March 24, 2003

The press in wartime

Catherine Manegold is James M. Cox Professor of Journalism

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 enemy.

• They don’t want to give away any well-considered strategy.

• They don’t want to show their hand as to timing.

• 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 at worst.

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 best interests.

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 the people.”

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 for “authenticity.”

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 those outlets.

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 Jackson’s nose.

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.


This essay was adapted from an address Manegold delivered to Emory’s Board of Visitors on Feb. 20.