Military efforts to control press could hurt truth

Published 7:46 am Friday, September 11, 2009

Afghanistan is about as removed as one could imagine from being at the center of a First Amendment controversy.

Nonetheless, there was a dust-up recently over the press’s ability to report freely on U.S. military operations there, and the dust has barely settled.

A few weeks ago, Stars and Stripes — a newspaper historically published about and for the military — reported that a Washington, D.C., public relations firm, the Rendon Group, was evaluating the work of journalists who had asked to accompany U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The evaluations, the newspaper said, were being done with an eye toward rating applicants for so-called “embedded” positions on a positive-negative scale — and screening out those likely to produce stories critical of the war effort.

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Despite denials of any attempt to muzzle reporting, criticism of the program grew until the Pentagon decided Aug. 31 to cancel it. Officials said the process was intended only to give on-the-ground commanders background information on the journalists they would see in the field, including the kinds of questions they might ask.

But Stars and Stripes said the program went further: Along with ratings such as “neutral to negative” about reporters’ work, there was advice on how their reporting might be influenced.

To be sure, no one was talking about brainwashing or outright censorship on dispatches sent home. An earlier Stars and Stripes story quoted an Army spokesman as saying, “If a reporter has been focused on nothing but negative topics, you’re not going to send him into a unit that’s not your best … . We’re not trying to control what they report, but we are trying to put our best foot forward.”

Still, the point of a free press is to be able to report freely — without consideration of what a commander or a general or the U.S. government in general wants the press to see and report. The First Amendment exists to guarantee that a variety of views will be available to the public.

Reporting from the battlefield historically has often been censored and controlled. Author Phillip Knightley, in the original and updated versions of his book The First Casualty, wrote about war correspondents as “heroes and myth-makers.” Knightley traces the start of war reporting to the 1854 assignment of a London Times reporter to cover the Crimean War — and he documents examples of military censorship as well as occasions when the news media became, in effect, an ally of the armed forces.

Justifiably or not, there’s still a debate over the influence and tint of news reporting during the Vietnam War. Not many years ago, critics were attacking U.S. news media for being too “pro-war,” for failing to challenge Bush administration accounts of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Some even slammed news anchors for wearing flag lapel pins, accusing them of subtly taking political sides.

The notion of having reporters accompany troops into the field is controversial in itself: Many worry that even without any attempt by commanders to influence coverage, reports will be skewed — either by the limited “soda-straw” view that correspondents necessarily will have, or the impact on objectivity resulting from the camaraderie of reporters and soldiers sharing life-and-death experiences.

Fighting an unpopular war while maintaining public support for troops, funding and policy may well be the difficult task of today’s military — but that task cannot include shaping the news and remain in keeping with the meaning of the First Amendment.

At the same time, the task of journalists free from government control is to present facts — good, bad and in-between — as best they can. That would seem best done by letting as wide a variety of journalists as possible report what they learn from the widest possible set of experiences. These ought to include embedded assignments as well as seeing the military’s “best foot forward.”

To paraphrase Knightley, for a free press and a free society, truth ought to be “The First Necessity.”

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: