News Media Expect, but Worry about, Misinformation

Article excerpt


Upon receiving word of terrorists attacks upon New York City and Washington, D.C., President Bush hopped onto Air Force One and spent most of Sept. 11 flying to New Orleans and then Nebraska before returning to the White House.

Fearing the event might raise concerns about Bush's handling of the crisis, senior adviser Karl Rove and spokesman Ari Fleischer revealed that Air Force One was a target of terrorists, thus requiring the president's plane to buzz around other parts of the country before returning to Washington, D.C.

Even as CBS News and Associated Press reports revealed the story to be false, Rove and Fleischer refused to back off their story, admitting that while they were never able to verify the claim, the threat seemed real at the time.

The event might very well go down as the first evidence of misinformation during the latest combat, signs where military officials intentionally offer wrong interpretations or create events to confuse or spin situations strategically.

"We have to look at everything very carefully and try to be sure, as much as possible, that we're not used or misused by the government," said John Henry, Washington bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle. "We're supposed to be independent observers."

Henry is a member of the Reporters Committee's steering committee.

These worries come despite strong assurances from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his staff that, while they might not answer all questions from journalists, they would not lie.

"I don't recall that I've ever lied to the press," Rumsfeld told journalists during a Sept. 25 press briefing. "I don't intend to. And it seems to me that there will not be reason for it."

Pressed further, he added: "The policy is that we will not say a word about anything that will compromise sources or methods. We will not say a word that will in any way endanger anyone's life by discussing operations."

Rumsfeld echoed provisions of the Defense Department's Principles of Information, a policy drafted in the 1980s by then-Secretary, now Vice President Dick Cheney guiding military information in combat. In part, the guidelines stated that a free flow of information would be free of censorship and propaganda and that telling the truth as quickly as possible was paramount.

But some press advocates worry that won't happen amid the current war. The Persian Gulf War, for example, was fraught with misinformation and, some say, outright lies.

Jacqueline Sharkey's exhaustive examination of press restrictions in her book "Under Fire - U.S. Military Restrictions on the Media from Grenada to the Persian Gulf' bears out some of these concerns.

As the war progressed, defense officials enjoyed bragging about their precision attack on the Iraqis, claiming an 80 percent success rate of U.S. Air Force missions and a 98 percent success rate of the Tomahawk missile.

It wasn't until after the war that officials revealed that the statistics meant that fighter planes had taken off and dropped bombs on their targets, not that they actually struck the targets. The Tomahawk statistics referred to a 98 percent launch success rate, meaning that the missiles hadn't gotten stuck in their launchers and achieved level flight. …