for all the public knew, a war of wondrously accurate "smart bombs" that knocked out facilities but never seemed to hit people. So effective was the Pentagon manipulation, that when news organizations filed protests against undue censorship, opinion polls indicated that the public, by crushing majorities, favored more rigid censorship. The idea of the nosy press endangering American lives had been well sold.

The US public was left with a homogenized version of the Gulf War. Edited tape from airplane cameras showed smart bombs doing smart things. Much later the print media reported that only 7 percent of the bombs hit their targets.

Technology will provide a new kind of watchdog to meet the challenge of censorship. The end of the Gulf War brought us a harbinger of what is to come. ABC and CBS correspondents and camera crews entered Kuwait before the liberating troops and projected live pictures back to the US. The feat took four trucks, a ton of equipment, and a portable satellite dish. Barrie Dunsmore, who studied the "Live from the Battlefield" phenomenon for the Shorenstein Center, wrote that in the next war, the same feat will require only 100 pounds and two people.

There is little doubt that in the next conflict, the censors will be at some disadvantage trying to ride herd on tiny mobile transmitting stations. And since global television will bring the battlefield scenes to the enemy, new ground rules will have to be negotiated between the military and the media to guard the security of the US forces. Combat journalism will become less a matter of the watchdog reporter and more a technological matter of the watching eye.