Military and press in a democracy

Democracy at its best. That seems a fit description of the process that produced the policy on military-press relations approved last week by US Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger.

The detailed policy recommendations worked out by a panel of military officers and media representatives include compromises that may not please everyone. But we consider them fair, reasonable, and workable.

This new policy is an example of turning an adverse circumstance into an opportunity for progress.

If last October's invasion of the Caribbean island nation of Grenada by United States and other area forces was a military and diplomatic success, as the Reagan administration claims, it was a debacle from the point of view of the press.

Media outrage at being prevented from covering the first stages of the operation led to the appointment of the panel chaired by retired Maj. Gen. Winant Sidle to examine the need for new guidelines.

If Grenada was the catalyst for reform, the Vietnam war marked the breakdown of trust and cooperation between media and military. Although, as the Sidle report notes, guidelines for coverage of that war worked most of the time, an antagonistic relationship evolved between the media on one side and government officials and military leaders on the other.

The trust and cooperation between military and press that had prevailed with rare exceptions through two world wars and the Korean conflict were badly eroded.

The new guidelines provide a basis for restoration of a relationship that will benefit both national security and the public's right to information.

The carefully worked-out details of the new policy are discussed elsewhere in this newspaper. They are based on two solid assumptions:

1. The media must recognize the primary duty of military commanders to carry out their missions successfully with as few casualties as possible.

2. The military must include in planning all operations, even secret ones, the means for providing access and information to the press at the earliest practical point.

In its final comment the Sidle panel points out that ''no matter how carefully crafted'' a policy is, it cannot work without ''the goodwill of the people involved.''

That's the basis of our democratic society.

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