What the public doesn't need to know

March 21, 2002
The war on terrorists has evoked a lot of discussion about how much the public should be told regarding military operations.
Editorial CommentMarch 21, 2002

One thing this issue has made clear is that reporters in the consumer media are an ego-driven and self-absorbed bunch. For example, during the early days of the fighting in Afghanistan, a reporter for National Public Radio said that if he knew the whereabouts of covert U.S. forces, he would report it. Many journalists have such large egos that they are willing to compromise military operations to feed their sense of self-importance. Interestingly, during World War II the limits on reporting were much stricter than they are today. Here are some examples.

  • The War Department ordered that no newspaper, magazine, or newsreel was to show a dead American battle casualty. This edict was in effect for the duration of the war.
  • Although there has been extensive reporting of Japanese being interned during World War II, what isn't well known is that news of the Pearl Harbor attack was greeted with jubilation in some parts of the Japanese-American community. This was documented in newsreel footage that was subsequently suppressed.
  • While the internment of Japanese is now viewed as a shameful episode in our nation's history, thousands of German-Americans were also interned. I don't recall the precise figures, but I believe the number was in the thousands. Other German-Americans, while not interned, underwent FBI interrogations and had to keep authorities informed of their whereabouts. There also was FBI interest in some Italian-Americans. All of this was largely unreported in the press.
  • While the internment of Japanese is now viewed as a shameful episode in our nation's history, thousands of German-Americans were also interned. I don't recall the precise figures, but I believe the number was in the thousands. Other German-Americans, while not interned, underwent FBI interrogations and had to keep authorities informed of their whereabouts. There also was FBI interest in some Italian-Americans. All of this was largely unreported in the press.
  • German submarines shelled the coast of New Jersey. Also, German submarines virtually owned the Outer Banks of North Carolina in the early days of the war. People who lived there tell stories about German subs surfacing in daylight so crews could dry their laundry on deck. Also, at least one Japanese submarine shelled oil-storage facilities in the Los Angeles area. To my knowledge, none of this was reported in the press.

Later, during the Cold War, the public was kept in the dark about how "hot" the conflict really was. Some 150 airmen were lost when they were shot down in international air space near Soviet borders. These losses rated minimal coverage in the press if, in fact, they were reported at all.All of this stands in stark contrast to the way the press today feels entitled to disseminate confidential military information. Reporters frequently huff and puff sanctimoniously about how they are not going to be cheerleaders for the Administration or the Pentagon, apparently unconcerned about how this attitude endangers military personnel.

What makes this stance all the more hypocritical is that the press willingly engages in a conspiracy of silence regarding how they report on sensitive domestic issues such as urban crime. Disclosing the full extent of urban lawlessness evidently is viewed as politically incorrect and an impediment to the revitalization of blighted cities. In our local newspaper, for example, articles about murder, rape, robbery, and carjacking in the urban core are relegated mostly to the inside pages of the second section. Not even murder is considered a front-page story.

- Ronald Khol, Editor

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