Muzzling the Press in the Gulf
By John R. MacArthur
Hill and Wang
Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (email@example.com), AJR's senior editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
By John R. MacArthur
Hill and Wang
260 pages; $20
In "Second Front," an intemperate and wholly convincing look at government censorship during the Persian Gulf War, John MacArthur supplies the outrage. But, sad to say, his media colleagues supply the damning insights into why the press played along so meekly as Operation Desert Storm became "Operation Desert Muzzle."
MacArthur labels the gulf war "a devastating and immoral victory for military censorship and a crushing defeat for the press and the First Amendment." Abetted by media "collusion," he argues, the Bush administration imposed the first official war censorship since Korea, delaying dis- patches, intimidating sources, interfering with interviews, arresting reporters who strayed from escorted pools and censoring pool reports.
Retracing this ground, MacArthur marshals sound evidence for what should have been predictable from the beginning. The government outfoxed the media with a savvy, calculated plan of manipulation. Journalists, puffed up with patriotic fervor, fell for one lie and distortion after another.
Media managers, glorying in the commercial value of this "first full-fledged video logo war," lacked the incentive to challenge the system. "The bottom-line boys," to use Harrison Salisbury's crusty phrase, had no stomach for taking on the military, the government or the public, as the nation blissfully sallied off into jingoistic euphoria.
By now, this shouldn't surprise us, given the press' humble capitulation to similar offensives in Grenada and Panama.
But MacArthur, the publisher of Harper's magazine, persists admirably in searching for outrage, and he finds some, notably from CBS' Dan Rather and the Washington Post's Katharine Graham. Mostly, though, he finds those bland, oh-so-reasonable rationalizations that now lubricate the battle zone between government and press.
Instead of joining a lawsuit brought against the government by the Nation, the Village Voice and others, the major newspapers and networks contented themselves with mannerly protest letters to the Department of Defense. As Andrew Glass of Cox Newspapers wrote later, "It's true that reporters will do most anything for a story. But it's also true that in wartime, most are patriots."
Many media heavyweights kept quiet.
"I almost haven't got the time to pay attention to issues of the press," ABC's Peter Jennings told MacArthur. "You embarrass me to the extent that someone as senior as I should probably have a more vigorous role to play."
Others cheered the government on.
U.S. News & World Report owner Mortimer Zuckerman is quoted as being "astonished by the availability and the access that we have had" and calling journalists "petulant, self-concerned, self-centered, and really downright silly" for quarreling about the restrictions on coverage.
MacArthur's outrage serves as an important backdrop against which to read two more scholarly works on press and government.
One is Lee Bollinger's "Images of a Free Press," an elegant, tightly argued piece by the dean of the University of Michigan Law School.
Bollinger suggests that "collective action" by the people's representatives in government may be more likely to make the media more open and responsive than actions by the self-absorbed media or the fickle marketplace.
Despite our mythology about a free and uninhibited press, Bollinger points out that government already profoundly influences it. The U.S. Supreme Court, in particular, has become "a primary arbiter and definer of its identity."
But Bollinger's benign hopes for government seem to collide with the duplicitous realities conveyed by MacArthur.
More pragmatic, perhaps, is "Free Speech in an Open Society," by College of William and Mary law professor Rodney Smolla.
"A society that wishes to take openness seriously as a value," Smolla begins, "must therefore devise rules that are deliberately tilted in favor of openness in order to counteract the inherent proclivity of governments to engage in control, censorship, and secrecy."
He enunciates a careful legal and political case for such openness, even in the tricky areas of privacy, hate speech, provocative art and war coverage. Little if any harm, he shows clearly, ever comes to the country from dissenting speech, war reporting or angry political polemics.
Even so, Smolla senses that the temptation toward suppression is on the rise, fueled by the increasingly cluttered and bewildering information culture. The ominous result, he warns, is that "we may well find ourselves tempted to overregulate speech, as part of our natural and praiseworthy inclination to separate substance from clutter."
Read together, Smolla, Bollinger and MacArthur raise a sobering thought: Who remains willing to resist this temptation?###