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From AJR,   December 2001  issue

In the Dark   

Truth about the American war effort and the anthrax attacks has been an elusive target.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

Journalists like to know.

They have to know, of course, to do their jobs. How can you explain a situation to other people if you don't have it figured out yourself?

But it's more than that. Journalists by nature are the kind of people who pride themselves on having the inside view of what's going on.

I can think of so many journalists who start a conversation by saying, "What do you hear?"

But recently we've been confronted with situations in which it's impossible to know.

Take the war in Afghanistan. For many aspects of the fighting, firsthand information has been extremely hard to come by.

That's partly due to the nature of the war. A conflict fought from the air and with secret special forces operations doesn't lend itself to a lot of journalistic access. But that's only part of the story.

Another significant part is the Bush administration's closed-mouth approach.

Barry Zorthian, for four years the chief American spokesman in Vietnam, told the New York Times that control of information about the war in Afghanistan is "much tighter than Vietnam."

Saigon, he continued, "was almost wide open compared to this. We gave out much more information, and we had no real problem with the media giving away information that would harm the troops."

Seemingly forgotten during the current fighting are the Pentagon Principles of Information, which call for telling the truth about conflicts as quickly as possible.

The current cold shoulder comes as no surprise, of course, given the tack taken by Dick Cheney and Colin Powell during the conflicts in Panama and in the Persian Gulf.

As Jacqueline Sharkey wrote in AJR's October 2000 issue (see "Collective Amnesia"), their penchant for severely restricted access and nonstop spinning made accurate reporting virtually impossible.

As time elapsed, it became clear that the rosy scenarios painted of the gulf fighting were far off the mark.

On the other side, the Taliban hasn't been all that eager to have Western witnesses on the scene. It quickly expelled CNN's Nic Robertson, and it locked up Yvonne Ridley of London's Sunday Express after she secretly entered Afghanistan. Only the Northern Alliance has welcomed Western journalists to tag along.

It has also been impossible to know about anthrax. In this instance, it isn't government stonewalling but government cluelessness that has left reporters groping for the truth.

As senior writer Sherry Ricchiardi reports (see "The Anthrax Enigma," page 18), journalists on the anthrax beat were deep in uncharted waters. There had never been an episode of bioterror in this country before, and reporters and officials alike struggled to cope. Often, contradictory statements from authorities made a difficult task even more challenging. Compounding the confusion was the mystery of it all: No one knew who was behind the anthrax assault.

And reporters found knowledge an elusive target.

Sure, there was an unmistakable air of anticlimax about the media's Great Recount.

The once-burning issue of who really won the 2000 presidential election seems a vestige of a distant era.

Once George W. Bush took the oath of office, most Americans put the issue behind them. After September 11, even diehard Democratic partisans raised no questions about the legitimacy of the Bush presidency.

So was the expensive, nearly yearlong tally a waste of time? Far from it.

The findings were fascinating. And beyond the numbers, the reexamination shed light on the vast array of deficiencies in the way Florida and it's hardly alone elects its officials. It can only help speed the way to reform.

What the consortium did, like the similar initiative that preceded it by the Miami Herald and USA Today, was important journalism. There were significant unanswered questions that needed to be pursued.

The fact that the findings weren't timely or sexy or definitive doesn't diminish the value of the quest.

Jill Rosen debuts on the masthead this month as AJR's assistant managing editor. Jill spent nine years in the newspaper business, reporting, among other places, for South Florida's Sun-Sentinel and North Carolina's Greensboro News & Record. For the past two years she was managing editor of civic.com, which, despite its Weblike name, was a print magazine until it succumbed to the nation's economic slump in September.

We're delighted to add her to the lineup.