The Government vs. the Press in Times of War

                                                                    Brown U. Lecture         by  Michael Hammerschlag

 AUDIO  (Realplayer)- 30min        Dec 13, 2004    Salomon Hall


Tensions between the government and the press are as old as the first leader and first storyteller; never more than in times of war. The press wants to tell the stories: good and bad, but the military wants to tell only one story: WE ARE WINNING, we are winning big, and we are on the side of the angels. Bad news can depress morale, erase confidence, and dissolve the will for action. Good news can give inspiration, but can also cause blind mistakes or arrogant overreaching, especially if false. It’s a pure power struggle, one the US military used to feel better losing, because their rationale for fighting is to defend freedom, including that of the press. Besides telling people what we are doing militarily and whether we should be, actual battle reports can illuminate or prevent blunders by providing clear objective viewpoints, when everyone else is only protecting themselves. The authoritarian structure of the military, the pressure to win and to appear to be winning, and the murky confusion of war brutalize the truth at every turn. Had the press been more enterprising, the disastrous WW2 Anzio to Rome delays, the turning over of big chunks of Czechoslovakia and East Germany to the Soviets, the Chinese entrance into the Korean War, the ruinous policy mistakes of Vietnam, and Bush’s wanton war in Iraq might have been averted.


Back in World War 2, reporters were expected to be on the team, and that was easy, faced with the consummate evil of Hitler and Tojo. War correspondents had to be submit all copy to military censors and  watch it be cut to ribbons, disallowed entirely, or delayed weeks.


In fact, the only conflict that didn’t have extensive censorship was Vietnam, and all press restrictions today stem directly from that experience. The blanket power and freedom of the press in Vietnam was an aberration that will never happen again. Reporters could go anywhere, see anything, talk to anybody. Television was a major new force in American life and the military accepted it as an ally, naively assuming it would display the courage and moral rectitude of what started out a noble struggle, although all wars are singularly ugly affairs. Because the enemy was virtually invisible, the pictures transmitted were of our wounded, our dead, and our corrosive effects on the Vietnamese society. It was a murky amorphous war, not given to the headline abbreviation that TV demands, so human interest stories about the miserable plight of the GI’s predominated. Newsman were a touch of home, of “the world” in an alien and hostile place and soldiers loved having them around, in part to imbue them with the soldier’s hatred of the war so they would go back and report what was really happening. Reinforced by reporters own observations, that hatred was infused in them. But rather than reporters confronting stupid or monstrous policies directly (defoliation, free-fire zones, resettlement, sweep and abandon), which was prohibited by bosses in New York, their stories became more and more downbeat, with a bitter narration that conveyed the hopelessness and brutality of the war.


Then came the TET Offensive in Jan-April 68: an explosive uprising in a war that President Johnson and the generals had said was under control; was being won. 80 cities were attacked by the Vietcong; the Imperial city of Hue was invaded and held for a month, VietCong blasted their way inside the US Embassy grounds and fought all over Saigon, and the remote firebase of Khe Sanh was besieged  for a terrible 77 days by 30,000-50,000 North Vietnamese Army regulars. A few thousand Marines held off an army for 2 ½ months, aided by staggering amounts of bombing, on TV every night. In Hue, the beautiful city was destroyed, shattered, like Fallujah, by savage street to street fighting, and 6000 people were found to have been executed or removed by NVA hit squads. The command staff of General Westmoreland had to grab weapons and defend against a major attack on Tan Son Nhut airbase. The shock to America was immense: this war was unwinnable, hopeless; every one of Johnson’s advisors agreed.


But Tet was probably the greatest American victory in the war. Everywhere the Viet Cong and NVA appeared they were slaughtered, 45,000- they had violated the first rule of insurgency- don’t come out in the open, just hit and run. They thought the South Vietnamese would come out and support them, but the South had no interest in submitting to the brutal fanatical revolutionaries. The Viet Cong were so decimated, they were unable to mount attacks in cities until 1973. But these facts were never made clear by the press, overwhelmed by the stunning images of death and destruction, of Americans holed up like rats and fighting for their lives, of an enemy able to operate anywhere. America’s will to fight was broken in Tet; after it, Johnson, Nixon, and almost every General just wanted to get out. Then Walter Cronkite weighed in: “We are mired in stalemate.”  Johnson quit. All the North had to do was wait.


And so the mantra began: THE PRESS LOST VIETNAM, The Media Lost Vietnam, and truthfully, there is a grain of truth there. It’s conceivable, if the Tet offensive had barely been covered on TV, and the staggering losses of the Communists emphasized, and American support continued… that Vietnam might have settled down to a Korea-like partition, with hostilities tapering off to a state of sporadic terrorism. History is not immutable. But to every military man, and everyone trained in service schools: The Press Lost Vietnam and they were determined that it would never ever happen again. The media would be controlled, restricted, constrained, shackled. It was to be managed.


Controlling the flow of information has always been a powerful weapon in the arsenal of war: it’s called propaganda: if properly applied one can almost win without fighting,. The first test of this technique was by the British in the ’82 Falklands War with Argentina. They only allowed 17 journalists on a 40 ship task force and only let 2 English reporters use the transmitter for pitifully abridged stories. Although the British were outnumbered 150 to 35 by much faster planes that had twice the striking radius and were sitting on highly vulnerable ships to anti-ship missiles, they projected an air of cool determination and overwhelming power; of slowly, inexorably, tightening the screws.. which was dutifully reported ad nauseam in the American press, until it was common knowledge that the British were going to thrash the Argentines. British naval superiority was repeatedly stressed, although since Midway, battles are fought between planes and ships, not ships and ships… and the Argies had a big advantage in planes. In reality, if the Argentines had sunk any one of 4 troopships and carriers, the invasion would have been crippled. With only 5 Exocet missiles, they sank 2 ships- if they had had 20 Exocets they would have crushed the British. False reports that British nuclear submarines were in the vicinity caused the Argies to never even send out their subs. The Argentinean pilots fought bravely, suicidally in the face of lethal missiles, dive-bombing supposedly untouchable ships- but almost all their bombs failed to explode. The British were incredibly lucky. But by the time of the invasion, the 12,000 Argentines were so demoralized by the propaganda and being cut off from resupply that they almost gave up without a fight..


The lack of on-scene reports contributed to a general shoddiness of reporting across the board: the Argentinean aircraft advantage was never brought out in any analysis; only the British line was repeated by an American press that was fully participating in the propaganda war. Choking the media,   worked.


The next test came immediately: the 82 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Severe press restrictions prevented most stories of the systematic destruction Tyre, Sidon, and West Beirut by shelling in the 3 month siege. The Israelis killed some 30,000 Lebanese to drive out 6000 PLO members in a war of their own making, but the stories that cleared military censors were Israeli’s mourning their 400 odd dead.


The next year, the flash invasion of Grenada, a day after the tragic bombing of 241 Marines in Beirut, happened with no press along. When a CBS crew tried to fly in on the 3rd or 4th day, they were buzzed by Navy fighters, and turned around. It was far easier to rally a wounded country with pictures of victorious heros on patrol, rather than the dead patients of a bombed out mental hospital. Without media, there’s no one to report the costly and tragic blunders, so they can be avoided, or so those responsible pay the price. In Grenada, the Army, Navy, Special Forces couldn’t talk to each other because their radios were on different frequencies, and they worked off tourist maps. The medical students that were the ostensible reason for the invasion weren’t found for 4 days, while 800 Cuban and workman and 1200 Grenadan soldiers held off 7,000 American troops. Leader of Grenada Invasion: Norman Schwartzkopf.


As far as the wars of our enemies go, they might as well not exist. Up to a million perished in the WW1 like trenches of the Iran-Iraq War and we were quite content to let them annihilate each other in private. Apart from a few fuzzy shots of mujahadin blowing up transmission towers, the Soviet-Afghan war also barely covered, though up to 1.3 million of the 16 million were killed and 4 ½ million made refugees.


In 1989, George Bush 1 decided to remove the thuggish Noriega by a lightning airborne invasion of Panama, in the first Bush war to remove a rogue CIA asset. Official reports say about 500 Panamanians were killed but other reports have 2000-4000 dying. I remember only a couple of TV news reports. Unreported was the massive blaze that consumed the Noriega stronghold slum area of Panama City and made tens of thousands homeless. By now the pattern was set: let a few domesticated reporters in only after the fact. But showing the aftermath of battles is inherently dishonest and dangerously seductive. Reporters had incredible freedom in Vietnam because they established it early and never relinquished it.


By the time the 91 Gulf War started, the press was a broken dog, to be kept chained at a Bahrain briefing room and tossed scraps of gee-whiz video of missiles flying in windows and the almost useless Patriot scoring one of its few kills. The image of brilliant skill and tech wizardry was duly conveyed to the viewing public, backed up by the awesome 100 hour speed of the war. Our weapons could do no wrong, it seemed, but the vast majority were dumb bombs, and the Patriot was better at shooting down our own planes than incoming Scuds. Nobody reported the 91% failure rate till years later.  True journalists defied their internment and commandeered jeeps with satellite dishes and phone, and tried to make their way to an impossibly fast moving battlefield. For his gonzo efforts, CBS’s Bob Simon was captured and tortured by the Iraqis for 5 weeks. With only 200-300 fatalities against 30,000-80,000 Iraqi, the US military was ecstatic: excluding the press entirely precluded blown operations and led to an almost perfect success


Incredibly, no ground level TV images of the Highway of Death out of Baghdad were ever shown, where tens of thousands were immolated in an aerial shooting gallery . When asked how many Iraqi fatalities there were, Colin Powell famously said, “I have no interest in that number.” WHAT??? Of course Armies have an interest in that number- that’s how they know if they’re winning. Another page of democracy torn from the book- now we would kill tens or hundreds of thousands and it would be kept secret from the American people. This goes back to Vietnam too, where the emphasis on body count encouraged indiscriminate killing, and the overrated teflon Powell was a direct superior in the My Lai massacre. In the current war, we aren’t told the number of actual invasion deaths- only civilians have been informally totaled, but my guestimate was 30-40,000, since US spokesmen claimed 2 or 3 times to have reduced a division, which means they killed 6000-8000 each time. With the deaths from the insurgents’ terror and battles for Fallujah and Sadr City- a British estimate of 100,000 total fatalities sounds about 10-20,000 high. Let me tell you- we have an absolute right to get these official numbers, and the media should scream until they’re revealed. Even the official total of 1300 odd is deceptive, it doesn’t count the thousand Americans killed by friendly fire, accidents, disease, suicide in Iraq.


Now we come to this war, but first we have to talk about what happened to the press in the 90’s, as the right wing surged and overwhelmed all other factions. The jihad against Bill Clinton, funded by millions of extreme right money, started in ’93, with the destruction of his health care program, which the vast majority of Americans wanted and even Repubs had supported. Talk radio, in the bloviated form of Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Oliver North, Michael Reagan dispensed dozens of hours a week of raw brutal Repub propaganda, attacking and ridiculing Dems with manifest untruths across the 1200 station Clear Channel network. In 1994, the payoff came in the takeover of both houses of Congress by the Repubs. Reporters tilted father and farther right to maintain access to the Repubs reps and get on the conservative talk radio and TV networks and the Repub owned and operated Fox News . Dems had no such platform. Although a Repub law firm had written a 2 book ’97 report on Whitewater and concluded that the Clintons did nothing wrong,  there were thousands of stories about the “scandal”. A brain tumor addled Jim McDougal had traded the Clinton’s $400,000 stake for a $40,000 plane. In an Alice in Wonderland scenario, prurient Ken Starr used an army of agents to rip apart administration lives, all to investigate a minor sexual peccadillo so common that 2 Repub Speakers in a row had to resign for it, and the President of the United States was impeached and tried by an extremist Congress. Every reporter should be forced at gunpoint to read Joe Conason’s “The Hunting of the President”.  


The contempt for Clinton was transferred seamlessly to Al Gore in 2000 by the press pool. For a year, they painted squeaky clean boy scout Al Gore as a liar, trumpeting minor transgressions into major perfidy, until almost every story had to “prove” it, instead of reporting the facts. A Baltimore Sun commentary accused Gore of lying because he claimed a rally “was the biggest”. Al Gore’s reluctance to cozy up to the press wasn’t seen in light of his exposure to the 6 year Clinton witchhunt and the radioactive right-wing hatreds that fueled it. No, mild-mannered dryly witty Al was cold. Also known as the echo chamber, the pack phenomenon had top paper reporters changing Gore quotes on the front page just to prove he was a liar. George Bush 2 received no such scrutiny, although his misstatements were multiple, ignorance profound, and experience negligible. Though Gore won by 540,000 votes, the media mavens never presented it as a moral claim to victory- never presented it at all- the number never publicly went over 330,000, and 3 incredible outrages of Florida vote theft simply weren’t reported- the public was tired of the story.


When the 911 attacks hit, the new President was on the ropes- beset by corporate corruption, piggish tax cuts, Cal. energy extortion scandals. Suddenly, the slate was wiped clean- he was our CIC and we had to support him. After the proper smashing of the Taliban and Al Qaida in Afghanistan, the big lies began. Saddam was linked to Osama and the War on Terrorism… over and over. Saddam had WMD, he had drones, he had centrifuge tubes, he had Nigeran uranium. All lies, all propaganda to justify a reckless lunatic war against Iraq, one every security expert thought “would be the greatest gift to Bin Laden possible”, as CIA’s Michael Scheuer said. The media simply repeated these claims, with admiration that the President was staying “on message”. New York Times bought the word of a single gift-wrapped Iraqi pigeon and trumpeted the proof of WMD across the front page, after which no media venue raised any qualms- the Grey Lady had spoken. In a stunning violation of broadcasting ethics and flex of propaganda muscle, Clear Channel held 20,000 person rallies to support Bush's war in many cities. Doubters were shouted down and intimidated by the yahoo patriot rush to war. 


George Bush wanted to show his father he wasn’t the drunk black sheep he’d been and could finish the job, the neonuts of  The Project for the New American Century wanted to spread the American flag across the Middle East and secure an safe supply of oil, Rummy wanted to practice his smaller faster war, Israeli boosters wanted to stop Saddam’s payoffs to suicide bombers’ families, the corporations saw a gold mine of triple price cost plus contracting, and Karl Rove thought if it does cause a 30 years war, Repubs will maintain power because voters trust Repubs more than Dems in war. Everybody had their reasons.


This time the media was to be controlled in situ, embedded and trapped within American units. There was nothing new about this, except the intentional total identification of the reporter with the aims of his unit, and actually, the way the war was fought allowed little else. Once they were there, no questions about the justifications were allowed to arise. There were no embarrassing questions about the missing Weapons of Mass Destruction- about the plethora of lies that had launched the war… not until 6 months or so after the Mission Accomplished Bush fly-in on an aircraft carrier that had to head out to sea to avoid a San Diego backdrop. The breathtaking criminal incompetence of the occupation was never exposed- just the decision not to stop the post-war looting and secure the weapons dumps probably lost any chance for a positive outcome. Everyone involved with Bush’s spoils of war had to be ideologically pure, a true believer neo-con who had never doubted the peerless leader. The astounding secrecy and brutality of Guantanamo and the entire POW system was allowed to fester for years without a single expose of it. Pathological secrecy has been hallmark of this administration, secrecy of the guilty committing crimes in the dark, and no one has even tried opposing it, even when the secrecy was extended 21 years back to previous President’s records. The coverage of this war has been relentlessly sterile: no bodies, no victims, no close-ups, no civilian deaths; even showing dead American troops provoked a furor- Americans must be sheltered from the ugly realities that might undermine support. Al Jazeria has no such reluctance: the billion or so people that can receive it, see the smashed and shattered bodies every day.


Yet 54 reporters have been killed this year covering wars, some by armies of governments that really see them as the enemy: in Philippines, Russia, Chechnya, Iraq, the West Bank. This is the highest number in 10 years, as the barriers against targeting the media break down. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, Al Jazira offices were bombed and reporters killed. In Baghdad, the reporter filled Palestine hotel was hit by a tank and 2 journalists killed- and there’s incredible footage in the movie about this.


The American press has always been a strange animal, often strong and fearsome, but when chained, quick to degenerate into a whining mob, begging and scratching for every morsel of information or acknowledgement. This is evident in the White House Press Corp, and a war creates the same dynamics. If correspondents allow themselves to be scared off, or limited in their movements, or led around by nose by military PR flaks; the veracity of their reports is totally compromised. The ease with which the press was turned into a propaganda tool in previous wars, and especially this one, was appalling. The corporate press, with few exceptions, lapped up the warm milk that the Administration set out for them and rarely peered around the corner- to the nightmare of 1.4 billion white hot Muslims, enraged at our desecration of the Vatican of the Shiite faith, at our pounding on the heart of the Arab world, and occupation of the cradle of civilization. This war may have shattered American security for the next generation or 2, and George Bush can’t finish the job. The truth is: he never knew what the job was.


War reporting isn’t a particularly attractive or respectable pursuit for a professional, yet as man’s most extreme and destructive behavior, it must be scrupulously observed, if only to shatter the myths of glamour and glory that otherwise arise. In military situations, the press can only get as much authority as it demands, and it must ask the hard questions before, during, and after a war – because those questions save lives and honor that, once lost, can never be regained. As David Brinkley once said, “Any military action is ultimately done in the name of the American people, how are they supposed to be know what they’re supporting if we don’t tell them? And nobody can tell them but us.”


Michael Hammerschlag's commentary and articles ( have appeared in Seattle Times, Providence. Journal, Columbia Journalism Review, Hawaii Advertiser, Capital Times, MediaChannel; and Moscow News, Tribune, Times,  and Guardian. He's been a TV reporter, foreign correspondent, and produced documentaries. He reported on the media savaging of Howard Dean, and had the first big scoop on all the media mistakes on Election Night 2000.