Stop the Presses
Alan Pittman, Eugene Weekly
November 21, 2001

In "America's New War" the first U.S. casualty may be the First Amendment. The military, Bush administration propaganda and the media itself have squelched news in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Asked at a press conference whether he would lie to the media about the war, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld quoted Winston Churchill about disinformation around the D-Day invasion. "Sometimes the truth is so precious it must be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies." Rumsfeld is about the only source the U.S. media has for covering the Afghan war. The military has refused to allow journalists to accompany troops and pilots fighting in Afghanistan or even interview them after their missions.

"They plan to fight the war and then tell the press and the public how it turned out afterwards," the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) quoted CNN correspondent Jamie McIntyre. The military spin is that pinpoint smart bombings will keep civilian casualties to a minimum, international investigative reporter Phillip Knightley wrote in a CPI commentary. "Bloody TV footage or grim still photographs of civilian bomb victims would threaten this most outrageous piece of propaganda, so an essential part of the Western alliance's strategy has been not only to bomb in the dark but, as far as possible, to keep the public in the dark as well." John Barry, Newsweek's Pentagon reporter, told The New York Times that the military is restricting coverage, that "might not be consonant with their basic message that they're making inexorable progress toward inevitable victory." The media blackout is the culmination of a long trend toward military censorship. After Vietnam, the military blamed the media for turning public opinion against the war.

The British managed to successfully keep the media away from directly covering their Falklands War. A U.S. Naval War College publication reported on the Falkland lessons. To maintain public support, the article said, a government should sanitize the visual images of war; control media access; censor information that could upset readers or viewers; and exclude journalists who would not write favorable stories, according to CPI. The U.S. applied the Falklands model in Grenada and Panama. The biggest application was in the Gulf War. A CPI report on Gulf War coverage noted gross exaggerations of the effectiveness of Patriot missiles and smart bombs and success rates for bombing missions. The 1991 report concluded, "information about Defense Department activities ... [was] restricted or manipulated not for national security purposes, but for political purposes -- to protect the image and priorities of the Defense Department and its civilian leaders, including the president." Media groups complained after the Gulf War, and the Pentagon promised to allow more access next time. But that hasn't happened and media groups are complaining again.

The presidents of a group of 20 journalism organizations issued a statement expressing concern "over the increasing restrictions by the United States government that limit news gathering and inhibit the free flow of information in the wake of the September 11 attack. ... We believe that these restrictions pose dangers to American democracy and prevent American citizens from obtaining the information they need." But the Pentagon has not budged. With patriotism running high, the military may reason that the public isn't likely to complain. A recent Pew Research Center poll showed 59 percent of respondents want more military control over reporting the war. Only 28 percent want more media control, the Times reported. That has left journalists trying to cover the Afghan war from Pakistan. Masood Anwar of the News International in Pakistan describes the coverage from Quetta as "mainly cooked up and rubbish, as the journalists themselves are hostages to circumstances and strict security concerns" and must have Pakistani military escorts.

When a reporter in Pakistan does manage to report news, they can be kicked out. The London Telegraph reported that its correspondent was deported from Pakistan after uncovering evidence of a covert operation by rogue elements of Pakistan's military intelligence service to smuggle arms to the Taliban.

UO Prof. Anita Weiss, author of several books on Pakistan, reads Pakistani and other Arabic newspapers and is "appalled" by the local interviews and perspectives U.S. media are missing. "We're being fed a line," she said. A free press "is a civil liberty we've quickly lost."

Domestic Censorship

Reporting on the domestic war on terrorism has also been severely curtailed. After the media complained that the Justice Department refused to provide the names and charges for 1,200 people it detained after the terrorist attacks, the department announced that it would no longer release even the total number of detainees. Now, President Bush has signed an order allowing an unknown number of present and future accused terrorists to be tried and potentially executed in secret by military courts.

Government censorship has moved onto the Internet, with information being removed from dozens of government web sites on the theory that terrorists might use it, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has removed information about nuclear reactors, the Environmental Protection Agency pulled information about chemical plant accidents and the Federal Aviation Administration removed information about airport security violations. The public now must trust that the government will make nuclear plants, chemical plants and airports safe.

Government censorship has even moved into space. The Pentagon has bought exclusive rights to commercial satellite imagery of Afghanistan, blocking media from using the images, the Times reported.

The censorship is producing growing mistrust. Variety reported that ABC News anchor Peter Jennings wrote about his misgivings in an e-mail to viewers: "We have been given to understand that the Taliban forces had been 'eviscerated,' that its ranks had been severely depleted by defections, and that the United States had bombed so heavily it was running out of targets. ... Today, as bombing enters week four, those claims appear questionable.'' A Frankfurt, Germany newspaper has warned readers about disinformation, the Times reported. "Substantial amounts of information about current military actions and their consequences is subject to censorship by parties to the conflict," the warning said. "In many cases, an independent confirmation of such information is not possible for this newspaper." UO political science professor Jerry Medler said the military censorship has been successful in limiting opposition to the war. "No one has stood up to say, 'wait a minute...' and the reason is we have very little information." But the military may be shooting itself in the leg in the long run. The New York Times held back from reporting on the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba under pressure from President John F. Kennedy. Later, after the disastrous invasion, Kennedy told the paper's editor that he wished the paper had printed everything. "If you had printed more about the operation, you would have saved us from a colossal mistake," the Times reported.


"There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and that this is not a time for remarks like that," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer in response to comments from ABC comedian Bill Maher questioning whether terrorists on suicide missions should be called "cowardly." In its propaganda war against Al Qaeda, the Bush administration is pushing the media to watch what it says and does on many fronts.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice told network news executives that they shouldn't broadcast taped messages from Osama bin Laden. The networks now paraphrase or air only snippets of the tapes.

"We Americans ... are now the only people in the whole developed world who can't actually hear what our enemy is saying about us," lamented New York University media professor Mark Crispin Miller in a Mother Jones column. Censoring bin Laden's anti-American rants is actually counter-productive, according to Robert Giles, of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism. The violent bin Laden statements would only support the need for the war, he wrote in a Times op-ed, "which makes it especially odd that the administration would want to keep it from the American public." The bin Laden videos come to U.S. media through the Al-Jazeera Arabic news channel.

Bush sent Secretary of State Colin Powell to press Qatar to censor the independent media outlet that U.S. officials have criticized as anti-American. Recently, the U.S. bombed the station's Kabul office. The Bush Administration would likely be secretive and anti-media even without the war. Journalists have complained about administration efforts to fight Freedom of Information Act requests, subpoena the phone records of a reporter, and withhold presidential records from George Bush senior's administration that could prove embarrassing to officials in junior's White House.

After Sept. 11, the Bush Administration came down hard on leaks. Bush even threatened to end security briefings for many members of Congress before the Republican and Democratic officials complained bitterly. There's so little information from the U.S. government that Americans have come to rely on the British government for news about their country. Prime Minister Tony Blair was the first to release details of the legal case against bin Laden, and British military officials were the first to discuss the likely need for ground troops to catch bin Laden.

The Bush administration is now asking Hollywood to contribute to the propaganda war. Moviemakers are reportedly willing to do their part.

Bush's moves to sacrifice civil liberties in the war on terrorism has been chilling, the Village Voice reported. Paul McMasters, of the Freedom Forum, said that "In such an atmosphere, voices of dissent grow silent, probing questions by the press are viewed as unpatriotic and subversive, and whistle-blowers within the government are quieted." With public opinion polls registering a patriotic 80 percent or more support for Bush, the President is seeing few limits to his power to bend the First Amendment and other rights to his will. Tim Lynch, of the conservative Cato Institute, told The Washington Post that the high polling numbers have fostered "an arrogance at the White House." He said officials believe they can take presidential power "farther than it's gone before."


The Bush administration doesn't need to do anything to censor many media outlets; they do it themselves. CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson ordered news staff to limit reports of Afghan war casualties and use World Trade Center deaths to justify the killings, the Washington Post reported. After the deaths in the U.S., it "seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan," Isaacson wrote in a memo.

Other U.S. networks have taken a similar approach, according to the Times. "In the United States television images of Afghan bombing victims are fleeting, cushioned between anchors or American officials explaining that such sights are only one side of the story," the Times reported. In other countries, however, "images of wounded Afghan children curled in hospital beds or women rocking in despair over a baby's corpse" are "more frequent and lingering." Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) called CNN's casualty coverage policy itself "perverse." "One of the world's most powerful news outlets has instructed its journalists not to report Afghan civilian casualties without attempting to justify those deaths." San Francisco Chronicle columnist Stephanie Salter wrote, "Between the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the so-called war in Afghanistan, a once-great news operation seems to be morphing into the Atlanta-based annex of the West Wing." Salter quoted from a New York Times report that "after two months, American television's cautious approach has turned into knee-jerk pandering to the public, reflecting a mood of patriotism rather than informing viewers of the complex, sometimes harsh realities they need to know." Too many journalists view themselves as part of the military. CBS's Dan Rather said of the commander in chief, "Wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where. And he'll make the call," reported media commentator Norman Solomon.

Brit Hume, anchor for the conservative Fox News Channel, said that neutrality isn't appropriate in coverage for this war because the enemy are "murderous barbarians," WorkingForChange reported.

But ABC President David Westin warned in a speech that "unless we are diligent our enemy could use our own patriotism against us by encouraging us to shut down independent thinking and open mindedness."

Many media outlets appear to be shutting down reporting for fear of negative reaction from patriotic zealots. FAIR quotes from a warning memo from the chief copy editor of the Panama City, Florida News Herald. "DO NOT USE photos on Page 1A showing civilian casualties from the U.S. war on Afghanistan. Our sister paper in Fort Walton Beach has done so and received hundreds and hundreds of threatening e-mails and the like. ... DO NOT USE wire stories which lead with civilian casualties from the U.S. war on Afghanistan. They should be mentioned further down in the story. If the story needs rewriting to play down the civilian casualties, DO IT." Organized right-wing "patriot police" have hounded network executives, according to FAIR. ABC's Westin said his network got a "torrent of complaints" when it aired an interview with a PLO spokesman. Some media outlets don't need prompting to toe the popular line. "If you get on the wrong side of public opinion, you are going to get into trouble," CNN's Isaacson said, according to WorkingForChange. Newspaper columnists have felt the heat. Columnists for the Texas City Sun and Oregon's Grants Pass Daily Courier were fired after they criticized Bush for cowardice in not immediately returning to Washington after the Sept. 11 attacks.

At a University of Oregon peace conference last month, UO journalism Prof. Carl Bybee held up a copy of The Register-Guard coverage of the conference that he said was skewed. The story reported that a keynote speaker favored a police action to apprehend bin Laden. "Even peace activists want revenge," began the R-G story.

In the atmosphere of self-censorship, FAIR has complained that peace protests have been undercovered and peace opinions are given little room on op-ed pages.

Rallying around the president in war time may have even skewed the reported results of the media consortium recount of the Florida presidential vote. The Nation notes that the recount showed that Al Gore would have narrowly won if all ballots in the state were accurately counted. But CNN declared, "Florida recount study: Bush still wins." With the U.S. media censored and waving flags on the air, more aggressive British reporters have repeatedly scooped American journalists. The Brits were first to report on a new video in which bin Laden justifies Sept. 11th, first to find documents abandoned by retreating Al Qaeda forces hinting at efforts to build nuclear bombs, and first with an interview of Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Times reported.

Recently, the BBC gave far more detailed and prominent coverage of alleged atrocities by Northern Alliance troops in Mazar-i-Sharif than did CNN or The New York Times.

America cannot risk losing the First Amendment to war, said NYU Prof. Crispin. "If we allow the government and media to keep us all in nervous ignorance, American democracy will not prevail against the terrorists; it will have been destroyed regardless of the outcome of this latest war."