Media, gov't at odds during war

by Heather Kofke-Egger | 11/20/98 6:00am

The husband and wife team of Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson, co-authors of "The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism," traced the history of wartime press censorship in a lecture before 75 people in 3 Rockefeller Center last night.

Cloud and Olson considered the role of the media as watchdogs for the government in wartime and the effects of censorship on its ability to inform the public.

"Can a government, any government, be trusted to conduct a war without the press present?" Cloud asked.

Cloud offered three main reasons for the military's censorship of journalists during wartime -- military security, political reasons and personal ambition.

Olson explained how journalists were often censored during World War II for personal rather than safety and security reasons.

Because of this, journalists, most notably Charles Collingwood and Eric Sevareid, would have to rely on inferring the facts rather than stating them so they would be passed by the censors.

Censorship was also strict because of the introduction of broadcast journalism, which allowed communication from the front lines, Olson said.

"World War II was the first war in which radio journalists were able to transmit reports from the front as they occurred with a speed and immediacy that print reporters just couldn't match," she said.

Correspondents during World War II supported the war but were committed to reporting it as it really occurred. However, they were often censored to show only the glories and achievements of the military, Olson said.

"The United States government didn't want the public ... to see dead, dismembered bodies floating in the surf off Omaha Beach. It was bad for morale, they thought," Olson said. "So the emphasis was on the dramatic landing, the historic invasion of Europe, with comparatively little attention paid to the staggering human cost of such an invasion."

Censorship continued in the Korean War, Cloud said, because of the strict rules imposed by the U.S. Military.

The Vietnam War was the least censored war in this century, Cloud said.

Reporters were free to cover whatever they wanted and were free from any military security checks or censors.

Some blamed the public outcry over the war on the media coverage, and this created residual bitterness on the part of the military in future conflicts, Cloud said.

This resentment coupled with the lack of information about the U.S. invasion of Grenada led to the creation of a national media panel.

The panel, which contained one representative from each type of media, was to operate in the first 72 hours of a conflict to ensure coverage without jeopardizing security, Cloud said.

This panel was used in the Gulf War to restrict the activity of the media, Cloud said.

"The Gulf War was the most censored war in the 20th century," Cloud said.

He cited examples of events which took place that the public never knew about.

One of the largest tank battles in military history took place during the Gulf War but received no coverage, Cloud said, and there were also no pictures of wounded or dead ever published while the war was going on.

Since the events of the Gulf War, the military and the media have been trying to negotiate ways to minimize censorship and allow for a freer press during wartime, Cloud said.

They have agreed that open coverage will be the general rule, but they have not reached an agreement about military security reviews, Cloud said.

Cloud questioned how open the coverage of war needed to be to keep the public informed without damaging the country.

"War is truly hell and there is a very real question ... whether you can conduct, in a modern society, a war with open coverage because when people see how it is they are repelled," he said.

"There is a legitimate concern about how much the public needs to know in order to make an informed judgment about the conduct of the war," Cloud said.

He went on to conclude, however, that open coverage of the press was still the best solution.

"If we don't have the press covering a war, we are in worse shape than if we do," Cloud said. "In a closed society, governments can conduct a war with impunity and they shouldn't be able to do that."

Cloud is a former Washington bureau chief, Saigon bureau chief during the Vietnam War and press columnist for Time Magazine. Olson is a former correspondent for the Associated Press and the Baltimore Sun.

The speech was sponsored by the Rockefeller Center and Co-sponsored by the Rockefeller Public Issues Forum and Women in Politics.