Panel debates war, press

Posted 6:10 p.m. Feb. 21

by Elspeth A. Weingarten
U-WIRE Washington Bureau

The Pentagon is working with news organizations to provide as much information as possible with military action in Iraq on the horizon, panel members said Feb. 14 at an American University forum on media access and government security.

Joe Johns, Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC News, said the Pentagon has embedded reporters into military units to be able to report the action firsthand. He explained that embedding allows reporters to live among troops within a military unit. He said the Pentagon makes these arrangements available, provided the media agrees not to report anything that would endanger the troops or the country.

Leonard Downie, Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post, said that already reporters are living with troops to begin establishing trust between the two parties.

Philip Crowley, former deputy White House press secretary, said there is an earnest attempt within the government to provide necessary information. He pointed to NASA’s willingness to share information throughout the investigation of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

“People in an open society do not demand infallibility from their institutions, but it is difficult for them to accept what they are prohibited from observing,” said Crowley, quoting former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Berger.

Crowley said the government is doing its best to inform the public and to build confidence.

Craig Quigley, a former Defense Department deputy secretary, emphasized the importance of allowing reporters access to information so that they can understand and report a situation in its proper context.

“I have never ever worked with a journalist who knowingly would put an army in harms way,” he said.

He also said it is imperative to trust those in uniform not to share with reporters potentially harmful information.

Lisa Hoffman, Pentagon correspondent for Scripps-Howard News Service, said it is important for the military to realize that it is advantageous to have the press reporting on its action. One example, she said, would be reports that the U.S. military did not destroy a village.

But since the Sept. 11 attacks, she said it is increasingly common for the government to withhold information from the press.

“We live in a society that will only be free from fear if we don’t treat information as a carcinogen,” added Bruce Sanford, a First Amendment litigator from Baker & Hostetler law firm. Sanford said that, in most cases, anyone who really wants information can find it from another source.

Quigley added that with hundreds of news organizations reporting on the expected war, the public would be able to sort out information and judge what to believe.

“It will take many years to find the right balance between what to make public and what to keep private for national security,” he said.

Ebise Bayisa, 23, of Silver Spring, Md., expressed concern that the country has heard little recently about the detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“There are things to preserve in this country other than national security,” she said.

Bayisa said she doesn’t like the idea of embedding reporters because “by being in there with the military, you are undoubtedly only getting one view.”

James Cowden, 25, from Port Huron, Mich., said he is worried that embedding reporters and telling the story through the viewpoint of those fighting would turn war into a kind of reality show.

“It’s not something to be voyeuristic about, it’s something to be reported,” he said.

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