What you don't know ... 

What if they had a war and nobody was told?

After echoes of the last shots had faded in the Gulf War, some of America's largest news organizations convened in the Pentagon to put their collective foot down with the top military brass in a way that might have been judged unseemly a few months earlier.

The media had been largely barred from meaningful combat coverage, they complained. Reporters had been assigned to press "pools" sequestered aboard ships floating in the Persian Gulf or in Army camps far from the fighting; information trickled through in sanitized sound bites issued by public information officers. Troop movements, civilian death tolls, U.S. casualties -- all were unverifiable statistics parceled out by a Department of Defense spin team.

Even Dan Rather publicly conceded that the press had acted as a "lapdog, rather than a watchdog" with regard to the military.

Next time, things would be different, agreed Pentagon officials; Americans deserve to know -- within reason, of course -- how their military is protecting their interests abroad.

A decade later, however, there's little evidence that the TV networks and other media heavyweights are holding the government to that agreement, and the victim of their forgotten bargain will be the American public, says Laird Anderson, professor emeritus of journalism at American University in Washington, D.C., and a retired Army colonel.

"We're in a war of information," he says, citing recent examples: The DOD cut its daily press briefings down to twice a week; the Bush administration balked for days before sharing evidence against Osama bin Laden with allies being asked to commit troops to battle; President Bush even dressed down Congress for leaking sensitive tidbits to the press and temporarily cut all but a handful of top pols out of the information loop.

Most disturbing to Anderson is not the idea that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice would ask the networks to refrain from airing live, unedited speeches by bin Laden, as they did just after the Oct. 7 bombing raids began, but the notion that the networks would so readily assent to such self-censorship.

"The idea that [bin Laden] is sending coded signals to his followers is just baloney," Anderson says. And even if he were, his Al Qaeda network still would have easy access to any messages via Arabic TV, which can be picked up in the U.S. or around the world with a $100 satellite dish.

The real reason the administration doesn't want its enemy's statements broadcast is that they have to potential to "stir the pot, scare people and show the world his defiance," Anderson says. It's understandable that Bush might want to muzzle the press in this way; it's alarming that the media would agree.

"The American people have a right to know everything they can possibly get their hands on and their government has a responsibility to give it to them, and if they don't, the press has the obligation to get it," Anderson says. "This will be a war of secrecy and silence and stealth and dirty work, and the public needs to know just how dirty it is and to be able to determine the competency of its leaders and how its money is being spent to wage war."

And that can only happen if this country has networks and newspapers unafraid to ask the tough questions, challenge pre-packaged news scraps, demand greater access and, when called for, rely on their own analysis of facts and trends to swim against the tide of apparent consensus that surely will hold that the U.S. is courageously winning a righteous war against evil.

But the U.S. media hasn't had a good track record of late in covering war.

American journalism stakes its credibility on objectivity and impartiality, but that approach brings constraints of its own, says Robert McChesney, a prominent media critic and author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy.

Because the networks want to showcase the most informed sources about an issue as important as war, they rely on official government sources and, for expert commentary, inevitably trot out a rotating roster of retired generals and former bureaucrats, all of which produces a homogeneity of information and opinion filtering through to the public, McChesney says.

This effect was particularly apparent in the days following Sept. 11, he says, as the idea that America had been victim to "an act of war" became engraved in the public consciousness through sheer repetition by Bush and other elected officials who were quoted without challenge. Meanwhile, the networks were busy finding inspirational stories among the debris.

"There was no real discussion over whether the attack was a crime or an act of war that required military response against another nation," he explains. "The way journalists come into a situation should be with skepticism because of historical precedent. In nearly every American military action of the 20th century, the government lied to the public to build support for war."

"The restrictions and requests from the White House for further restrictions are the kind of actions that have happened in the past," says Ben Bagdikian, media critic and former dean of the graduate school of journalism, University of California, Berkeley. "The experience has always been the same: During hostilities or emergency, restrictions on the media have always resulted in the public receiving a twisted view of the events.

"The Gulf War was a prime example. Correspondents on the American side of operations were sequestered and received only what the authorities gave them. The result was exclusively military reports of the attacks in Iraq and the public was given the impression of a bloodless, high-tech war with no significant civilian casualties or errors and failures in U.S. armament or civilian casualties. As a result, we still suffer from an inadequate understanding of the results of the Gulf War. In the meantime, other nations' correspondents reported more accurately what was going on, but relatively few Americans monitor [British, French or Arab] media."

Danny Schechter, executive editor of mediachannel.org and a former CNN producer, attributes shortcomings in our war coverage to some of the obvious limitations ("No journalists want to be accused of being unpatriotic," he says.) and a few more insidiously venal reasons. For instance, he says, nearly all U.S. news outlets have slashed their international coverage and closed foreign bureaus, citing flagging interest by stateside viewers and, predictably, low ratings.

"In an era of globalization and interdependence -- when the collapse of two buildings can put the world economy in a tailspin -- we need more coverage of global news, not less," he says.

Much worse, Schechter contends, is an effort by U.S. networks to march in lockstep with the administration because they hope the FCC decides to grant their petition to loosen restrictions on media monopolies, allowing the giant broadcasting conglomerates to buy up more local TV stations.

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