Shooting the messenger on politics today


WASHINGTON -- A practical political result of President Bush launching a shooting war, after congressional debate and acquiescence, has been to put disagreement with the war off limits for most elected officeholders who want a political future. It is not enough for them to say they support the troops in the field; they have to support Bush as well, or likely be cast as doing neither.

While it is understandable that this is so, there is something basically disingenuous about politicians now embracing the war who believed in all sincerity that it was a major mistake to go to war rather than give economic sanctions more time to work. Conversations with them make clear that they still believe it was a mistake, but that now that the die has been cast, the troops must be backed to the hilt and a speedy resolution hoped for.

Thus the issue arises: Should the country go forward with no questions asked henceforth about the wisdom of the policy -- a policy widely questioned before the shooting started and still questioned, sub rosa, in many quarters? And, if the response is no, who is to do the asking?

In this democratic society, the ready answer is the press -- or the news media, as it is now called in the era in which the printing press largely takes a back seat to the television camera.

In war and peace since the republic began, the press has taken on this responsibility, protected by the First Amendment for the benefit not of any press lord but of the citizenry's right to know what its government is up to.

Yet, when it comes to a war, this simple, civics textbook truism -- that wise judgments require an informed public -- becomes one of the first casualties.

We are seeing it today in the complaints about reporters who press military briefers at the Pentagon and in Saudi Arabia for more and more details about the conduct of the war, including yardsticks of military success and failure. The quest for answers is taken as a lack of patriotism, or insensitivity to the security of American troops under fire.

Take this excerpt from a letter to the editor of the Houston Post: "It seems to me that CNN has declared itself to be neutral in this conflict we find ourselves in. One of its reporters has said something to the effect that if he had known he was spotting for the Allies he would have stopped. Isn't this (CNN) an American-based network staffed primarily with reporters who are citizens? Where is their allegiance?"

Then there is the implied criticism of the Pulitzer Prize-winning professional war correspondent, Peter Arnett of CNN, for agreeing to interview Saddam Hussein and passing on his diatribes. Was Arnett being used? Sure. But was it valuable to Americans to hear what Saddam had to say, countered by their knowledge that he is an egomaniacal monster? Same answer.

Yet a new poll by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press has found that 57 percent of those surveyed believed the U.S. military should exert more control over how the war is reported. This finding came at a time the military already is exerting unprecedented restrictions on newsgathering in the war zone and largely limiting reporters to official briefings in which it seems as many questions are left unanswered as are responded to.

At the same time, 72 percent of those polled said they thought news organizations were trying to present an objective picture of the gulf war. In a Washington Post poll just out, however, only 29 percent of respondents expressed "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in American newspapers and only 33 percent in television, compared with a whopping 85 percent in the military.

The figure on confidence in the military can be partly explained by the widespread support for the war and the euphoria over the evident early success of the air assault on Iraq.

The figures on newspapers and television, on the other hand, underscore why reporters' quests for more details on the war are taken more as destructive than constructive.

The press and television continue to be seen as self-seeking and insensitive to security needs, in spite of a generally exemplary record of abiding by censorship regulations, by whatever label the military cares to put on the restrictions they impose.

As in past wars, it's always easier to shoot the messenger, especially when you don't care for the message -- or the questions asked.

Political columnists Germond and Witcover of The Evening Sun's staff appear Monday through Friday.

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