Military Censorship of Journalism: World War II — Present

Grenada and the Persian Gulf War

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In contrast to all of the previous American military operations mentioned, the press was “simply excluded” from covering Grenada (Norris, 223)9, with all “correspondents…kept in a hotel on another island” (Dell’Orto, 269). The worry among the press with the onset of the Persian Gulf War, was that it would be, “epistemologically, a large-scale version of Grenada” (Norris, 223). Instead of banning the press completely from affairs in the Gulf, the military enacted the “pool system” of reporting, where small groups of reporters were chosen and monitored closely by the army, and of course, their stories were heavily scrutinized and censored. Cronkite criticized the actions of the military during this war, where independent film coverage was not permitted, and the official coverage was not released, including in his testimony to the Committee on Governmental Affairs on February 20, 1991. “The tape they shot,” Cronkite argues, “should have been sent back to censorship. If it couldn’t be released immediately, at least it would be held for eventual release and for history. We don’t have that history now. That history is lost to us. It’s a crime against the democracy.”3 Not only was certain footage withheld from the public, but men and women interviewed by the press had to be chosen by intelligence officers and commanders, and every article and video subject to government scrutiny. Some reporters doubted anything they had written in the entirety of the war had ever reached the American public (Norris, 230). Part of the journalists’ aggravation stemmed from the “system of conflicting rules and confusing censorship.” Sometimes, a local commander would clear a report as not putting troops in jeopardy, only to have it stopped by a Pentagon official when it reached Washington. Sometimes information that seemed risky to print was allowed to be published, and sometimes seemingly innocuous reports were classified. A 1991 article in the New York Times cites examples of reporters being denied permission to print a story, only to see the Pentagon release the same statement. The article speculates that the government wished to be the first to report the news.6 It is at this point that the clash between the military and the press seems to come to a head. Reporters, given a lack of real information to print, opted to run stories on the information being withheld rather than the information they could infer from the facts they had, stirring up public outrage against military censorship. The Columbia Journalism Review and other publications wrote that the journalists should be heroic, risk their lives and careers and defy the military’s censorship in the interest of the people’s right to know, but it rarely — if ever — occurred. Scholar Margot Norris hypothesizes that the military’s severe censorship during this war stemmed from the desire to maintain the image that the U.S. military was a “technological wizard that can win war without killing, with minimal killing, and with visually and viscerally innocuous killing” (230). This gave rise to statements from generals like that they simply “weren’t getting into that body count business” (NYT 3 Feb 1991) (229). President Bush even enacted a policy where the coffins of American soldiers were not allowed to be photographed by the media.7 Norris argues that censorship of this kind — where the body count and real cost of war was kept from the public — makes war more acceptable and “sanitized” in our modern society (231).

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