Under Siege

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 13, 2006; 10:52 AM

An information war is breaking out on multiple fronts, with journalists caught in the crossfire.

Federal investigators are looking into several national security leaks to the press. Government agencies are trying to muzzle staffers who don't toe the official line. Cartoonists are the latest to find their work denounced, with violent results in the Middle East.

And it doesn't stop there. Politicians are even trying to creatively edit what's said about them online.

All these pressure tactics are being employed in the name of influencing public opinion, which increasingly means manipulating information and controlling how -- and whether -- it is made public. Journalists, who are genetically disposed toward greater openness, are having a harder time fighting these battles because of declining public faith in their profession.

A small example: The Pentagon, which had been providing its annual budget two or three days in advance with an embargo on the news, refused to release the documents last Monday until Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's 2 p.m. news briefing, making it impossible for reporters to ask him detailed questions.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman says the practice was changed because of past violations of embargoes, and he defended the withholding of the budget (except for a news release) until Rumsfeld spoke. Otherwise, he says, "someone hits the 'send' key at the commencement of the briefing without any opportunity for the secretary to be able to talk about the budget and the bigger picture."

A larger example: James Hansen, NASA's top climate scientist, told the New York Times last month that agency officials tried to "censor" him by insisting on reviewing his lectures, papers and interviews, after he called for a reduction in greenhouse gases tied to global warming.

The most controversial area by far involves national security. To journalists, the Times story disclosing the domestic surveillance program and The Washington Post report revealing the secret CIA prisons in Europe, are matters of both civil liberties and how taxpayers' dollars are being spent. To detractors, the newspapers are indifferent to whether their scoops undermine the war on terror. (The situation was reversed in the Valerie Plame leak, where some government officials wanted to out a CIA operative and many journalists believe Robert Novak should not have acted as a conduit for their effort.)

The most extreme forms of media orchestration involve cold cash: The Pentagon paying Iraqi newspapers to run pro-U.S. stories. The Education Department paying commentator Armstrong Williams, who backed the president's program. Former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy paying a freelancer to submit articles to a Birmingham newspaper that defended him during his fraud trial.

But there are many areas drenched in gray: Should a dissident bureaucrat or independent-minded scientist be able to speak freely to reporters, or should political appointees be able to choke off such communication in the name of message discipline? Rank-and-file journalists strongly favor the former, but guess what: Some news organizations don't allow their reporters to give interviews without permission, if at all.

Political cartoonists seem to be the new whipping boys, but The Post's Tom Toles is relatively lucky: When the Joint Chiefs of Staff objected to his cartoon depicting a quadruple-amputee soldier as a symbol of a war gone awry, all they did was send a letter denouncing it as tasteless. (No such letter went to Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who pictured a camera crew ignoring a group of wounded soldiers, including an amputee, in search of ABC's Bob Woodruff. Perhaps that message was deemed acceptable.)

But the riots that greeted the publication of cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad -- first by a Danish newspaper, then in solidarity by numerous European ones -- have prompted some soul-searching. Since the whole thing was devised as a free-speech exercise, the question is whether it was worth it to gratuitously offend followers of one religion. The fact that you can publish something doesn't mean it's necessarily a wise idea. At the same time, the violent protesters -- who attacked the embassies of governments that have no control over newspapers -- don't have the slightest interest in freedom of speech.

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