My first reaction to the assignment of writing about the lingering effects of Cold War self-censorship is to redefine the subject. If self-censorship means restraint, self-imposed or accepted by an individual journalist, I would consider that this is today only a negligible part of a broader problem of restraints on public enlightenment about the outside world imposed by profit-oriented media conglomerates,which generally find foreign news unprofitable. (Notice how today one speaks less of “the press” and more of the media,” a somehow less respectable word, and how “news” has joined entertainment, sports and stock quotations as generalized “information,” fellow travelers on the information highway.)
More serious also, as a form of censorship, is the -way the public, drugged by entertainment and notorious court trials, is hardly aware that it is no longer aware of the clash of peoples and clash of interests happening in large parts of the world. As Calvin Trill in expressed it in a 1991 poem in The Nation, “whatever happened to Cyprus? So what’s with the Greeks and Turks?” The poem ends “Are all these getting along now? Or killing each other in private?”
Let me recall a time when censorship, and self-censorship, were not negative concepts. In the Normandy landings in June 1944 the late great Charles Collingwood of CBS was one of a handful of correspondents who landed on the beachhead. Equipped with a heavy battery backpack, Charles was able to broadcast live, transmitting to a Navy ship offshore, which boosted the signal and relayed it to London, from where it went by squawky shortwave to New York and out over the network nationwide. Collingwood described ad lib what he could see, carefully avoiding pinpointing American positions, as he had been briefed. Without much overview of the invasion and running out of material, he saw a Navy officer approaching and said, “Commander, I’m Charles Collingwood of CBS News. Do you have any word of how the invasion is going?” Live on the air, the man in Navy uniform replied, “Beats the shit out of me, Charlie. I’m the NBC correspondent.”
CITIZENS OF THE WORLD OR AMERICANS?
I think that Americans are very disturbed when journalists report on foreign affairs as if they were citizens of the world rather than citizens of America. At least if they are in networks that are considered American. It’s a subtle thing. I don’t think that means that you can’t criticize America, but the assumption that when America’s safety and security is threatened, or Americans are endangered abroad, that we all come together as a people. I think that part of the dissatisfaction with journalism is a carrying of impartiality beyond the bounds of reasonableness or what’s necessary to get the story.
—Maggie Gallagher, Columnist, Universal Press Syndicate, at the December 4, 1997 forum of the Committee of Concerned Journalists in New York.The point of the story is that Collingwood in Army uniform with captain’s bars, and the NBC man, in Navy uniform with lieutenant commander’s stripes, thought it quite normal to be identified with the armed forces. And quite normal to broadcast from a battle scene without going through censorship because everybody was on the same side, and a war correspondent supported what was called, in those days, “the war effort.”
Censorship, and self-censorship, had general support because the war had general support. Fast forward to the Vietnam war, when American authority and the American press found themselves no longer on the same side, in part because Americans were not all on
the same side. American journalists came to believe they were being lied to and that the Saigon briefings, called “the five o’clock follies,” were just that.
Out of the painful perception that their government could lie to them, and perhaps to itself, came a breed of watchdog journalists like David Halberstam, Seymour Hersh, Stanley Karnow and Peter Arnett. Wars have a way of creating a class of journalists affected by the nature of the war they have covered. And so if World War II gave us a class of journalists with a clear idea of right and wrong and a willingness to accept their government at face value, so the Vietnam war, especially in combination with Watergate, gave us a class of journalists disillusioned with government and dubious about right and wrong.
Vietnam gave us also the birth of the “living room war,” the televised war that would one day make the camera and satellite a lot more important than the reporter. The “living room war” started quite modestly with 16-mm black-and-white film that had to be shipped by airplane, processed and edited for broadcast. The built-in delay allowed time for Pentagon pressures on networks to kill or dilute stories considered likely to diminish public support for the war. So CBS News did, in fact, consider censoring the pictorial evidence of marines setting fire to an unoffending village with their Zippo lighters. (I am happy to report that CBS, after some soul-searching, went with the story.)
What also came out of that war was the deeply felt conviction of military professionals that the American press had given aid and comfort to the enemy—and perhaps had become the enemy. When the Reagan administration neglected to include press coverage in its plans for the invasion of the island of Grenada in 1983, a Pentagon colonel, veteran of Vietnam, responded to my complaint by saying “Okay, Schorr, next time we invade an island, the press will be in the first wave. Only the press!”
The attitude of the military is that its function is to fight wars and that anything that interferes with the fighting of the war is basically adversarial. Having seen what pictures and stories from Vietnam did to undermine enthusiasm for that war, the military could fairly conclude that the less the American public sees of a war. the better. It may well be that if America could see a war with all its horrors, it would not support any but a war on its own soil.
The military was determined, in 1991, that the public would see the Gulf War the way the military wanted it seen, and it largely succeeded. It erected an elaborate structure of press control, not trusting to self-censorship, but rather keeping reporters constantly escorted and under surveillance. The military’s task was facilitated by the fact that most of the war was an air war, to be reported mainly from what the Air Force was willing to show. It was,for all the public knew, a war of wondrously accurate “smart bombs” that knocked out facilities but never seemed to hit people.
Once the ground war had started, efforts were made to break out of censorship. Bob Simon of CBS wandered off to try to find out what was happening in southern Iraq and was captured by the Iraqis. Would-be watchdogs were, for the most part, effectively prevented from doing independent watching. So effective was the manipulation apparatus the Pentagon had assembled that when news organizations filed protests against undue censorship, opinion polls indicated that the public, by crushing majorities, favored more rigid censorship. The idea of the nosy press endangering American lives for fun and profit had been well sold.
As a result, the American public was left with a homogenized version of the Gulf War. Edited tape from airplane cameras showed smart bombs doing smart things—not dumb bombs doing dumb things. Much later you might see a story in the print saying that only seven percent of the bombs had hit their objectives. But factual reality does not overcome the impression left by all those hairlines on the target and the bomb going right down the elevator shaft.
If the press learned anything from the Gulf War it was that coping with the management of news represents one of its greatest challenges. Fortunately, technology is providing a new kind of watchdog. The end of the Gulf War brought us a harbinger of what is to come. An ABC camera crew of seven with Forrest Sawyer and a CBS crew with Bob McKeowan entered Kuwait before the liberating troops and projected live pictures back to the United States. The feat took four trucks, a ton of equipment, and a portable satellite dish. Barrie Dunsmore, who studied the “Live from the Battlefield” phenomenon for Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center, wrote that in the next war equipment needs will be reduced to a hundred pounds, operated by a two-person team.
There is little doubt that in the next conflict involving substantial American forces, and therefore attracting the attention of American television, the censors will be at some disadvantage trying to ride herd on these tiny mobile transmitting stations ready to bring the war home live and in living color—the culmination of the “living room war.”
And since global television will bring the battlefield scenes to the enemy, new ground rules will have to be negotiated between the military and the media to guard the security oft he American forces. One way or another, combat journalism will become less a matter of the watchdog reporter and more a technological matter of the watching eye. And, to the extent that censorship “will no longer be easily enforceable, mutually agreeable restraints will have to be negotiated.
For the old-fashioned watchdog journalist, dealing in words rather than pictures, factual reality rather than virtual reality, the work starts after the war is over. That is when we learn about the smart bombs that were not so smart, the Patriot anti-missile missiles that did so poorly, the sickness that soldiers brought home and the Pentagon dissembled about.
I have said that press-government relations were at their most amicable during World War II when there was general consensus on war aims and general trust in the word of our leaders. To a somewhat lesser extent that comity continued into the Cold War. The division of the world into two hostile blocs served as an organizing principle for government policy and for the press as well.
It Was Different Then
If President Truman said that the Soviets would penetrate Western Europe unless America supported the Marshall Plan and the rearmament of Germany, he was generally believed. If President Kennedy said he had to risk nuclear war to get Soviet missiles out of Cuba, there were few who disputed him. If proxy wars had to be fought from Angola to Nicaragua, they were, in President Reagan’s words, to support “freedom fighters” against Communist subjugation. And, even if missiles were traded with Iran for hostages in Lebanon, it was ostensibly out of fear of Soviet encroachment in Iran, or so President Reagan said. And it was the rare journalist who at the height of the Cold War would delve into CIA conspiracies justified as being part of the life-and-death struggle with the “evil empire.”
The Cold War is over. The Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union have fallen, and so have the scales from our eyes. Historians and journalists are having a belated field day with presidential tapes and documents exposing aberrations like assassination plots, break-ins on American citizens, surveillance and wiretaps on opponents—all originally justified, in one way or another, as necessary to grapple with the “evil empire.”
In the post-Cold War world neither government nor the press has any unifying theme of how to view the world— or as much of it as bottom-line media barons will permit to be viewed at all. Without a guidepost, coverage has taken on a certain random quality. Famine in Ethiopia became an American concern almost by happenstance. In 1989 NBC, almost as an afterthought, ran a vivid story of starvation produced by the BBC. A wave of compassion swept America.
Hunger in Somalia became an issue for Americans because cameras were there. So did Rwanda. Sudan, without cameras, never quite made it onto our screens or into our hearts. Heart-rending pictures from Somalia caused the Bush administration to send troops to help. Pictures of an American airman’s body being dragged through the street caused American troops to be pulled out. It was as though random pictures were producing random reactions.
“The end of the Cold War was a liberation,” says Andrew Graham Yooli, former Editor of the London-based Index on Censorship, but “it is not yet clear how journalists can best use that new freedom.”
Television’s “CNN effect” or “global village” is a different kind of journalism—perhaps not really journalism so much as the opening of windows to admit the clamor of events into the halls of state and homes of citizens simultaneously. For government—even a superpower government—it can be quite disconcerting to have to react without time to deliberate and formulate policy.
On August 13,1961, a Sunday, Communist East Germany sprang a surprise in the middle of the night—it closed the border between East and West Berlin preliminary to building a wall. With an early morning start, my cameraman and I were able to cover the story, ship the film via Frankfurt to New York just in time to make the late news at 11 p.m. This was the first time a story filmed in Europe had gotten on the air on the same calendar day, although, in fact, almost 24 hours had elapsed.
Yet President Kennedy told associates that he wished he had more time for policy formulation before having to react to Americans who were seeing the despairing faces of Berliners, cut off from friends and relatives in a suddenly bisected city. And that was before the satellite, which reduced the time for reflection from hours to minutes, forcing the government to react not to the event, but to television.
I have made a comprehensive study of one particularly vivid chapter in government-media relations—the way the Bush administration reacted to Saddam Hussein’s assault on the Kurdish minority after his defeat in the Kuwait war in 1991.
On February 15, President Bush called on the “Iraqi military and the Iraqi people” to rise up against Saddam Hussein. Twelve days later, the President ordered an abrupt cessation of hostilities, leaving the Iraqi dictator with enough armor and aircraft to put down Shiite and Kurdish uprisings. 1he Bush administration indicated that it had no intention of getting involved in a “Vietnam-style quagmire, and that the American public wanted their troops home as fast as possible.
William Safire wrote in The New York Times of “a failure of nerve,” but White House Chief of Staff John Sununu told Newsweek that “a hundred Safires will not change the public’s mind. There is no downside to our policy.”
Kurds on Television
By the end of March, helicopter gunships had killed hundreds of Kurds and hundreds and thousands were fleeing across the rugged mountains into Turkey—where their desperate plight could be seen on television. The portraits of agony were almost overwhelming. A little girl, her feet sinking into the freezing mud. The anguished face of a child on the cover of Newsweek, with the caption addressed to Bush, “Why won’t he help us?”
For a while the quagmire-shunning Bush administration continued concentrating on a formal cease-fire to speed the return of American troops. On April 2, filmed on a Florida golf course, in strange juxtaposition with scenes of shivering refugees, Bush said, “1 feel no reason to answer anybody. We’re relaxing here.”
Then Bush’s tone began to shift.
April 3: “I call on Iraq’s leaders to halt these attacks immediately.”
April 4: “We will do what we can to help the Kurdish refugees.” An Associated Press photo showed a mother comforting her 10-year-old child who had lost a hand and an eye in a helicopter attack.
April 5: “We will do what we can to help there without being bogged down into a ground force action.” The Air Force began dropping bales of supplies—some of which fell on Kurds and killed them.
April 8: Secretary of State James Baker heard from the European Community, at a meeting in Luxembourg, of growing concern about the fate of the Kurds. He flew off for a symbolic visit to the Turkish-Iraqi border. The seven-minute photo opportunity produced an unplanned moment. One of the desperate Kurds said on camera, in English, “Please Mr. Baker, I want to talk to you. You have got to do something to help us.”
April 12: In a stunning change of course, the Bush administration announced that American troops would return to Iraq for a relief operation called “Provide Comfort.” The President’s post-victory approval rating of 92 percent had dropped to 78 percent.
April 16: At a news conference. Bush said, “No one can see the pictures nor hear the accounts of this human suffering—men, women, and most painfully of all, innocent children—and not be deeply moved.”
Military victory over Iraq was threatening to turn into moral—and political—defeat. The polls that had shown Americans wanting their troops home in a hurry now showed that Americans did not want the Kurds abandoned— even if that meant using American troops to protect them.
A most dramatic turnabout, and what did it? The press? Not in any conventional sense. The Bush administration had indicated its willingness to ignore the criticism of Safire and others in the printed press. It was also willing to ignore the criticism of radio and television commentators. What the administration could not withstand were, as Bush mentioned, “the pictures.”
How does watchdog journalism survive in an era where media events replace stories and analyses, where parachuted stars replace permanent foreign bureaus (CBS no longer has a State Department correspondent), where media tycoons shrink the amount of air time available for international news other than Princess Diana’s death?
First, those journalists who survive the process (where are the new Ed Murrows and John Chancellors and Howard Smiths to come from?) must continue to insist on the need to explain the challenges of the post-Cold War era—the challenges of terrorism., abuse of human rights, a deteriorating environment.
Second, we need to try to re-establish a civil working relationship with constituted authority. We must persuade our leaders that we will not plague them with trivial pursuits of scandal if they will try not to lie to us. Between press and government, we are badly in need of a restored assumption of regularity.
Third, investigative journalism must find new arenas. Suffering in distant places, hunger in many places, unattended diseases in too many places are today worthier of journalistic attention than the latest personal failings of an elected official.
Fourth, media empires—including the empire one works for—can no longer be considered immune from journalistic investigation. In 1975 I went on the CBS Evening News to tell about the relations of CBS Chairman William Paley with the C1A.
That did not enhance my position in CBS, but it gave me a lot of personal satisfaction. Today’s reporters—and executive producers—must be on guard against the pressures of their conglomerate parents. To mention only one example, CBS’s 60 Minutes program found itself temporarily blocked from a tobacco expose at a time when Chairman Lawrence Tisch controlled a tobacco company.
Fifth, it may be necessary to redefine our audience. James Hoge, Editor of Foreign Affairs, estimates the “attentive public” for international affairs at four to five million. Public radio and television provide a serious audience, if not a mass audience, for serious journalism. Perhaps the Internet will provide us with a self-selected audience.
This will undoubtedly be called elitism, but it may be that the future of serious journalists is identifying a serious audience and leaving the masses to the mercies of the mass media.
Daniel Schorr, Senior News Analyst for National Public Radio, is the last member of Edward Murrow ‘s legendary CBS News team still active in daily journalism. His half-century career in print journalism, radio and television, overseas and in the United States, has won him many awards. As CBS’s chief Watergate correspondent, he won three Emmy Awards. Investigators found his name on the Nixon “enemies list” and evidence that the President had ordered an FBI investigation of him.