More than ever, a free press

Ouside editorial

Posted: Friday, October 12, 2001

This editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:

President Bush's press conference on Thursday was amiable, if not terribly informative, belying a tension that invariably infuses the relationship between the government and the news media in times of war. Earlier in the day, the FBI had warned local law enforcement agencies to be particularly alert to possible terrorist strikes. Bush said little to assuage the nation's fears. But by holding the first prime-time news conference of his presidency, he was acknowledging, we hope, that it is imperative for citizens of a democracy to be fully informed. Even in wartime. Especially then.

That people must be reminded of this is not surprising because in times of fear and crisis, viewing press freedom as an asset can be counterintuitive. When Americans see Osama bin Laden urging the world's Muslims to slaughter them, they vent anger at the television networks that give him a way to spew his hate. When members of Congress whisper to reporters, the president warns that leaked information could kill American soldiers and clamps down harder still. Such reactions, while natural, are ill-advised.

In 1964, President Johnson misrepresented the facts about North Vietnamese attacks on American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. Had the press been able to ferret out the truth of those incidents sooner, the American public might well have demanded an early change in the course of the disastrous Vietnam War.

The government got even more secretive with the invasions of Panama and Grenada. After the Persian Gulf War, however, journalists worked out an agreement with the military: Press pools were to have the most unrestrained access possible to battlefields.

Now comes what may be the most difficult war to cover in modern history. And already, the Pentagon is delaying mobilization of a press pool, while here at home the Justice Department refuses to release the most basic information about some 650 people arrested on immigration charges since the Sept. 11 atrocities.

No one, of course, wants the press to reveal anything that would help an enemy strike another blow. In fact, the government has always withheld critical intelligence and operational data, and the press has respected secrecy when lives and national security were at stake. Reporters and their bosses know that if they make a mistake that costs American lives, the public's judgment will be harsh. For all the risks a free press poses, stifling the media is more dangerous still. Information is what allows people to make solid decisions.

By the same token, the press seldom does the public a favor by bowing to pressure to self-censor. Bin Laden's videos will be broadcast worldwide regardless of whether U.S. television networks air them, so the administration's warning of possible hidden messages would seem to be moot. And those who call for restrictions based on Bin Laden's overt propaganda underestimate Americans' ability to detect claptrap.

In this war, more than any other in recent history, the distinction between those in the right and those in the wrong is clear. People know this not because the Bush administration tells them but because they have free access to information and have sorted it out for themselves.

No reasonable person could watch Bin Laden's pleas for young men to kill themselves in jihad and see anything but the increasing desperation of a manipulative mass murderer. No one can hear of the Taliban's repression of its own people - including their right to information - and think that it has a legitimate right to rule.

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