War correspondents discussed the difficulty of reporting on the military and the declining quality of news coverage abroad Monday night at a crowded Kalb Report.
The discussion in the national Press Club featured seven journalists including Morley Safer from CBS’s “60 Minutes” and Colin Soloway, Newsweek contributing editor who found “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, in a prisoner truck in December. Marvin Kalb, director of the Washington office of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center, moderated the large panel of mostly veteran TV and print reporters.
Richard Hottelet, a CBS correspondent during World War II, said he had access to military headquarters as well as the battlefield more than 50 years ago, a much different situation than reporters in Afghanistan indicated they had.
Safer and Liz Trotta highlighted their experiences in Vietnam as the “turning point” in relations between the press and the military. Safer and Trotta said censorship was “limited” and “usually appropriate.”
Trotta said after the war relationship chilled and journalists were soon reduced to getting information solely from press briefings.
“The war was the beginning and the end of a good relationship,” she said.
Soloway said covering the recent war in Afghanistan marked a large departure from experiences in Vietnam and World War II.
“(Afghanistan) was a difficult war to cover because most military men were told not to talk to reporters,” he said. “Americans have a distorted view of how the war was won.”
Soloway added that most stories came from D.C. instead of the front
Panelists also discussed how the press has been affected by modern technology and corporate ownership, which they said leads to less information and more sensationalism.
“The drenching rain of factoids threatens to drown us,” Hottelet said. “War and peace have become a spectator sport.”
Hottelet said after the panel that readers and viewers must “demand” better coverage.
“Free government gets the government it deserves, and the press it deserves,” he said.
There was also a general consensus among the panelists that the technological advances in media have caused many news organizations to focus on presentation rather than information.
“We have all the bells and whistles, but no content,” Trotta said.
Soloway said another problem plaguing news coverage is the growing trend of “egomania” among journalists.
“I’ve never seen such a proliferation of amateurs . who went out (to Afghanistan) not because they were interested in finding out something, or even interested in reporting anything back, but just because they wanted to get in front of the camera,” he said.
The panelists also discussed First Amendment rights and how war affects the right to free press.
Some panelists said they felt obligated to censure certain information when they thought it endangered the lives of American soldiers.
Vice President of Communications Mike Freedman, who is also an executive producer of the Kalb Report, said he thought the discussion differed from several others in the series.
“This was more of a meat-and-potatoes kind of panel talk about war coverage in terms of military, economics and public opinion,” Freedman said.