When the Press Goes to War

WHEN he was Secretary of State, George Shultz in one of his uncharacteristically grumpy moments, grumbled to White House correspondents about their lack of support for some military operation or other. Things weren't, he opined nostalgically, like the old days when the press was ``on the team.'' Mr. Shultz was casting back to World War II, when he was a Marine in the Pacific. That was a war in which the bad guys were clearly defined, when Americans were mobilized behind the war effort, and the press chronicled the progress of the troops in a cause that was universally popular.

But the kind of warfare the United States has been involved in since has changed a great deal. Since the protracted war in Vietnam, the American military has been adapting to fight the kind of hit-hard-and-extricate-itself campaign we have seen in Grenada and Panama.

These expeditions are controversial. They are likely to generate considerable political argument at home. On Grenada, the press was generally critical. On Panama, the press was generally supportive.

So sometimes the press will be on the team and sometimes it won't, but there is still a military obligation to give the press the maximum opportunity to chronicle this new kind of warfare.

That seems to be the lesson of the Pentagon's botched press relations in Panama. It was a lesson that should already have been learned from the Pentagon's botched press relations in Grenada.

In both operations the press was hobbled and restricted by the military when in fact the military's best interests would have been served by a policy of openness and cooperation.

In the case of Grenada, the White House and State Department waged a tough behind-the-scenes skirmish to get the operation opened up to correspondents. The Pentagon remained obdurate and an angry army of reporters was kept at bay in Barbados while the fighting went on.

Where Panama is concerned, a report commissioned by the Pentagon itself has found that there was an excessive concern for secrecy. Pentagon spokesmen have conceded that as a result, pool reporters assigned to cover the invasion arrived late and were impeded from witnessing the initial fighting.

In seeking to restrict the press, the military has a legitimate, but narrow, security concern. That is to prevent any leakage of information that could give the enemy an advantage or increase friendly casualties. But the role of the press is to tell what the military did, ideally while they are doing it. The projection of American military force is an extension of American foreign policy. No foreign policy can be effective without public support and the press has a significant role in helping define public opinion.

These sometimes conflicting priorities between the military and the press should not prevent reasonable men from working out reasonable compromises. We are well beyond the restrictions of the Falklands campaign when British reporters were kept aboard an armada at sea to tell their story much later. But there are effective techniques for alerting reporters in advance to an operation, holding them incommunicado, but still delivering them to the front with the first-line troops.

It is not the province of the military to decide whether the action is too dangerous for correspondents to be there. That was the phony argument Hanoi used to use for barring correspondents from North Vietnam during the Vietnam war. If a correspondent and his news organization have weighed and accepted the risk, the decision is the correspondent's and not the military's to make.

Of course, correspondents can be prima donnas and nuisances, and some commanders prefer not to have them around. But again this cannot justify what in effect is selective censorship.

With press sensitivity to the reasonable requirements of the military, and the military's appreciation of the legitimate rights of the press, the American public could be better served by coverage of the next military operation than it was in either Grenada or Panama.

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