Controversyabout media coverage seems to have become as much a part of American combat operations as air strikes and troop movements. The role of the media in Vietnam, of course, has long been a matter of sharp contention, and both Grenada and Panama resulted in intense dispute about how the media were treated by the military.
And now in the Gulf, even though the first week seems to have gone reasonably well in terms of relations between the U.S. military and the media, there has been a rising undercurrent of media grumbling about the amount and nature of the information made available. The groundwork has been laid for even more serious dispute in the future through growing media complaints about the rules of coverage established by the military. These rules will be challenged much more intensively if and when U.S. ground operations get underway.
In the face of all our other national concerns about the war, this prospective dispute seems unnecessary. What is needed to avoid future acrimony is agreement by both the military and the media that each has a legitimate and essential role in informing the American public about the conduct and progress of combat operations, and each has legitimate needs and concerns that must be taken into account by the other.
It isn't that the military and the media can or should march hand in hand down the same road to inform the public. There are differences and tensions -- adversarial relations, if you will -- built into the system growing out of different cultures, constitutional provisions and roles in our society. The military must provide official information as part of its accountability to the public for the use of the nation's manpower and other resources, and the media must provide an independent accounting on the same activities as a check on the military.
No democratic system can be devised that will eliminate all disputes between the two. But these can be held to a minimum, and the overall relationship need not become hostile. There might even develop a deeper degree of mutual respect if some confidence can be established on each side that the other is operating in good faith.
To begin, both sides need to accept the reality that the military information gathering system as distilled for briefings is not designed to meet the journalists' desires for personal observation, detail and flavor. In turn, the journalist's approach to coverage is no substitute for official overall analysis and evaluation in perspective. The two complement each other, and the combination of information from both these sources provides the American public with a much better basis for making judgments on national policy, which after all is the ultimate goal of this communication process.
Beyond this, the military must realize that it is better served in the long run by putting out an accurate and candid report of information, both good and bad, sooner rather than later, complete rather than selective -- all with a proper concern for security, of course, but with a security standard that is sensible and logical. And in this framework, the military must recognize the media's excellent record in Vietnam and elsewhere and its voluntary readiness to accept and observe restrictions on tactical military information that could jeopardize either the security of a mission or the lives of personnel. This is the only form of restriction accepted by the American public over the years. Coverage and comment, critical or favorable, on other aspects of a war -- justification, strategy, overall conduct, general performance -- while sometimes irritating or even invalid, is not subject to censorship in our open form of government.
Moreover, the military would do well to acknowledge that the media in their own way can lend credibility to the official military briefing if the latter is accurate and valid.
For their part, the media need to concede more readily that the military has legitimate security concerns that must be met and that voluntary acceptance of restrictions on tactical information must be respected in spirit as well as in fact. They must also recognize that the enormous number of correspondents of varying competence seeking to cover military operations presents a problem of overwhelming presence at the combat unit level that must be resolved. It is also clear that today's communications capabilities in which a secretary of defense can say that his most current information comes from watching a television network leads to extraordinary responsibility on the part of the media to make certain that hostile forces are not able to obtain critical information through interception of their broadcasts.
Furthermore, editors and producers at home offices must, despite the pressures created by competition, assume full responsibility for the actions of their representatives in the field and for their final product at home.
With this kind of mutual understanding, there is no reason the present points of contention can not be resolved without serious harm to the effective performance of either element.
The writer was chief U.S. spokesman in Vietnam from February 1964 to July 1968.