Covering the War

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It’s too early for anyone to assess the news media’s coverage of the war on terrorism— that will likely take as long as the assessment of the conduct of the war itself. Professional criticism of print and TV coverage in the war’s early days has been spotty. But the judgment from one quarter has been swift and severe: A November 16 Gallup poll ( shows that only 43 percent of the public approves of the news media’s handling of the war on terrorism. No other institution—including the Postal Service—had less than a 60 percent approval rating in the poll. What have reporters and editors done to deserve such obloquy? They certainly haven’t rocked the boat, according to John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s and author of Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War (1992). Writing in the Nation (Nov. 19, 2001), he divides his scorn between the Bush administration, which made it "next to impossible" for reporters to get near the combat in Afghanistan, and the "supine" press. "Evidently afflicted with a guilt complex after Vietnam, the owners of the major newspapers and networks long ago ceased to protest Pentagon manipulation, and now they feel justified by simple-minded polls that show reflexive support for ‘military security.’"

Almost from the day hijacked jets crashed into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, most discussion of press coverage has focused on what it means for American reporters to be objective in such a conflict. The debate has had a series of defining moments: a teary Dan Rather’s declaration that he stood ready to "line up" behind the commander in chief; Tom Brokaw’s publicized decision not to wear an American flag lapel pin on TV; the offhand statement by ABC News president David Westin that he had "no opinion" on whether the Pentagon was a legitimate military target; and the memo from CNN chair Walter Isaacson telling reporters to balance images of U.S. attacks in Afghanistan with reminders of the assaults that provoked them.

Pointing to the Westin statement, Dorothy Rabinowitz writes in the Wall Street Journal (Nov. 6, 2001) that the fear of violating the neutrality principle is one of the "terrors" that dominate today’s newspeople; their World War II predecessors were capable of questioning the official line, but "the only terror" they felt was that the war effort might fail.

In U.S. News and World Report (Nov. 19, 2001), Rabinowitz’s fellow conservative columnist John Leo takes a different tack, scolding the news media for being "overly submissive," notably in its "timid" response" to Washington’s request that the TV news networks edit any statements by Osama bin Laden. People in the news media "know they will lose audience if they seem to resist pressure from Washington or deal neutrally with terrorists," Leo notes. And war does impose special responsibilities. "But the news business has to find a way to say clearly that it expresses its patriotism by protecting the public’s right to know what’s going on."

In an article written before September 11, former ABC News correspondent C. Robert Zelnick surveys the history of military-press relations since World War II. "Documented incidents of reporting that actually harmed the United States military or security interests are nonexistent," he writes in the Responsive Community (Winter 2001–02), "although there are a handful of instances where irresponsible press conduct could have produced serious harm." Defense officials who try to keep the press on a "short leash" are simply aiming to control the "editorial slant of what is reported." During the 1991 Gulf War, the Pentagon sharply restricted press access to the battle


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