The Right To Know
Press groups plead for adequate coverage rules.
Thursday, October 25, 2001
In light of the terrorist attacks on September 11, the role of the press in informing the nation about public safety concerns and the military, diplomatic, law enforcement, and intelligence actions of its government will be tested in novel and profound ways. As organizations representing reporters, editors, and publishers nationwide, we write to provide the Administration and Congress with steps that we believe are essential for the government to take to ensure that it honors its obligations to the public under the First Amendment.
A free and autonomous press is as central to the preservation of democracy as is a strong military. Indeed, news organizations have a distinguished history in this country of providing the public with essential information during times of warfare and national crisis-information that may also be useful to government officials.
Journalists have handled knowledge of troop deployments in a responsible manner during past conflicts, just as they have maintained the confidentiality of domestic law-enforcement operations. Military public affairs guidelines themselves acknowledge that the dissemination of accurate information concerning combat operations serves the interests of the U.S. armed forces.
During the Persian Gulf War, however, the Department of Defense inhibited news coverage of combat operations by forcing reporters and photojournalists into small pools controlled by military officials and attempted to exercise editorial control over news content. The Pentagon and the news media subsequently reached an accord in 1992 regarding coverage of military campaigns that recognized that "open and independent" reporting would be the norm for such coverage.
With combat operations now underway in Afghanistan and possibly developing elsewhere, it is time to make good on that guarantee.
Because this is a crisis on American soil as well as overseas, involving law enforcement and local public health services in addition to the armed forces, information on domestic operations will be as relevant and critical to the public as that on military activities.
President Bush and other national leaders have signaled that incursions against terrorist networks will differ from conventional warfare in that they will involve significant covert action, both on international and domestic fronts. We do not deny that secrecy has a place in these operations. The government should protect information as necessary-and only for as long as necessary-to protect national security.
Overclassification dilutes the ability of agencies and others to determine what truly needs protection. It inhibits government officials from communicating effectively, especially if they face threats of criminal prosecution for even harmless disclosures.
Journalistic scrutiny of the war and publication of dissenting viewpoints are not signs of disloyalty to the nation, but rather expressions of confidence in democratic self-government and fulfillment of the First Amendment function of holding government accountable. Such scrutiny does not diminish respect for the victims of terrorism or the privacy interests of their families.
Decisions about what to publish, including the airing of statements issued by avowed enemies of the nation, must ultimately rest with publishers and broadcasters, not with government officials.
With the nation having confronted for the first time since the Civil War widespread violence and loss of life within its own borders-and continuing to face ongoing threats-the American public is in urgent need of reliable news. The abrupt removal of information from Internet Web sites maintained by federal agencies, for example, which has picked up pace in recent weeks, defeats public confidence in the openness of its government.
Recognizing these principles and the extraordinary circumstances in which the country finds itself, we urge government leaders to take immediate action.