Gene Lyons
October 3, 2001

Press Self-Censorship

            If the London newspaper The Observer is correct, the US
 82nd Airborne Division and 101st Air Assault Division will join British
 commandos in a strike deep inside Taliban territory in Afghanistan within
 days. Since the present crisis began, the British press has been far ahead
 of its American counterparts in reporting military developments. The
 Guardian reported US and British special forces teams inside Afghanistan
 six days before USA Today broke the story, explaining that Pakistani
 newspapers had already revealed it.
         English reporters clearly have an advantage in reporting from what
 was a part of the British Empire until just after WWII. But as USA Today's
 implicit apology shows, there's more to it than that. Amid the patriotic
 stampede, American journalists appear reluctant to seek information not
 handed to them by "Pentagon sources" or "high officials" in the Bush White
 House. Nothing in the British reports told Osama bin Laden and the Taliban
 anything they didn't already know. Only American citizens were left out of
 the loop.
       Unless you think democracies make better decisions when they're
 flying blind, that's a potentially dangerous development. No doubt the
 press must exercise restraint in a time of crisis. But Harpers' Magazine
 publisher John R. MacArthur's fine book about press censorship during the
 1990 Gulf War vividly illustrates what can go wrong. It took the Pentagon
 years to admit that many of its expensive "wonder weapons" never worked as
 advertised. As Swift argued 300 years ago, a propagandist's first victim
is  often himself. Surrounded by flatterers and yes-men, generals and
 presidents alike have trouble learning anything new in an echo chamber.
       So far the most blatant self-censorship, however, has involved not
 military secrets but political ones. A press consortium including the New
 York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and CNN has postponed
 indefinitely publishing the results of its long-awaited Florida election
 recount. Its analysis of some 200,000 disputed ballots from the
 presidential election was due out Sept. 17, but Times reporter Richard
Berke explained that the "move might have stoked...partisan tensions" and
 "now seems utterly irrelevant." Translation: No point making George W. Bush
 look smaller at a time Americans want him to stand tall.
        If irrelevant, of course, the report could hardly stoke partisan tensions.
It's been clear for months that more Floridians intended to vote for Gore than Bush.
Exactly how many would be useful to know. The decision probably had less to do
with protecting Bush than insulating the consortium  itself from criticism. Economics
may also have figured. After all, they'd put a terrific amount of money and hard work
into the story. The paradox is that by postponing it, they've set themselves a trap.
Whether Bush rises or sinks in public esteem, the timing of its eventual appearance
can't help but be seen as politically motivated. That said, I'd have postponed it too.
         Bush's most serious problem with the media, however, resides in his own
White House press office. The same team that arrived in Washington spreading
since discredited tales about Clinton staffers trashing Air Force One and vandalizing
the White House can't seem to quit fictionalizing the news. Stung by criticism of the
president's Sept. 11 peregrination to Nebraska, press flak Ari Fleisher told reporters
a thrilling tale about a  telephone threat to Air Force One. Karl Rove repeated the
exciting  narrative to New York Times columnist William Safire, who promptly
imagined an enemy "mole" inside the White House and called for a spy hunt.
        Last week the A.P. reported that the story was false: "administration
officials said they now doubt whether there was actually a call made
threatening the president's plane, Air Force One." It was all a big
misunderstanding, the press office alibied.
        Next Fleisher appeared to threaten a late night TV comic who'd made
a lame attempt at iconoclastic humor. "Politically Incorrect's" Bill Maher
described American bomb and cruise missile attacks as "cowardly"--easier
said from a TV studio than a jet cockpit or the deck of a destroyer.
(Although the Daily Howler produced a list of GOP politicians and pundits
using the same word to describe Clinton administration attacks on Serbia.)
       "Americans...need to watch what they say, watch what they do,"
Fleisher warned "and this is not a time for remarks like that; there never
is." Here in the United States, he should be reminded, citizens have a
constitutional right to make fools of themselves. When the threat failed
to  appear in the White House transcript of Fleisher's statement, the press
office blamed a transcription error. Next, Salon's Jake Tapper reported
that White House aides had phoned NBC News to complain about a Tom
Brokaw interview with Bill Clinton. Naturally, Clinton had urged Americans
to unite behind President Bush.
      If the president's people want him to look big,
it'd definitely help if they quit acting so small.

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