Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Pack Rat

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Pack Rat

Article excerpt

ALL THOSE LOOSE LIPS

Reading between the lines of D.C.'s uncharacteristically chatty class - in advance of the wartime censorship on the way

If there ever were a good time to discuss the dan- gers of censorship, this is it. Media experts have speculated about a new impetus for voluntary or forced censorship on national security and military issues in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks. Last Tuesday, Page One of The Washington Times proclaimed, "Wartime presidential powers supersede liberties; Censorship, martial law allowed."

This is interesting, because the only people so far who have revealed information about our national security and military processes are FBI officials pointing fingers at the CIA and CIA officials pointing fingers back at the FBI -- and a plethora of mostly GOP politicians looking to drag former President Clinton in to accept responsibility for the whole mess.

And there was U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who, when asked how the United States knew about Osama bin Laden's involvement, replied: American eavesdropping technology. Thanks, Orrin. The next time a reporter asks you for secret info, just say, "I'm not at liberty to explain," thereby protecting what little electronic advantage we have, and simultaneously leaving bin Laden to wonder if we have a mole in his tent.

"I'm concerned that, in the heat of the moment, people are ready to talk about what they know, because of what they think needs to be done," said Bill Kovach, formerly curator of the Neiman Foundation and now with a division of the Pew Center in Washington. Kovach was once The New York Times' bureau chief there and knows the symbiotic relationship between sources and reporters in the nation's capital.

"Sometimes public officials reveal secret information to show they are on the 'in,'" he said. After the attacks, the main sources cited "were people who knew better," he added. "You don't get people who have spent their lives in this, who don't know when they're giving away secrets," he said firmly. "That guarantees there was a purpose to these leaks."

Any novice Washington insider could follow the well-marked trail of news, off and on the record, to see how normally secret info was being used to get the press to support certain policy initiatives -- some of them quite necessary. But it was still manipulation, and that's where the worry of future censorship comes into play.

"Listen, all experienced reporters who have covered intelligence matters are used to censoring themselves," Kovach said. "They ask themselves, 'Does the public need to know about our sources and methods for getting information? …

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