Government news management putting journalists on short leash

Sunday, October 12, 2003

New communications technology and the Pentagon’s bold policy of embedding 600 journalists inside military units transfixed Americans with a war in Iraq drenched in immediacy. Confronted with such compelling content, it was possible for Americans to mistake noise for news and TV screens awash in battle images for comprehensive coverage.

In the last couple of decades, government officials have become very sophisticated in managing the news. They control public access to information and journalists’ access to officials. They stay on message. They stage news events. And, when they feel that is not working, they intimidate, harass and sometimes punish journalists who strain at their leashes.

The genius of news management is that it is designed to compromise the press while securing its enthusiastic participation. Indeed, some aspects of news management are fairly benign. Some are not. It ranges from the facilitation of newsgathering, to tightly controlled briefings and interviews, to press releases, to propaganda — and occasionally to disinformation campaigns directed at the enemy but capable of causing collateral damage in the United States in an era of instant global dissemination of information.

Alongside its successful war plan, the Pentagon deployed an impressive form of news management. Military officials from the top ranks to the bottom stuck doggedly to the message of the day, aggressively confronted negative news and criticism, and expertly blended political and military messages.

This official imprint on press coverage of the war was achieved through a smart combination of incentives and threats. The price for more intimate and productive access to the front lines for the press was steep: agreement to a long list of ground rules, submission to unit commanders’ authority over their reports, and practical neutralization of independent reporting.

In addition, journalists were wholly dependent on the military for basic necessities, transportation and protection, not to mention the news itself. All of this made the press susceptible to the military’s idea of what was proper to report and what wasn’t.

It should be noted, of course, that despite these conditions and restraints, the American press generally turned in remarkably professional, if somewhat sanitized, coverage of the war in Iraq.

Government’s ‘ground rules’ for the press
The press experience in Iraq should come as no surprise. The military was merely borrowing from White House and federal agency information policies that have marked press-government relations for some time. These techniques belong to no particular administration, party or persuasion. They have evolved over the years as the most effective way for government to turn the press to its needs.

Public officials regularly require reporters in the Washington press corps to run a gauntlet of public affairs and other screening mechanisms for even the most routine of interviews. Some will speak only as anonymous sources. Others invoke arcane and slippery definitions of “off the record” and “deep background.” Government wordsmiths vet and revise officials’ quotes before they are released.

White House, department and agency spokespersons are well schooled in the art of staying on message, making no news other than that intended, and reminding reporters who’s in charge. On occasion, they call up network and newspaper executives to warn or scold them about coverage, or publicly harangue reporters who get out of line. Reporters who ask impertinent questions face banishment to the back of the room.

Prime-time presidential press conferences are not viewed as a responsibility to report regularly to the American people, but rather as a tool for advancing an agenda. They have been rare events in the Bush administration. The one just before the war was openly “scripted.” Other presidential “press opportunities” are carefully timed and controlled.

As was the case in Iraq, the press has little room to protest any of these impositions on the standards that guide their practice. Federal officials, after all, have what journalists need: the news. A journalist’s usefulness to her news organization flames out if she burns a source by complaining about the ground rules, let alone resists abiding by them: Sources dry up, phone calls go unreturned, questions go unrecognized, and requests for interviews rot in the in-box.

There are sobering examples of worse things that can happen to journalists who don’t play by these rules. For example, a clear signal was sent to the press in March of this year when the Customs Service seized and turned over to the FBI a Federal Express package containing an 8-year-old unclassified FBI report sent by Associated Press reporter Jim Gomez in Manila to his colleague John Solomon in Washington, D.C. The two AP reporters were working on an investigative report on terrorism. In May of 2001, the Justice Department had seized Solomon’s telephone records while he was working on a different story.

The federal government sent an even more chilling message for journalists — and those who provide the press information outside authorized channels — in January of this year, when Jonathan Randel, a Drug Enforcement Agency analyst in Atlanta, was sentenced to one year in prison for providing sensitive but unclassified material to a newspaper. No federal employee has ever been imprisoned for leaking similar information.

Then there is the crucial problem of access to government information, a fundamental need of members of Congress, the public and the press. The current administration, especially, is obsessed with secrecy and suffers a deep conviction that to share information is to weaken the executive. It has put in place some of the most onerous restrictions on access to government information since passage of the Freedom of Information Act 37 years ago.

These restrictions were fought valiantly by organizations representing the press and others, but the reporting press rarely showed up for the battle by covering these events as they do many other newsworthy policy changes. Typically, news reports seldom acknowledge the fact that the amount of access to government information granted the public and the press is the best measure of a democracy’s true dimensions—and a predictor of its survival.

Trying to assert journalistic standards
Given this environment, it is little wonder that journalists in the Washington press corps find themselves in a continual struggle to distinguish what they do working their beats from what publicists do serving their clients. More and more the Washington press corps finds itself herded by news-management techniques into “hand-out journalism” or “pack journalism” or “process journalism” or “stenographic journalism.”

Complicating the matter even further is self-doubt and self-interest among journalists. Many worry, with good reason, about being considered un-American — or not sufficiently pro-American — if they probe too aggressively into our national-security vulnerabilities or question too harshly those charged with protecting the nation from harm. Many of their bosses worry, with good reason, about losing readers and ratings when Americans increasingly turn to news outlets they perceive as projecting their own worldviews.

In today’s world, that self-doubt and self-interest can lead to self-censorship — or at least a decided reluctance to vigorously cover certain aspects of the war on terrorism.

In the weeks before the war in Iraq, for example, news about the war in Afghanistan and the search for Osama Bin Laden nearly disappeared from the front pages and the evening news. Coverage of the rationale for and run-up to the war in Iraq ranged from one-dimensional to barely adequate.

As The Washington Post’s ombudsman, Michael Getler, wrote on April 11: “If the proverbial visitor from Mars were to look at the Pulitzers as a reflection of what was going on in the world in 2002, he, she or it would have no idea that this storm had been gathering. Maybe that’s all explainable, and certainly there was a lot of strong coverage of Iraq and other issues. But maybe it means that the press could have done better, focusing on the prospect of war to a point that it would have jumped out as prescient coverage worthy of note.”

But coverage deficiencies are apparent in other areas as well. In the panicked aftermath of Sept. 11, the press did little to explicate the provisions of the USA Patriot Act and its potential impact on citizens’ constitutional rights before it was rushed into law. Also getting short shrift in the news was President Bush’s executive order eviscerating the Presidential Records Act, and Attorney General John Ashcroft’s memo turning on its head the presumption of openness in the Freedom of Information Act. News coverage of a sweeping exemption to the Freedom of Information Act contained in the Homeland Security Act came too little, too late. Coverage of anti-war activities was ragged. Dissenting viewpoints found it difficult to break into op-ed pages.

Added to this is a long list of somewhat more esoteric but significant news that got scanted, including the alleged bugging of U.N. diplomats whose countries hadn’t signed on to the U.S. march toward Baghdad or the possible falsification of documents about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq provided to U.N. inspectors by the United States.

Not surprisingly, when journalists are constantly in a defensive crouch, their spines can weaken. Journalists also find it difficult to examine in any meaningful way — or invite or encourage others to examine — their own failings, not to mention the deliberate and advancing disruption of the democratic process that news management threatens. Without such a public examination, however, the news-management apparatus continues to grow more effective and pervasive. Government officials, elected and unelected, also accrue increasing power to set or advance an agenda, as well as to derail or defang criticism.

Need to challenge news management
Government news managers perceive journalists as mere conduits for government messages and exploit the press’s low regard in the public mind, its lack of resources and time, and reluctance to challenge those in power during times of national distress. Unless and until the Washington press corps challenges this system of news manipulation, the risk is that the American press, in general, will become less and less a component of democratic decision-making and more and more an irrelevance to citizens seeking to serve as real partners in their own governance.

During times of national stress, when Congress is acquiescent, the courts deferential and the citizenry mute and afraid, the role of the press becomes even more vital. The press has a constitutional franchise not just because it delivers the news but because the ways in which it does this provides context, organizes and prioritizes information, and holds accountable those in power and their policies. When the national agenda is set without active participation of the citizenry, informed by an independent press, the democratic process is compromised.

One doesn’t have to claim that news management is a government plot or the result of a conspiracy on the part of political or military officials to understand that the damage is not just to the press’s credibility but also to democratic discourse and the making and execution of government policy.

Nowhere is the potential for such damage more acute than in the formulation of a policy of preemptive military action and the run-up to a war of choice. Yet as the Bush administration advanced its new policy of preemptive war and carried the nation along into the Iraq war, press coverage failed to fully explore the importance and scope of these developments.

No matter how dire the threat or wise our leaders, news management as government policy is fatally flawed. It is designed to disguise and distort democratic realities for political ends. Truth itself devolves into mere propaganda when the providers of information also get to frame and construct the context.

It is left largely to the press in general, but the Washington press corps in particular, to raise and examine the questions that this governmental news management presents: Is it appropriate? How does it affect the democratic dynamic? How does it devalue traditions and violate core democratic principles?

Leaders who develop and champion a system of news management fail to realize that no matter how well they shape the present to their ends, they cannot lie to history — nor can they muzzle it. And the press and its advocates must confront the hard reality that the press cannot serve as an instrument of freedom when it becomes a tool of government.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this article first appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of Nieman Reports, published by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.