Sharkey Attack

The UA journalism head warns that if wartime press freedoms fall, yours may be next.

In the battle for press freedoms--particularly during wartime--few fight more fiercely than Jacqueline Sharkey.

Now head of the UA journalism department, Sharkey cut her combat-reporting teeth in Nicaraguan contra camps. Her articles concerning U.S. military and C.I.A. activities in Central America appeared in the Washington Post and Common Cause Magazine, earning Sharkey a Society of Professional Journalists Distinguished Service Award, an Investigative Reporters and Editors award and an Overseas Press Club Citation for Excellence.

She wrote the book Under Fire--U.S. Military Restrictions on the Media from Grenada to the Persian Gulf, and recently published a scathing examination of Dick Cheney's media manipulation as Defense Secretary during the Persian Gulf War. Her article "Collective Amnesia" appeared in the October 2000 issue of American Journalism Review.

Today, with Cheney as vice president and the nation again girding for war, Sharkey is not optimistic. In an interview with the Tucson Weekly, this award-winning journalist sees troubled waters ahead for a free press--and a free people's right to know the truth.

"We're going to war without the press, as the public's representative, being shown the reasons why we should go to war," she says.

As for Osama bin Laden, "Where is the evidence?" Sharkey asks. "Allegedly it's being shown in secret to our allies. So then, why can't it be shown to the public, when it's the sons and daughters, husbands and wives, sisters and brothers of all of us who are being sent off to fight this battle?"

She fears such governmental secrecy will soon land on the front lines: "Now we have a situation where the White House and Pentagon are implying--sternly--that journalists will not be able to accompany military sources onto battlefield."

This manner of restricting and manipulating reporters has become institutionalized, Sharkey says. "It's a lesson the Pentagon began learning in 1983, when they decided to invade the island of Grenada which, according to (then-President Reagan), was allegedly a communist threat to the hemisphere.

"The military kept the press off the island for the first 48 hours. And they were able to control visuals, they were able to control information, and they learned that first impressions are lasting impressions.

"Later, it came out that the intelligence was so poor that when Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf--one of the field commanders in Grenada--landed to lead the 'rescue' of medical students there, he did not even know the medical school had two campuses. Then the military bombed a mental hospital by mistake. And troops were handed tourist maps, because planning had been so rushed they didn't have time to get decent military maps to everyone.

"When this info came out, however, it was weeks or months later. It didn't play on the front page; it didn't lead the evening newscast."

Sharkey says the media's situation only worsened during the Persian Gulf War, when "the press was very compliant. One of reasons ... was that major news media were so worried about losing what little access the Pentagon was going to allow them. They began fighting among themselves for slots in the press pools.

"This happened, instead of them presenting a united front to the Pentagon and White House by saying, 'We're not going to present this kind of coverage that you're designing for us. We refuse to go along with these restrictions.'"

Among those restrictions were limiting hundreds of reporters to a few press pool slots, all led by military escorts. The Pentagon also conducted security reviews of reporters allowed into the pools, and detained those who attempted traveling to military units on their own.

These moves had chilling effects: The true story of that war went untold until much later--long after Pentagon officials had halted their daily briefings focused on "smart weapons" and brilliant military performances.

Later, the importance of an unfettered press "was put very eloquently by Walter Cronkite," Sharkey says, "when he testified in '91 before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee about why the Gulf War restrictions were so undesirable.

"Cronkite said that pre-censorship, or censorship by access--the Pentagon's refusal to allow the press on the battlefield itself--is dangerous for a democracy because, as he put it, history begins to be distorted from the moment after it happens.

"That's why its so crucial for reporters to actually be able to witness what occurs," she says. "So that in the long term they can provide objective, independent assessments of events and issues that were involved. And so that the public can, in the long term, make informed judgements about policy and policy-makers, and about whether it was a good decision to go to war or not."

A primary force behind Gulf War press restrictions was then-Defense Secretary Cheney, she says. In her piece for American Journalism Review, Sharkey cites interviews with Cheney, when the Secretary admitted using such restrictions to "manage that relationship" between the military and the news media, "so the press didn't screw us."

"I did not look upon the press as an asset in doing what I had to do," Cheney said. "Frankly, I looked on it as a problem to be managed."

But managed to what end? To guard military plans--or simply to manipulate public opinion? Sharkey points to the latter, saying the media has a sterling record for not divulging war-front information "in real time, when it could threaten the security of the operation and the safety of the troops.

"During D-Day, a number of reporters knew the time and the location of the invasion; there were no leaks. During 10 years that U.S. troops were in Vietnam, there were fewer than a dozen security violations that were considered serious, and some of those were committed by reporters who weren't from the U.S. During the Gulf War, the press had an excellent record of not releasing information that put troops or operations in danger."

Regardless, "what we're looking at now is a situation where the White House and Pentagon are saying to the American people, 'Trust us. We're gonna keep this a secret, but we'll tell you what you need to know.'

"This is exactly the opposite of the attitude that the founders of this country had, which was 'You shouldn't trust the government to tell you their secrets. You should trust the press to report on what government is doing in a responsible manner, and in time for informed citizens to make judgements at the ballot box.'"

Unfortunately, it seems that many of those citizens are quite content to let the press be shackled. "Frankly, the alarming thing is that the U.S. public supports these restrictions," Sharkey says. "In public opinion polls taken both before and after the Gulf War ... an overwhelming majority of Americans supported the restrictions. And a sizeable number of respondents felt that restrictions should have been tighter than they were."

She blames the press itself for that attitude, at least in part. "What it says is that the news media has not done a very good job of informing the public about their own history," she says, "about the incredible war fought to get the very rights people are now so willing to give up--in the name of the war on terrorism or the war on drugs.

"They've forgotten that the Revolutionary War was fought to put those rights in place. So in effect, we're willing to give up this nation's birthright."

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