There's a great report
about the means by which the military silenced negative reporting during the Iraq war. In a war zone, the military controls the ability to move freely, and therefore can choose which stories the embedded journalists cover and which they don't. If you can't be on the scene, you can't effectively tell what's going on, and you certainly can't gather the kind of evidence that would be needed for a critical piece about the military. Not surprisingly, the constraints mirror the Bush Administration's own efforts to filter the truth, making the news more favorable to their policies. But what's the answer to this problem when the military controls the freedom for journalists on the ground?
Author Ken Silverstein spoke to an American TV producer who was embedded in Tikrit. She'd covered many wars abroad, but never experienced the kinds of restrictions that she faced in Iraq. There, she says, "I was a Mouthpiece for the American military." How did it work?
When it came to other stories that were clearly sympathetic to the U.S. side, such as funerals for American soldiers killed in combat, the U.S. military was extremely helpful--indeed, encouraging. In such cases, she was granted full access and allowed to film speeches by officials honoring the dead, the posthumous awarding of medals, and other aspects of the ceremony.
But when this producer wanted to pursue a story that might have cast the war effort in an unfavorable light, the situation was entirely different. Every few days, she said, she would receive a call from the Reuters bureau in Baghdad and discover that reporters there had heard, via local news reports or from the bureau's network of Iraqi sources, about civilians being killed or injured by American troops. But when she asked to leave the compound to independently confirm such incidents, her requests were invariably turned down.
"Reuters had an armored car," she told me, "and we wanted to go out on our own, but I would ask the PIO [Public Information Officer] for permission and he would say he needed to get more information before we could go. Hours would pass, it would get dark--and in the end we were never able to get to the scene." Even getting an on-camera comment from a military spokesman was impossible in such cases, she said.
The producer said that it was impossible to pursue stories frowned upon by the military--for example, on how the local population viewed the occupation and American troops--because she was not permitted to leave the base on her own. The height of absurdity came when the Tikrit compound came under serious attack one evening and the producer was asked by the Reuters bureau in Baghdad to phone in a report on the situation. "We couldn't find out anything [from the U.S. military]," she said, so Reuters had to cover the fighting from Baghdad, despite having a TV producer and reporter on the ground at the compound in Tikrit.
The report goes on to talk about her inability to cover the obvious torture that was taking place at the base, and the frustration that she and other journalists felt at their inability to do "real journalism".
There's no easy solution to this problem. In the United States, it's clear that journalists require access to make fair assessments of the facts on the ground, and to synthesize that information and report in a quasi-objective manner. The Bush Administration's favoritism towards journalists (something I also remember from the Guiliani years in New York), their rush to classify documents, their withholding of facts and their secrecy in nearly all policy decisions, these all contribute to a corrupt regime that is purposefully distant from the public eye, and this is clearly wrong. We need to have a transparent democracy and a transparent leadership structure. The democratic process fails when we don't have access to information with which to make our decisions.
This is no less true for information about wars in which the United States is engaged. But we can't expect the same kind of freedom for journalists in Iraq as we can in the United States - except for the brave independent journalists (such as Dahr Jamail) who risk their lives in pursuit of greater truth. Major news organizations won't put their reporters in that kind of risk, though, and so they rely on the U.S. Military to protect them. But then the problem emerges: the object of criticism is responsible for the safety and movement of the criticizer. This is an untenable situation, and I don't see a clear solution, except to ask the media outlets to stop relying on the U.S. Military for protection. Is this reasonable to ask? Is it too much? The other answer would be to ask the military to be more open to criticism, and more transparent in its behavior. But no military has ever existed that had such a policy, and I don't expect ours to change in that direction anytime soon.
The problem is that it took years before the public came around to the anti-war position; how much sooner would this have happened if we had had real reporting from the ground, instead of the massively filtered version described above? In the end, it seems to me that there is one final answer: war creates conditions where freedom is necessarily abridged, and the only way to stop this assault on freedom is to stop the war - the unnecessary war - itself. When our nation goes to war, we need to already be against the idea - before it even begins. We need to understand that bad things will necessarily happen, even if the war is for the greater good. And when it is clear that the war serves no noble function, we must end it. That time is clearly past.
Update: this story has also been diaried by earwick.