I’ve believed for some time those two words represent the most challenging part of SPJ’s Code of Ethics. So while this column is about access to information, it’s also about being accountable.
I also write this now because, by the time you read these words, America might be at war on a new front – Iraq. I’m not sure how much of that war will be made available to Americans through the news media. Perhaps we as journalists will learn only what the U.S. military allows us to learn. Perhaps we will relay information from foreign media, even outlets controlled by our enemies. Perhaps enterprising and courageous journalists will be able to report independently from the war zone at great personal risk.
Regardless of what is printed or broadcast, I anticipate that journalists will be asked questions about our coverage during wartime. Our actions will be compared to those in wartimes past. Depending on what we write, our loyalty and patriotism as Americans might even be challenged.
In all of those cases, we should be ready with answers, even if those answers place us in uncomfortable positions.
That said, let me take you back to the SPJ national convention in Fort Worth in September and, specifically, to the Project Watchdog session titled “The First Amendment in A Time of War.” The session was organized by a friend and fellow committee chair, Nerissa Young.
On the eve of the program, a fellow panelist asked me what the heck we would be talking about in the forum. I confessed that I didn’t know specifics but assumed we’d talk about what happens to freedom of speech when the country is at war. Things such as public pressure to quash speech or other expressions considered unpatriotic or unsupportive of the military and national leadership.
For myself, I had not prepared extensively for this panel (first mistake!), but I had planned to recall the sedition laws passed during the first World War and offer them as a reminder that, in the past, war fever and paranoia have temporarily trumped First Amendment guarantees of free expression.
What I didn’t expect (also my fault) was that the discussion would center almost exclusively on the reporting of military information in general and the media’s responsibility to protect the safety and security of American troops in particular.
One panelist described stories on the post-Sept. 11 departure of warships from American bases and on entire communities of military wives who were coping as single parents because their husbands had been shipped off to points officially unknown but easily surmised.
The premise was that such reporting allows hostile forces to know in advance that certain battle units or certain ships are now in play, thus exposing elements of our armed forces to danger.
When my turn came to speak, I expressed my belief – still held – that such reporting is legitimate. In a military community, whether surrounding a naval base, air station or army fort, it’s common knowledge when the unit is shipping out. It may, in fact, be the biggest and most widely known news in the community. Are local media supposed to ignore it and pretend it’s not happening for fear that word will get beyond the city limits?
Then came the moment that has left me troubled these few weeks. The question to me: Well, then, would I report that American troops were massing in southern England in June 1944?
My answer: By itself, that fact would be suitable for publication/broadcast. After all, I said, wasn’t it already something of an open secret?
The response: Hadn’t I heard about the greatest deception in the history of warfare? A little thing called “D-day”? (Translation: “Are you an idiot? You’d tell the Nazis what we were doing?”)
In retrospect, I had a number of potential responses. I could have examined the original premise of “troops massing in southern England.” By itself, that phrase contains nothing about the number of troops, precise locations, amount of support materiel (planes, ships, etc.) or whether the force is offensive or defensive. It also says nothing about whether the information has been officially released or was obtained from non-official sources. In short, it actually says very little.
I could have said that comparing the information technology, the capabilities of journalists, or the status of military censorship in 1944 to modern times is irrelevant. Things have simply changed too much.
I could have tried to steer the discussion in another direction, noting that the discussion of military secrecy was off-point from the topic of free expression and threat of government retribution for “unpatriotic” speech.
I could have invoked elements of SPJ’s Code of Ethics and spoken of the need to minimize harm.
I could have simply said “no” then asked if there had ever been a case in which an American media outlet had caused harm to American troops by relaying battle plans or tactical movements.
It’s possible that, had I done any of those things, I would have remained in uncomfortable territory, cornered by an opponent with more detailed knowledge and superior debating tactics.
So I decided to cut my losses and not dig myself in any deeper. I kept quiet, muted by my own self-doubt and the fear of being perceived in the wrong in the face of others’ strongly held beliefs.
I do not consider myself ignorant of history, although neither do I think of myself as an expert. Also, when considering events of almost 60 years ago, I have the benefit of hindsight; I know more about the events of June 1944 than Americans did at the time.
But how much more? What was the media telling Americans about their boys in England? And how did the news of that day compare to, say, what Americans heard leading up to Operation Desert Storm? Or what they are hearing today about American forces in the war on terror?
My question led me to my local library’s repository of newspapers from May and early June 1944. During those weeks, the front pages of the Daily Missoulian were chock-full of Associated Press dispatches from Italy, New Guinea and European strategic bomber bases, as well as news of local soldiers listed as missing or killed in action.
On those same front pages I read references to “troop-jammed Britain,” including one description of the entire island as “an armed camp” where “huge stockpiles of equipment and vast concentrations of men have been centered in British invasion bases.”
Time and time again I read about the impending invasion “when British, American and Canadian forces swarm across the beaches to batter at German defenses.” One story quoted Franklin Roosevelt hinting at things to come. Another quoted the British chief of naval intelligence speaking of “a great amphibious expedition,” what another story called “General Eisenhower’s cross-channel blow.”
I saw a photo of Allied planes flying in formation over a British base with the bold caption, “Design for ‘D’ Day.”
I even read a June 4 story in which the AP recounted how a young London keypunch operator mistakenly sent a “flash” that the invasion of the French coast had begun, causing announcers at American radio stations and baseball parks to deliver the startling news, only to have to take it back minutes later.
I also was intrigued to see how often news and speculation regarding the impending invasion came from German sources. In fact, the first reports of the June 6 invasion came from German radio. Allied commanders did not confirm it until three hours later.
I still regret not being better prepared for the September forum. But I feel better having looked at those old stories. I know now that my instincts were right, even if I didn’t have the detailed factual backing at the time to make a more effective argument.
I’m also trying to learn more so I can be more adept at placing the relationship between military and media in proper historical context. I already have concluded that strategic and tactical secrecy often includes letting enough information out through the news media to quench the public’s immediate thirst for war news (especially hopeful news) and to sow seeds of worry and doubt among the enemy, without jeopardizing American lives. I’m more convinced than ever that one reason we saw so much network news coverage onboard ships and among soldiers during Operation Desert Shield was to convey the sense of overwhelming and superior force to Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi Army in Kuwait.
I also have learned that there is nothing new in reporting news from the enemy’s point of view. Seen in historical context, Al-Jazeera’s newscasts in 2002 or CNN’s reports of Iraqi posturing from Baghdad in 1991 don’t seem so different from the AP relaying German radio reports in 1944.
It is true that with the advent of cell phones, laptops, videophones and satellite uplinks, information can be sent out immediately from anywhere. It may also be true that, as one of my fellow September panelists said, traditional forms of censorship by the military simply don’t work anymore, even among its own troops. And it may be true, as has been alleged, that many American reporters covering the military aren’t well prepared for the task.
In the end, the challenge of maintaining necessary secrecy and national security in this unique time of conflict and media saturation will be solved at a level far removed from my humble reporter’s desk in Montana. But if I’m questioned again about the First Amendment in this time of war, I plan to be better prepared. And accountable.
Ian Marquand is special projects coordinator for the Montana Television Network. He is chairman of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee. Contact him at email@example.com