Two-thirds of the public believes the government should have the right to stop the media from disclosing military secrets, according to an ABC News poll released yesterday.
Fifty-six percent of those surveyed also say news organizations are more obliged to support the government in wartime than to question the military's handling of the war.
The poll, done for a "Nightline" town meeting airing tonight, reflects the widespread view that press freedoms, including the First Amendment ban on prior restraint, should give way to Pentagon preferences in wartime. The findings, which mirror those during the Persian Gulf War, come at a time of widespread leaks about the Bush administration's plans for a possible war with Iraq.
Such surveys could bolster the administration's efforts to tightly restrict the flow of information about military action.
"Whether the public supports everything the press does, it is our free press that distinguishes us from any other country on the planet," said John McWethy, ABC's Pentagon correspondent. "In time of war, it gets a heck of a lot tougher for reporters to do their jobs. There are more restrictions, especially with this administration, on difficult-to-find information."
Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said she doesn't see a conflict between military secrecy and robust coverage, which her department hopes to foster by assigning reporters to travel with combat units.
"Information about military operations can do grave damage to the mission and put people's lives at risk," Clarke said. "I think the press understands the need for operational secrecy and not putting people's lives at risk."
Overall, the ABC poll says, six in 10 Americans say the government's ability to keep wartime secrets is more important than a free press; 34 percent disagree. Even in peacetime, 28 percent say the government should have the right to control what information is reported.
But journalists received high marks for their coverage of the current buildup against Iraq. Thirteen percent say the media have been too supportive of the Bush administration, 17 percent say they have been too critical and 61 percent say "about right."
The findings track partisan lines. While 65 percent of Republicans say the government's ability to keep wartime secrets is essential, only 47 percent of independents and 38 percent of Democrats agree. Similarly, 44 percent of Republicans say the media should be more questioning than supportive of government, compared to 60 percent of independents and 67 percent of Democrats.
The poll results have a 3 percentage point margin of error.