War and Censorship

IF war breaks out in the Persian Gulf, how comprehensive and reliable will be the press coverage that makes its way back to the home front? Under rules issued by the Pentagon, the stories and broadcasts from the battle zone may be selective and sanitized. That may suit the military's purposes, but not those of a democratic society. Under the rules, coverage from the front will be handled by small pools of reporters under military escort. That restricts coverage, but the pool arrangement arguably is necessary under the military and terrain conditions in the Gulf. Far less acceptable is the provision that all stories and broadcasts will be subject to a ``security review'' by the military before their release.

There has always been tension between the military's security concerns in wartime and the media's job to inform a public hungry for battle news. Legitimate security concerns must take precedence. Historically, however, some military restraint on war coverage has been for political reasons or to avoid embarrassment over mistakes.

During the Vietnam war, the brass became distrustful of the press, as candid reporting disclosed the credibility gap between official briefings and events in the field. Yet the press simply did its job. Studies have found that reporters were guilty of almost no security breaches.

The proposed security review of press coverage, which lends itself to censorship and manipulation, seems redundant in a process so tightly controlled by the military. The military will determine when and where the press pools go, what they see, whom they talk to. It's unnecessary for the services also to vet the reporters' words and pictures. Conscientious journalists, instructed in security guidelines, won't report information (like troop locations) that could endanger the lives of fellow Americans or their allies.

It's in the interest of both the military and the press to develop a relationship not only of mutual accommodation, but of mutual trust.

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