In Search of the News

Dec. 1, 1985

Elsewhere in this issue (see p. 89), we report on the latest round of truce talks in the Military-Media Wars. In that session, the participants came to the table with about as much good will as either side can muster — and even then found themselves groping for a few points on which they could agree.

The real loser in these wars is the public, which is not as well informed as it ought to be on matters of national defense. The public might be better served if the military and the media thought seriously about the problem in its fundamental parts.

§ The Nature of News. There is a belief, widely held among journalists, that reporting of good news should not be a major function of the media. Why not? The usual explanation is that only those events that depart from the expected or the normal are worth bringing to the public’s attention. This assumes, of course, that the public is already sufficiently informed on the basic situation to interpret the bad news in context. And if the media disdains the reporting of good news, where is the public to get such an understanding? Surely news consists of more than scandals, freak events, and peripheral developments.

Balanced reporting is further hampered by the limited amount of airtime or page space allotted to a single story. Long newspaper pieces that explore all aspects of a subject are hooted at in the trade as “thumbsuckers.” Unless a thumbsucker is very lively — a condition sometimes difficult to distinguish from sensationalism — its chances for publication are slim. On television, a thumbsucker is a five-minute segment. Defense issues are usually complex, often dull, and seldom captured well in short, breezy reports.

§ The Media Mystique. Pursuit of the news is exhilarating, and it is easy for reporters, the younger ones especially, to get caught up in self-righteous, romantic images of themselves. The US Constitution has seven articles and twenty-six amendments, but only one of these — the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of the press — has transcended further discussion. The military can be arrogant and self-righteous, too, but it can’t hold a candle to the media.

Crusading spirit counts for too much in the media world, and subject-matter competence counts for too little — particularly on the defense beat. A sports writer who can’t tell a screen pass from a lateral will soon be fired. On the other hand, skimpy knowledge is often tolerated in reporters working on military stories.

§ The Need to Know. Originally, this phrase codified the sensible rule that dissemination of classified material should be limited to those who need it for official purposes. There is a strong inclination among some in the military to extend the concept. Any information — including unclassified information — about defense matters is of potential military value to the enemy. The Russians keep such information under wraps. Why shouldn’t we

The reason lies in the basic differences in the two societies. We cannot imitate the superficial efficiency of a totalitarian state without changing the nature of our own society in unacceptable ways. In the United States, public opinion is a legitimate part of the decision-making process. If the process is to work, it requires an informed public. It is the will of Congress, expressed in the Freedom of Information Act and other pronouncements, that the government be as open as possible. The military wants the public to understand its problems and support its requirements. It is not going to achieve that objective by giving the taxpayers the idiot treatment.

§ Managing the News. The readiness of the media to traffic in classified documents is despicable. But public officials forfeit the moral high ground when they selectively leak classified information as it suits their purposes — for example, to give a last-minute publicity boost to a piece of pending legislation.

Government spokesmen no longer talk openly, as they did to their distress twenty years ago, about “managing the news,” but attempts to manipulate information go on. When people say, “We don’t want to wash our dirty linen in the front yard,” they may have more in mind than the location of the laundry.

Managing the news, propagandizing, and attempts at cover-ups have never worked very well in the United States. These practices are at odds with our national character, and Americans have never been very good at them. Those unpersuaded on moral grounds can consider the practical implications instead. Some cover-ups may work, but others will be discovered. When that happens, public trust in government is eroded and the managers of the news — and all of us — lose big.