During the Gulf War 12 years ago, I was posted
in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, as a reporter for Newsweek. Dhahran then
was a vulnerable crook in the logistics tail, the entry point for
food, fuel, ammunition, weapons and other supplies. We stood in
a target; to hit that port was to starve and deprive all forces
in the field. If you could cut the tail and break the pipeline,
you could cripple even the strongest army in the world. War is sometimes
simple that way.
The logistics experts knew it. I knew it. The officials in the Pentagon’s
Joint Intelligence Bureau knew it. They released almost no information.
You couldn’t even get an interview with a soldier charged
with cleaning the latrines. It was enormously frustrating.
Of course, there are reasons why military officials want to choke
off information at such times:
• They don’t want to telegraph troop movements to the
• They don’t want to give away any well-considered strategy.
• They don’t want to show their hand as
• And they don’t want any bad news.
But back in the United States, where families have sent their sons
and daughters into conflict, there is a need to know. Imagine a
war in which the only information you could get was through a military
briefing? It doesn’t even sound American. Yet that was largely
what the press was given in that conflict.
To be a reporter in that war was to be, at some level, always in
conflict with the U.S. government. The Pentagon, bruised by press
coverage of the war in Vietnam (and inclined to blame the press
for our military failure there), had long moved toward news blackouts
in battle situations. For a while, they were quite effective at
it. But in the Gulf War that adversarial stance backfired.
When it later came out that Saddam’s Scud missiles were far
less sophisticated than the Pentagon had claimed—and that
the Patriot missiles we sent out after them were pretty faulty,
too, and failed to reach their target most of the time—the
press lockdown started to look silly at best and a bit sinister
Partly because of that, in the current conflict with Iraq, the press
has been offered front-row seats. Reporters now will be “embedded”
in military units in the field, allowed to report (just as Ernie
Pyle and countless others did in World War II) directly from the
theater of conflict.
It sounds convincing. It sounds democratic and even patriotic at
some level, troops and reporters sweating shoulder to shoulder.
But I am not sure I buy this new approach. Anyone who has been anywhere
near a war knows that no one soldier (and by extension no one reporter)
can possibly know what’s going on in the larger scheme of
battle. A bloodless triumph in one area may show one side with a
colossal advantage, while in reality the tide elsewhere could be
turning quite a different way.
In this new configuration, the Pentagon will be the authority detailing
specific reporters to move with specific troops. I have no doubt
the military brass will make those assignments according to their
The fact is that the only way to get a clear picture in the fog
of battle will be the same as it has ever been: to piece together
just as many sources, as many reliable facts and as many trustworthy
bits of analysis from as many places as you can.
It has always been a reporter’s job to try harder,
stay up later and work smarter to try to get the news. That’s
healthy. The frictions are real—the Pentagon has one job to
do; reporters have another. This war will be no different. It will
be up to dedicated reporters in the field, to seasoned editors back
home and to an interested and well-informed public to put those
pieces together in a way that makes some sense.
What is of more concern to me right now is not that old and always
difficult dynamic, but a new, much less publicized move to constrict
our news sources altogether in the name of free market enterprise.
In 1945—at another time of war—the Supreme Court ruled
that “the widest possible dissemination of information from
diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of
That ruling has protected the sort of wild cacophony of voices from
which we get our sense of world events.
But now, at a time when I would argue we can least afford
it, that protection is under attack by the very regulatory body
that was established to preserve it, the Federal Communications
Commission (FCC). Under the leadership of a man who proudly calls
himself a disciple of the free market, Michael Powell, the FCC is
moving to withdraw the last thin barriers preventing excessive consolidation
of the media, and the possible result is all too clear: One
voice. One station. Every market. All the time.
This may strike you as alarmist. So let’s look at how similar
legislation has affected radio. In 1996 the FCC rewrote laws limiting
radio ownership. At that time, the nation’s two largest radio
chains owned 115 stations. Today, just seven years later, the same
two chains own more than 1,400 stations.
That’s a 1,117 percent increase in those conglomerates’
presence on the nation’s airways, and it represents an extraordinary
contraction of the number of voices, opinions, thoughts and ideas
to which the listening public has access.
But, staggering as they are, those are just numbers. So let’s
consider what those numbers mean: radio stations across America
that offer exactly the same content, with local weather pasted in
There is no real freedom of speech in that sudden shrinking
of the market. There is no “widest possible dissemination
of information from diverse and antagonistic sources,” as
the Supreme Court ruled. And there is frighteningly little way to
ensure that the messy, exuberant, ongoing dialogue so central to
American life will be preserved.
Now let’s look at other media, newspapers and broadcast, which
are under the same gun. Already just 10 companies own 90 percent
of the media outlets. For the conglomerates, this is good news:
more stations, more newspapers, more profit ... for General Electric,
for Disney, for Viacom and for Gannett. And the news for them is
only getting better. Under Powell, the FCC is about to take away
the last barriers to the further concentration of our news through
One voice. One Station. Every Market. All the time.
Now, let’s apply this notion to a time of war.
Shall we all be in agreement? Do we want to limit and constrict
our information? Our access to opinion? Our very flow of ideas?
On this subject, even Molly Ivins and William Safire agree: We do
not. We cannot afford to if we hope to remain as vital a nation
as we have been.
Am I asking you to call your congressman? I suppose I am, because
I am genuinely troubled by this shift. I think it deserves our attention,
and I think it’s worth a fight.
But just as much, especially now, I am asking you to acknowledge
and to value this national asset. It is easy to bash the press.
Sometimes it’s even fun, and often it’s the press that
picks that fight by behaving in ways that are laughable, reprehensible
or just pathetic, like focusing so very much attention on Michael
The truth is, our reporting can be better and should be better.
Still, as a culture and a community of souls that carries on a conversation
in public, the free press—this right to argue and debate and
to self-educate—deserves whatever safeguards we can give it.
And we deserve what the Supreme Court granted us in 1945. Even—no,
especially—on the very eve of war.
essay was adapted from an address Manegold delivered to Emory’s
Board of Visitors on Feb. 20.