By Lewis, Charles
Nieman Reports , Vol. 56, No. 2
Asking the tough questions required of "watchdog journalism" is especially difficult in a national crisis atmosphere of fear, paranoia and patriotism. In the months since the September 11 terrorist attacks, we have been painfully reminded of Senator Hiram Johnson's famous 1917 observation that "The first casualty when war comes is truth." Trauma from the worst civilian loss of life on American soil and the resultant "war on terrorism" without borders have all contributed to an historic assault on openness and the public's access to information by government officials at all levels.
We are talking about a tectonic shift from past decades in how our Freedom of Information laws and commonly held principles of openness and government accountability are administered and adhered to by those in power. And the long-time, much-abused preclusion to the public's right to know, national security, now has been broadened with a new political euphemism, "homeland security." Emblematic of this shift is the situation in which the Bush White House, after creating the Office of Homeland Security and appointing former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge as its director, for months forbade him to testify before Congress or talk extensively with the news media. More broadly, within six months of the September 11 attacks, in no fewer than 300 separate instances, federal, state and local officials have restricted access to government records by executive order or proposed new laws to sharply curtail their availability, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Unfortunately, in the context of actual information and candor from the U.S. government about its armed conflicts, for decades now we have come to expect very little. After the military and public relations debacle in Vietnam, the Pentagon and various Presidents have "tried to hide the true face of war by controlling the images of the conflict," as Jacqueline Sharkey found in the 1992 Center for Public Integrity report, "Under Fire: U.S. Military Restrictions on the Media From Grenada to the Persian Gulf." The major architect of the infamous Persian Gulf media restrictions, then-Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, is now the vanishing vice president who frequently works from an undisclosed location.
Against this backdrop, then, severely limiting reporters' access to the field of action in Afghanistan was hardly surprising. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press noted in its March white paper, "Homefront Confidential," that "In effect, most American broadcasters and newspaper reporters scratched out [Afghanistan war] coverage from Pentagon briefings, a rare interview on a U.S. aircraft carrier or a humanitarian aid airlift, or from carefully selected military videos or from leaks.... The truth is, the American media's vantage point for the war has never been at the front lines with American troops."
Along the way there has been no shortage of substantively misleading statements by White House and Pentagon officials. Indeed, when they announced the creation, and days later the public demise, of a new Department of Defense Office of Strategic Influence which would occasionally release disinformation for battlefield advantage, to most journalists the hilarious irony was the sheer redundancy of it all. Why did they need a new office for that?
Skewed and distorted war coverage regrettably but undeniably has become an accepted, cynical tradition. More remarkable are the new restrictions to basic constitutional freedoms and rights. For example, since September 11 government officials have detained hundreds of people for months without releasing the most basic information about them. And, in language that George Orwell would have grudgingly admired, we were told that the extraordinary news blackout was actually an act of compassion done to protect the civil liberties of the unaccused incarcerated. …