The Bush Administration and the News Media: Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Lists Actions It Says Were Taken to Restrict Access to Government Information
Gersh, Debra, Editor & Publisher
The Bush administration and the news media
Restrictions on the media in the Persian Gulf were not an aberration, but rather indicative of the Bush administration's overall approach to the press, according to Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Discussing the Reporters Committee's latest report, "The Bush Administration and the News Media," Kirtley pointed out that the Bush administration approach "is no different from the Reagan administration, but it may be outdistancing the Reagan administration in creativity."
The report lists 235 actions it says were taken by the administration to restrict access to government information and intrude on editorial freedom since Bush took office. More than 135 of them took place since the initial report in March 1990, with over half of the new entries involving restrictions on covering the Persian Gulf war.
Kirtley pointed out that comparing actual numbers of incidents between the Reagan and Bush administrations would be like comparing apples and oranges, primarily because the Reporters Committee's methods of reporting incidents have changed.
For example, she said, all media incidents involving the Grenada invasion were listed under one heading at the time, while in the new report the Persian Gulf war warrants some 62 entries.
"We were accused last year of trivializing the issue and focusing on minutiae," Kirtley noted. "What we're trying to show with this list is the sheer magnitude and variety of instances that occur."
While the "Persian Gulf policy is certainly the most disturbing," Kirtley said it should not "blind people to the other issues," such as Federal Communications Commission policies on indecent expression and a proposed bill that would prosecute journalists and whistle-blowers for espionage for unauthorized electronic reception of classified information.
Citing "echoes of the Nixon era," Kirtley finds the "us versus them" mentality of the government troubling; that journalists and others seeking to get information out are somehow politically incorrect.
The media, however, "have only ourselves to blame" for not reporting on the issue, she continued, noting that the media must not abrogate their responsibilities to question the government in order to be popular.
The Reporters Committee report lists items both by category and chronologically. Categories are divided into Disinformation, Freedom of Information-Records, Plumbing Leaks, Policing Thought, Prior Restraint, Secret Government, Stop the Press, and War in the Gulf.
The following is a summary of events from 1990, excluding those related to the war, as reported by the Reporters Committee.
January: Bush tells reporters no aides have been sent on any secret missions lately, but at the same time Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger and Deputy National Security Adviser Robert Gates are returning from a secret trip to Europe where they briefed leaders there on plans for troop cuts. White House officials say the trip was not a secret mission but a "routine consultation with allies."
February: White House Chief of Staff John Sununu orders changes in a Bush speech to underscore the problem of global warming; original speech emphasis had been on administration efforts to solve the problem. Also, Bush tells reporters a conference on Germany by the four powers is not appropriate "at this juncture," but the next day officials from England, France, the United States and the Soviet Union announce plans for a conference, which the State Department says is based on U.S. initiatives.
April: Although Defense Secretary Dick Cheney tells of the bombing accuracy of two Stealth fighter planes during their Panama mission, in actuality one of the planes missed its target by 160 yards. An investigation finds that the chief of the Tactical Air Command decided not to tell his superiors about missing the target, later conceding the situation could have been handled better.
May: NASA claims that when Ulysses is launched to orbit the Sun, only plutonium can be used for the launch as solar panels will not function properly so close to the Sun, but in the Federal Register it described the flight pattern as similar to the orbit of Mars, which is an excellent pattern for gathering solar power.
Also, it is learned that many El Salvador soldiers charged with killing six Jesuit priests in 1989 had been part of Green Beret training exercises three days before.
Also, it is learned that the Navy investigation into the USS Iowa gun turret explosion used evidence selectively and presented an unbalanced view of the facts.
Also, the result of a Freedom of Information Act suit by the National Security Archive and Public Citizen reveals new materials from the diaries of Lt. Col. Oliver North alleging Bush played a key role in Iran-contra.
June: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission finds that a senior Energy Department official made statements to Congress "contradictory to the facts" about an investigation of safety problems at a New York nuclear power plant.
July: Paragraphs recommending low frequency radiation fields be classified as "probable human carcinogens" are deleted by the White House from a two-year Environmental Protection Agency study.
August: Although Bush says Supreme Court nominee David Souter made no pre-conditions before coming to Washington, it was reported that Souter told Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) that he would not discuss how he might rule in future cases.
October: Air Force Secretary Donald Rice flies to an Air Force-Notre Dame football game on an Air Force jet at a cost of nearly $5,700, claiming the trip was official business because he met with ROTC officials and cadets. Commander of the Notre Dame ROTC program says as far as he could tell Rice conducted no official business.
January: The Energy Department is told by the U.S. archivist that it must respond to year-old findings that serious weaknesses in its record keeping must be addressed. Archivist Don Wilson says DOE personnel treat historical records as personal property. Also, access is denied by the Pentagon and the U.S. Army Center of Military History to reports on the U.S. invasion of Grenada, seven years after the mission had ended.
February: Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N. Y.) files a FoIA request after the Pentagon refuses to release combat footage taken by military personnel during the invasion of Panama. Rangel receives some tapes, excluding footage of Apache helicopters, and ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC are denied tapes and index of the tapes that exist.
March: The administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) calls on Congress to delete provisions in a paperwork bill that would strengthen public access to Office of Management and Budget reviews. The bill was not enacted. Also, the FBI's freedom of information officer tells Congress the average FoI request is granted or denied in 320 days; the act requires notice of refusal or acceptance in 10 days.
May: Attorney General Dick Thornburgh tells a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that Justice Department delays in responding to FoIA requests violate the letter of the law.
June: Internal documents from the Panamanian government give detailed information on the reign of Manuel Antonio Noriega, but the military refuses to discuss the records, which remain in the hands of the U.S. military.
July: Two months after the Air Force instructs public affairs officers not to disclose ages and hometowns of servicemen killed during active duty, after an Air National Guard crash, it reverses the policy, calling it a mistake.
September: The National Transportation Safety Board decided to withhold from the news media the release of cockpit voice recordings in plane crashes until they are less newsworthy, citing an overemphasis by the media on the cockpit transcripts.
Also, the Federal Aviation Administration refuses to release information on the performance of machines installed at airports to detect explosive devices, saying withholding the information will keep it out of the hands of potential terrorists. Also, it is reported OIRA is approving dissemination of information based on cost, who is willing to pay, and whether the public good outweighs the cost to industry.
October: The House Committee on Government Operations is dissatisfied with the quality and objectivity of Justice Department guidance to other federal agencies on FoIA issues. A paperwork reduction bill passes the House, which would have removed the oversight role of Justice on FoI matters in the executive branch, but the measure is not adopted by the Senate.
Also, the Justice Department completes its survey on how federal agencies view disclosing electronic data to the public. In December, Rep. Bob Wise (D-W. Va.) calls the survey questions biased and interpreted the law to reduce disclosure obligations.
December: A federal official in a Colorado office of the Selective Service says that releasing the hometowns of appointees to its appeals boards violates their privacy, but the policy is later changed by the Washington office.
January: National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft reportedly cites "premature and inaccurate leaks" as the reason Colombian officials object to proposed U.S. Navy warships in the Caribbean.
March: The FBI says any employee who leaks information about the suspension of an agent suspected of spying for Cuba will be disciplined. Also, statements by Lt. Gen. Carl W. Stiner, front-line commander of the Panama invasion, that leaks "compromised" the operation and were responsible for soldiers' deaths, are called wrong by the Pentagon.
April: Justice Department press secretary David Runkel is found to have played a role in confirming a news report about a criminal investigation of the finances of Rep. William Gray (D-Pa.). Runkel's role is revealed following a criminal investigation ordered by Attorney General Dick Thornburgh.
Also, while Energy Department officials want to destroy sensitive reports on issues including hazards of nuclear weapon manufacturing and traces of marijuana found in a DOE staffer's car, Energy Secretary James D. Watkins says the destruction should not take place and orders all department memos dating from August 1989 to be released.
Also, the Department of Interior tries to keep National Park and U.S. Fish and Wildlife staffers from discussing the Glen Canyon Dam project, which is thought to be eroding beaches and damaging aquatic life.
Also, a federal district court in Washington, D.C., rules that the Environmental Protection Agency's refusal to hire a former Capitol Hill investigator because of his disclosures to the press is illegal.
November: Attorney General Thornburgh tells the Associated Press Managing Editors that he supports the right to publish without censorship, but that the right to a fair trial outweighs other concerns.
December: Staffers at the Consumer Product Safety Commission are directed to refer all media questions to public affairs officers, and interviews are to be tape-recorded. The policy is rescinded the day after a newspaper story on the issue appears.
January: Although invited by one of the participating foundations, a Greenpeace worker who had earlier expressed concern over pesticides banned in the U.S. being shipped to Poland is denied an invitation to a symposium on the subject by the White House. Also, it is revealed the FBI ran background checks on 266 people connected "in any way" to FBI investigations of library patrons during the Reagan administration.
February: Canadian James Hunter, who has been involved in National Federation of Labor Youth League baseball, is detained at the border by U.S. immigration officials, who say while they cannot deny visas for ideology they can still question him about political beliefs. Also, a nominee for the Federal Communications Commission, Ervin Duggan tells Senators he will be a spokesman for "family values" and would use his position on the FCC to convince broadcasters to clean up program content. His nomination is confirmed.
April: The government begins beaming TV Marti to Cuba, despite protests from U.S. broadcasters who worry the Cuban government will jam their signals. Also, a group of U.S. scientists are told they cannot attend a White House seminar or global warming because their presence would "inhibit discussions."
Also, the FCC fines a Cleveland radio station $8,000 for indecent dialogue and a Las Vegas station is fined $2,000 for broadcasting indecent songs.
May: Graphics salesman Daniel Walsh is told by the Treasury Department he cannot travel to Cuba to import political posters and must purchase the posters through the mail or over the phone.
June: A San Jose radio station is fined $20,000 for a series of broadcasts termed indecent by the FCC, although the station had fired the "shock jock" involved before the FCC action began.
Also, President Bush renews his push for a constitutional amendment outlawing desecration of the flag. Also, the National Endowment for the Arts releases its guidelines in response to legislation forbidding federal funding of "obscene" art. Both the legislation and the guidelines are dropped in 1991.
July: An Indianapolis radio station is fined $10,000 by the FCC for broadcasting in 1987 four songs termed indecent. Also, despite a new law prohibiting deportation or exclusion of aliens for their political beliefs or associations, those seeking visas must still tell the Immigration and Naturalization Service whether they have ever had any Communist affiliations.
September: A St. Louis radio station is fined $2,000 for a broadcast called indecent by the FCC. Also, the General Accounting Office says it is unable to complete a study of possible constitutional violations by the FBI's monitoring of people opposed to the Reagan administration Nicaraguan policies because the FBI has refused to hand over so many files.
December: A federal district court ruling in Los Angeles that government undercover informers cannot observe and secretly tape church gatherings is upheld by an appeals court, but the government asks for reconsideration of the case.
January: Department heads receive a memo from Robert S. Ross Jr., executive assistant to the attorney general, telling them to refrain from making public statements about Manuel Antonio Noriega which accuse him of criminal wrongdoing and go beyond "non-conclusionary statement of fact."
July: The Bureau of Prisons denies reports that it placed Brett Kimberlin - who in the early 1970s said he sold marijuana to Vice President Dan Quayle - in solitary confinement for four days before the 1988 presidential election to keep him from talking to reporters.
November: A GAO report on Pacific Stars and Stripes finds a pattern of censorship at the newspaper, and Pentagon officials announce plans to rewrite the paper's directive to give its reporters the same treatment as non-government reporters.
December: After first denying ABC a license to broadcast the 1991 Pan American Games from Cuba, citing fees paid the country a violation of the 1962 Trading With the Enemy Act, the Treasury Department agrees to allow the broadcast.
January: Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams will not discuss the operation of the F-117 Stealth bomber, which was used for the first time in combat in Panama. Also, the Pentagon and the White House refuse to release estimated figures of deaths and injuries among Panamanian civilians, calling the numbers "almost nonexistent" despite Panamanian government estimates of 250 and rumors of hundreds or thousands of bodies yet undiscovered.
Also, the CIA will not allow anyone outside the agency to see or photograph a nearly finished $250,000 sculpture and refuses to reveal the name of the author or the 2,000-letter secret phrase to be encoded for the sculpture. Only the president, the director of the CIA and the sculptor will know what the message means.
Also, Assistant Attorney General William P. Barr suggests procedures for sealing records or issuing protective orders to protect against disclosures that are not "absolutely necessary" in a bill to adopt alternative dispute resolution techniques for federal agencies.
February: In an attempt to avoid "constitutional confrontations" over what parts of the Reagan diaries should not be released to protect national security, the Justice Department asks a federal judge in the trial of former National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter to delay the deadline for turning over parts of the diaries.
Also, the minutes from a U.S. Commission of Fine Arts meeting exclude a confrontation between its chairman and a member over whether a new project presented a conflict of interest for the chairman, J. Carter Brown. Although Brown at first argues the move to restore comments to the minutes is not on the agenda, he finally agrees when confronted by regulations of the Administrative Procedure Act.
Also, Justice Department spokesman David Runkel is accused of "winging it" when talking to reporters, which often leads to inaccuracies.
March: While the National Security Agency keeps quiet about its operations, its legal adviser tells a security symposium about having one of the most advanced electronic eavesdropping networks in the world.
Also, the chairman of the State Department Advisory Committee of Outside Scholars, Warren Cohen, resigns in protest over deletions from the departments' volumes of U.S. foreign policy, which the committee had reviewed in the past to ensure deletions did not distort historical accuracy.
Also, it is learned that the CIA spent nearly $6 million for radio broadcasts from Costa Rica to Nicaragua and for travel funds for European journalists to report on elections in Nicaragua.
Also, White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater tells reporters the president does not think he should talk to Mikhail Gorbachev about Lithuania, although the next day it is learned that Bush has just sent a letter on the matter to Gorbachev.
May: President Bush refuses to answer a question on the deficit-reducing proposals he will present to Congress.
September: A television program on the Panamanian invasion casualty rate reports that reporters were told by the Pentagon that they would have to speak to U.S. military command in Panama, which said they would have to talk to the Pentagon.
Also, after a raid on a machine shop in Danville, Ill., U.S. Customs Agents refuse to discuss why the raid occurred, although it is later learned the investigation concerned sales to a Swiss company doing business in the Middle East.
October: FCC commissioner Ervin Duggan tells a luncheon audience he wants the FCC to be able to meet in private, and is agreed with by another commissioner who says sunshine law requirements discourage candor in discussions.
November: President Bush seeks closed-door meetings with congressional leaders in an attempt to avoid public debate over such proposals as a $70 billion cut in Medicare.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The Bush Administration and the News Media: Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Lists Actions It Says Were Taken to Restrict Access to Government Information. Contributors: Gersh, Debra - Author. Magazine title: Editor & Publisher. Volume: 124. Issue: 12 Publication date: March 23, 1991. Page number: 12+. © 2002 Editor & Publisher. COPYRIGHT 1991 Gale Group.
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