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From AJR,   May 1999  issue

The Battle For Facts Continues Amid War   

Officials have worked to limit reporters since Vietnam.


By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     

Facts hardly got off the ground during the first two weeks of the air war against the Serbian dictatorship. American expectations of substantial military openness with the press were lost in NATO's bureaucratic (and distinctly British) efforts to conceal even basic facts about the war and to use briefings mainly as propaganda sessions. The Pentagon did better, but it was strapped by a post-Vietnam policy of stiffing the press, worsened by an alliance with countries lacking a strong First Amendment tradition.

"NATO briefings in Brussels have been diatribes," says Patrick Sloyan of Newsday, who has covered the Pentagon for 35 years. "A purely American group of reporters would have cut that guy off."

But in Brussels the two main spokesmen, Air Commodore David Wilby and Jamie Shea, smoothly conveyed the message their multinational bosses apparently wanted, with a minimum of information for the public. Gene Roberts, who covered Vietnam for the New York Times, says reporters there would have walked out of such a briefing.

At the Pentagon, Sloyan found spokesman Ken Bacon reasonably forthcoming under bad circumstances. "He gave the administration's line and spin, but with nothing flatly misleading," Sloyan says, and some of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps' top information officers tried to be helpful. (The Army's were just "inept," in Sloyan's view.)

Even so, Sloyan thinks, covering the war from Washington is "very ephemeral reporting." He chafed at not being able to get to the war scene, where personal observation, refugees and others helped tell what was happening.

Sloyan won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1991 Newsday series concluding that more than half and perhaps 75 percent of the American battle casualties during the gulf war were the victims of misdirected "friendly fire." He found that in one big engagement, fire from our own forces killed 14 Americans and wounded 40, knocking out five Abrams M-1 tanks and five Bradley fighting vehicles.

This was covered up. Sloyan takes little at face value from official sources, but he does know people to trust there.

Journalism professor Jacqueline Sharkey of the University of Arizona believes the British experience in handling the press during the Falklands episode, with little information given for at least three days, had a big impact on U.S. military leadership. The Grenada operation reflected this.

In Somalia, American forces were part of a multinational operation that set the rules for release of information, she says.

Walter Cronkite and Morley Safer, interviewed on CNN, reflected upon how much more freedom reporters had in Vietnam and even in World War II. Vietnam coverage was the best we have had in this half-century. But some military leaders seem to believe that was bad.

In this issue of AJR, Sherry Ricchiardi writes about press restrictions in the Balkan war (see Free Press). She will report from the scene for our next issue. Sloyan and Sharkey also will write about coverage.

We have to work against letting the First Amendment be a casualty of modern war.