Memo to the media: we are at war

Posted: Oct 16, 2001 12:00 AM
In the weeks following the September 11 attacks, the American public has been bombarded, through television, with threats issued directly from members of the Al Qaeda network. This reminds us that at least one very real threat lies in bin Laden's ability to use the western media as a conduit for his anti-human message. The implications are far more frightening than the mere dissemination of anti-American propaganda. It is quite possible that bin Laden could be using these tapes to communicate coded instructions to field operatives. Given that danger, it is imperative that news organizations re-evaluate what they beam out into the public domain. As a member of the media, I am sensitive to our First Amendment rights. A free press is perhaps the greatest guarantor of the free market of ideas that animates our democracy with meaning. When the government co-ops these rights and establishes what John Stuart Mill termed, a "despotism over the mind," the threat to liberty is obvious. But this is no ordinary situation, and the blanket dissemination of bin Laden's message represents a genuine security threat to this country. Furthermore, it is not news. At best, it is an attempt at manipulation. (Indeed, it is telling that bin Laden's first message, broadcast following the first wave of U.S. attacks, was apparently recorded prior to the raids). At worst, these tapes are a medium for communicating attack plans to sleeper cells already in the United States. When viewed in this context, it becomes apparent that the networks adopt a new consciousness; one that looks beyond shocking viewers into paying attention and instead gives very real consideration to whether such broadcasts serve the goals of our enemy. Get it? We are at war. If this fact is not sufficiently alarming to provoke some form of media self-censorship, then the government should step in and prevent the enemy from twisting our own media against us. There is precedence: The last time America was under siege, in World War II, sensitive intelligence information such as the development of the atom bomb and the D-Day invasion were safeguarded through heavy media censorship. Of course, back then the effort was fairly willing. A civilian, Byron Price, a former AP editor who made no secret of his distaste for the practice, led the Office of Censorship. Right up to the moment that he dismantled his office, Price groused " one who does not like censorship should ever be permitted to exercise censorship." Still, Price understood that in the interests of national security, he - and his colleagues - had a duty to withhold certain information from the public. Lest this rousing point be lost in modern times, President Bush recently admonished Congress for leaking "classified information" to the press. Otherwise stated, the free press does not have the right to endanger the security of our country. This is especially true in the war against terrorism, where the enemy is ill-defined and the absence of a traditional infrastructure means they will have to rely on less traditional means of communication - like our television sets. In light of this danger, the press ought not to be allowed to beam the unedited text of bin Laden's messages into the public domain. Plainly, we cannot place romantic First Amendment ideals ahead of national security.