Editorial: Press needs patience in war on terror

Oct 1, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Restrictions on the media during the Gulf War left journalists feeling as though they had received a collective slap in the face from the Pentagon. So it’s no surprise that they have embarked on a campaign to convince the people running America’s new war on terrorism to let the media come along for the ride this time.
One of the leading voices in the pre-emptive strike for press freedom has been that of Radio-Television News Directors Association President Barbara Cochran, who sent a letter last week to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld urging him to “grant access as broadly as possible to the news media.”
As journalists awaited Mr. Rumsfeld’s media rules for the military action known as Operation Enduring Freedom, they anticipated something less than an open-door policy. This frightening, high-stakes war promises to be so secretive it will make the Gulf War look like one long photo op.
The reasons for the cloak-and-dagger treatment are obvious: A war on terrorism is not a war in the traditional sense, but something akin to a large-scale criminal investigation to be staged in the dark corners of strange, treacherous lands. The last thing the military needs is a bunch of reporters and camera crews tagging along.
The truth is the free-press advocates have a tough argument to make this time. It’s hardly a stretch to express concern that letting the media deliver the play-by-play to the American public might jeopardize the operation by tipping off terrorists to the United States’ next move.
The one thing the nation wants most to come out of this war is to deal a severe blow to terrorism. That goal is even more important to Americans than knowing the details of how the U.S. operation is being carried out, and it should be more important to the media than scooping the competition.
America’s journalists demonstrated in the days immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that their hearts are in the right place. Now they need to make sure their heads are in the right place, too, by exercising self-restraint and applying common sense as they go to war.