The Press in Wartime

Part of fighting a war involves secrecy. President Bush already has let Americans know that some, if not much, of the struggle against global terrorism will be fought covertly and in the shadows. And his top officials say they will not indicate how information on the terrorists is acquired.

Does this mean setting limits on what journalists can learn and report?

Probably, yes.

In past wars, American journalists have understood that the restrictions placed on them - or those they placed on themselves - were meant to guard the nation's strategy and operations, and save American lives.

At the same time, concerted efforts must be made by government officials to share as much as they can with the press and the people.

A tension exists between freedom of press and the need for secrecy in wartime. But journalists have stood side by side with soldiers in battle, and brought needed and necessary coverage of war. In Vietnam, for example, thousands of reporters, photographers, and TV producers worked under volunteer security guidelines, with no significant problems.

Still, following Vietnam, stricter press controls were put in place by the Defense Department up until 1992, when new press guidelines were agreed upon, only after strong media protest.

Part of the fourth estate's responsibility - to hold government, and itself, accountable for its actions - can be realized only when it has the access that it needs.

Many Americans already are sensitive to the need for increased domestic surveillance - which may include innocent parties from time to time - following the Sept 11 attacks. Polls show a majority willing to sacrifice some freedoms to more effectively fight terrorism.

Even so, the press's ability to do its job must be maintained. Former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite has proposed a reasonable compromise to this problem. He's calling for historians and journalists to sit on a board that would monitor government actions in these extraordinarily sensitive times, when information flies at the speed of nanoseconds - possibly into Osama bin Laden's hands, or into terrorist camps. His idea makes sense.

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