The original conflict journalist faced the same government pressure to not report the truth about war as his modern counterparts.
William Howard Russell was a British journalist for The Times who was commissioned to cover the Crimean War in the mid-1800’s. His dispatches are among the first glimpses into the realities of war to be published and read by the public. Russell’s articles incensed the citizens of Great Britain when they read of the inhumane treatment of soldiers and the horrors of combat. Naturally, the government of Great Britain did not look kindly on what Russell was doing as citizens began to question why their young men were fighting and dying in this war. Both The Times and Russell were vilified for their actions by the government and established society. Journalists have dealt with this resistance from governments at war ever since.
The Vietnam war was the last war in which journalists had free reign to report as they wished. Journalists like Michael Herr, writing for Esquire magazine, and David Halberstam, writing for the New York Times, could go to almost any area in Vietnam and report on what was happening. This included military operations as well as local cities and villages. Frequently these journalists would merely hop on a helicopter going into a combat zone and look for a story. Often no clearance from military personnel was required or sought.
After the Vietnam war, the United States government realized the sweeping effect that news outlets have when they publish photos and stories that show any military action in a negative light. This realization prompted the military to enact a policy of “embedding” reporters with US troops, where the military could tightly control what these reporters saw and reported on.
The following quote is from David Axe’s 2005 book, Military Embeds: the World Tour, where he describes his experience on reporting in war zones with various militaries:
“As the lead military service in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army handles a lot of press and that volume may help explain the service’s lapses. Since 2003, the Army has been playing catch-up to rapidly evolving media, alternately embracing and clamping down on bloggers, for instance, and constantly changing or reinterpreting the ground rules for embeds. One day, a certain tactic or technology is off-limits to reporters; the next, the Army is trumpeting the same weapons and practices as part of some PR strategy.”
The following quote is from a 2003 government commissioned report by Colonel Glen Cunningham on relations between the US armed forces and the media:
“Our best opportunity to garner and sustain national and international support for armed conflict in Iraq is by maintaining a healthy relationship with the media. How well our military performs in this media relations endeavor will directly affect the U.S. and international perceptions of our success in Iraq.”
“Tensions between the media have been present in our society since the Revolutionary War, but may have reached its peak of hostility during the Vietnam War. By the end of this conflict, a greater distrust and suspicion developed between the military and the media. Many in the military claimed that the news media, with its graphic portrayal of the war’s brutality, lost the war for America. Many in the media counter this position by saying it was the military that, by providing falsehoods and propaganda, lost America’s confidence in prosecuting the war any
The report ends with this quotation from Colin Powell, who was a general in 1989 when the US was sending troops into Panama:
“Once you’ve got all the forces moving and everything’s being taken care of by the commander, turn your attention to television because you can win the battle or lose the war if you don’t handle the story right.”
The US government is aware that their image while at war must be tightly controlled and scripted. Governments the world over do this because they need to keep domestic morale as high as possible to sustain their foreign policy agenda. Sometimes though, even the military cannot keep their secrets from the people.
In 2004, reports of detainee abuse at the infamous Baghdad Prison, commonly known as Abu Ghraib, began to surface. Despite the military’s best effort to keep this scandal from the media, news outlets (including 60 Minutes) published stories complete with photos that painted a picture of rampant sadism and torture carried out by US soldiers on US prisoners. The pictures that were smuggled out by the whistleblower, Joe Darby, were appalling and caused an immediate public outcry. The photos that were released represent only a fraction of the pictures that exist. The rest are classified by the Department of Defense (DoD). In 2008, the American Civil Liberties Union successfully sued the DoD for the release of the pictures. However, that decision was overturned by the US Supreme Court on November 2009. The following is a quote from the New York Times article that ran that day:
“The Supreme Court on Monday vacated a lower court ruling that would have required the government to release photographs showing the abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan. The decision was three sentences long and unsigned, and it followed the enactment of a law in October allowing the secretary of defense to block the pictures’ release.”
Essentially the government passed a law that allowed them to keep the photos of detainee abuse a secret. The obvious reason for this was so that the crimes perpetrated by their troops could be suppressed. The partial truth has already gotten out, and now the government is practicing damage control by exercising their legislative authority to keep the extent of the crime hidden. This is one of the more recent and most blatant examples of government censorship.
While there are reporters and photographers who resist news filtering, most are marginalized due to the fringe publications that their work is published in. Reporters from large news outlets are beholden to their editors, who are beholden to profit margins, which are dictated by advertising revenue and therefore corporations, who, like the government, have a vested interest in controlling America’s image. The American public is complacent in this marginalization as most US citizens won’t bother to take the time to find real news where it is published.
The truth is that the US is an imperialistic nation, forcing democratic values on other cultures with the main goal of protecting and advancing our own economic and hegemonic interests. Domestically, the government’s goal is to keep the average citizen unaware of this so as to reinforce the myth of American entitlement and superiority. Our country’s foreign policy is just as skewed and self-serving as any other one in history. The US government routinely filters our news to reinforce the myth that we are morally superior in the conflicts we engage in.
A few excellent reporters who resist the status quo news stream are Dahr Jamail, Malcolm Garcia, and Ashley Gilbertson. Excellent outlets to get unfiltered news are mideastwire.com and projectcensored.org. Also, look out for Danfung Dennis’ The Battle for Hearts and Minds – a documentary on the war in Afghanistan.