Is the Press Up to the Task of Reporting These Stories? an Investigative Journalist Examines the Evidence and Shares His Concerns. (Coverage of Terrorism)

Article excerpt

It was the perfect storm. A massive, Pearl Harbor-style surprise attack from abroad; a spreading, bioterrorism plague at home; a country caught in the numbing grip of fear; an endless war against a vague enemy; and an administration determined to recast the news to its own liking. In a whirlwind of government-mandated secrecy, censorship and press intimidation, many of journalism's most hard-won principals and tools are being lost. At the same time, precious civil liberties are being trashed and Orwellian internal surveillance measures are being instituted, all in the name of security. Where are the hard-hitting investigative journalists now that they are most needed?

More than any other conflict in history, this is a war for--and against--information. "This is the most information-intensive war you can imagine," one military officer involved in the planning told The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz. "We're going to lie about things."

Leading the charge from his secret bunker is Vice President Dick Cheney, a man who dislikes the press "big time." A decade earlier, as secretary of defense, he took aim at journalists who failed to follow in lock step behind the administration's Panama and Persian Gulf War policies. Time magazine's photographer, Wesley Bocxe, was even blindfolded and detained for 30 hours by U.S. National Guard troops for disobeying Cheney's press coverage restrictions.

Cheney's harsh rules led to protests from numerous news organizations. In a letter to the defense chief, senior executives from Time and CNN argued that the restrictions gave Pentagon personnel "virtual total control ... over the American press." They bitterly complained that Cheney's policies "blocked, impeded or diminished" the "flow of information to the public" during the Gulf War. In an earlier letter, Time's managing editor charged that the restrictions were "unacceptable" and marked "the formal re-imposition of censorship for the first time since Korea in an actual wartime situation." Newsday's Patrick J. Sloyan, whose reporting during the Gulf War won him a Pulitzer Prize, said the restrictions reflected Cheney's "utter contempt" for the First Amendment and "deep hostility" toward the press.

Another old face is that of Secretary of State Colin Powell. A decade ago, while chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War, he was one of the principal architects of military censorship. The Bush administration's information war resembles a battle for territory. First disarm the enemy by taking away or degrading its weapons, such as the Freedom of Information Act, publicly available information, and dissenting views. Then, once the opposition has been neutralized, capture the hearts and minds of the target audiences with an artillery barrage of one-sided propaganda. Finally, impose dictatorial powers. Here are the measures thus far:

* To silence the opposition, the administration called on television networks to refuse to air live and unedited videotaped messages issued by Osama bin Laden. While offering not a shred of evidence, officials claimed that the videos might contain secret coded messages. No doubt to the administration's pleasure, the weak-kneed networks voluntarily took the request one step further and declined to air virtually any video of bin Laden. Then it turned out that the administration, along with Britain, offered media outlets a number of bin Laden tapes and encouraged them to air them since these tapes help boost their case against him. Apparently worries about "secret codes" gave way to the value of propaganda, thus demonstrating that the original claim was merely a sham.

* Even the government's own Voice of America--a supposed shining example of press freedom to the rest of the world--was ordered by the State Department to spike an interview with Taliban head Mullah Mohammed Omar out of fear of what he might say. This provoked a stinging response by the VOA's news director, Andre DeNesnera. …