Nothing succeeds like success, and official Washington is still basking in the glow of popular approval and self-congratulation for the effective resolution of the Mideast hijacking crisis.
Since the release of the 39 American hostages from Trans World Airlines Flight 847, praise has flowed freely and justifiably for President Reagan, the released hostages and their families and the diplomatic efforts of Syria and Algeria. There have even been kind words for Iran and for Nabih Berri, leader of the Shiite Amal movement, which took custody of the hostages during much of their ordeal.
The news media, especially television, have been spared this burden of approval. Various critics have charged that television was "used" by the hijackers and their allies. White House officials, some of whom qualify as expert witnesses on using the media, have suggested that television should censor itself in such crises so terrorists do not have direct access to the airwaves.
There certainly were elements of wretched excess in the coverage, with television leading the way, but many of the criticisms strike this reporter as curiously unbalanced and, in the case of the administration, reflective of a convenient double standard. Several freed hostages thanked reporters for keeping the public focus on their plight. And it is also worth noting that the media refrained from publishing or airing information that could have been damaging to the hostages.
For starters, the press suppressed the fact that one hostage was a member of the National Security Agency. Everyone involved in the coverage recognized that revealing this information would have endangered his life.
Another potentially important confidence was also withheld. On the day that Secretary of State George P. Shultz raised the ante and tried to obtain release of the seven Americans held hostage before the TWA hijacking, some of us were told that the U.S. government did not expect this maneuver to succeed. We suppressed this assessment at administration request since publishing it could have ruined whatever slim chances existed for the release of the missing seven.
At The Washington Post, as the crisis deepened, editors decided on their own to forgo stories about military options and possible targets for reprisal. Such stories were simply considered too risky.
The next time you read or hear, from whatever source, that the press is basically "irresponsible," consider what these decisions mean. For one thing, they belie the groundless but oft-repeated charge that the press will publish anything, no matter what the consequences. For another, sharing of sensitive information with reporters by administration officials demonstrates that these officials also know that the press, or many elements of it, behaves responsibly with sensitive information in times of crisis.
Beyond the necessary suppression of certain information, television also distinguished itself in some positive ways. Berri's frequent appearances on television may have exposed Americans to some self-serving propaganda, but they also gave the Amal leader a highly publicized stake in solving the crisis.
Administration officials welcomed this exposure. They recognized that the hijacking was not a "mindless" act of terrorism designed to gain a media platform but a kidnaping with a practical criminal goal.
The hijackers were every bit as brutal as Reagan claimed, but their purpose was to secure release of relatives in Israeli jails, and it is difficult to see how turning off the cameras would have deterred them. A better suggestion might be to keep the television spotlight on Lebanon as long as Americans are held there in captivity.
It is the double standard expressed by the administration that provides the most troublesome postcript to this episode. Administration officials objected loudly to stories of ship movements, supposedly because this might lead the hijackers to expect military reprisal. Then officials changed their tune and used the media to threaten reprisals, believing that this would soften up the hijackers. How is it that the media critics and the media users in the administration can have it both ways?
Reaganism of the Week: Preparing for his Oval Office address after release of the hostages June 30, Reagan said: "After seeing 'Rambo' last night, I'll know what to do next time."