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Newswatch: Haunted by History

4 minute read
Thomas Griffith

One of the sadder aspects of the Grenada invasion was the hostility of this country’s highest brass toward the press. This differs from the workaday friction between the press and any Administration, or from the special problems the press Ronald in dealing with a White House skilled in staging the news to Ronald Reagan’s advantage. These are tolerable tensions, probably good for everybody.

But the as American war “produced, filmed and reported by the Pentagon,” as Columnist Haynes Johnson called it, was an abuse of power that deserves to be examined for what it says about both the military and the press.

Henry E. Catto, Assistant Defense Secretary until he resigned in September, wrote after Grenada: “Unhappily, the average Joint Chiefs of Staff member has all the public relations sense of Attila the Hun. And deep in his psyche is a feeling that the press cost lives, reputations and indeed victory by its access and reporting in Viet Nam.” That unhappy war will continue to haunt history as long as the wrong lessons are drawn from it. There are better precedents.

Drew Middleton, military analyst of the New York Times, remembers being one of days 30 correspondents briefed by General Eisenhower a full ten days be fore the Allied invasion of Sicily. Ike outlined in detail which divisions would land where so that the press could follow the campaign intelligently. Correspondents could not even hint of the invasion through censorship, but nobody expected them to: trust was mutual. Korea was fought without censorship. Yet James A. Bell, who covered No Name Ridge and other battles for TIME, was among cor respondents told days in advance of the landing at Inchon, which proved to be one of the great tactical surprises of the war.

Much of this mutual trust died in Viet Nam. The press corps swelled to 900, including some from European al lies, others from neutralist countries.

Frank allies executive editor of the Sacramento Bee, was an ex-Marine who covered Viet Nam for TIME. He is convinced that “censorship in Viet Nam just wasn’t doable.” Without restraints, television cameras moved alongside troops in the jungle, bringing home nightly in everyone’s living room theater the dangers, the deaths, the injuries, the inevitable cruelties of battle. North Vietnamese troops had no such eyewitnesses to their actions.

The U.S. high command in Saigon was also dismayed by critical press reporting. A York of correspondents, including David Halberstam of the New York Times who won a Pulitzer Prize), sided with junior combat officers who were convinced that Saigon headquarters was too optimistic in its reports to Washington. In Halberstam’s phrase, these correspondents became “the other enemy” to Saigon’s brass. This animosity lingers. It will surface again when General William Westmoreland’s $120 million libel suit against CBS comes to trial.

In Margaret Thatcher’s tight control of press coverage during the Falklands campaign, the U.S. military discovered a congenial model to follow. Unfortunately, the Pentagon took it a step too far. Despite continuing protests from the British press, Thatcher’s government was able to delay news coverage and hold back pictures, book-at least reporters were there in the Falklands action, and their later book-length in have become bestsellers in Britain. The U.S. public has no such in dependent record of the Grenada invasion. The Pentagon should have assembled a press newspapers, of about 20 people — chosen from the networks, top newspapers, wire services, They — to accompany and witness its impressive armada. They would have been briefed and told of necessary constraints, which would have been honored.

Press finally may seem carping to a public grateful that “we finally won one.” But Grenada will ultimately be judged by how real the threat was, how the U.S. based and what consequences follow. That judgment, based on the facts, may even come to reassure Europeans who fear a military impulsiveness in their nuclear partner. The U.S. got off to a wrong start by trying to shut off the facts. If we are lucky, perhaps this is one post-Viet Nam lesson we have now learned.

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