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The recent war in Iraq and the ongoing war on terrorism have brought the freedom of the press to the forefront of political conversation across the country.

The question of general debate is whether or not the press should be given unlimited access to the front lines, or submit to government restrictions for the sake of our military's security. Behind that question often lies another, more intriguing one. Is military security really the reason they don't want the press on the front lines?

While media war coverage is, to some extent, as old as this country, the debate, as a matter of public concern, is relatively young. The pivotal point in the public's awareness of this issue, as well as many of their suspicions toward military actions, is the Vietnam War.

Media coverage of Vietnam was a rare exception in the history of combat coverage by the American media. Never before had the press been granted such access to the war zone. And never again would they. That war served as a lesson to the government and a pinnacle of freedom for the media. In every war or military engagement since, the media have publicly battled the Pentagon for the right to report the war as they see it.

Vietnam taught the government that they had made a grave public relations error by allowing the press to get so close to the action. This was the first time that images of the horrors of war had made it back to the public in mass quantities. The fact that the war was being fought with guerilla tactics did not help the matter either, as it provided photographers with plenty of gruesome images to send to their publishers. One of the results of this was that the government was faced with domestic unrest as had never been seen before. From this mistake, they learned to return to their old ways, restricting media access to the war zone whenever they could find a reason and censoring the media's material before allowing them to send it home.

Prior to Vietnam, it had been understood that the media could not publish certain material regarding military actions. Up through the Korean War, it has been noted as well, few journalists made an effort to criticize our military or our government's involvement in foreign issues. After Vietnam, however, things were different. The media still wanted the same level of access, of course, but the government now knew better.

The Pentagon took these practices to their breaking point in 1991, during the Gulf War. Using a system established in 1983, they restricted press access by forcing the reporters to travel in small pools consisting of reporters, photographers and a small television crew. They reportedly told the cameramen when and where to shoot and checked their images for undesirable content before allowing them to ship it home. Lone reporters and photographers who did not wish to submit to these restrictions were hunted down and often imprisoned.

Some rogue information managed to make it past the military, however, including reports that as the U.S. was withdrawing from Iraq, the military carpet bombed a highway full of cars that has since come to be known as the "Highway of Death." Graphic images appeared that raised suspicions that the military was using illegal warfare tactics.

In 1992, members of four major media companies met with representatives from the pentagon to lay out a policy for future coverage. What they essentially came up with was what everyone has come to know today as "embedded" journalism. Using this system, journalists would be assigned to travel along with troops into the combat zones. They had apparently reached a compromise.

However, free press advocates today argue that the embedded journalists are still not allowed to report the truth. This looked to be the truth at the start of the latest war in Iraq. However, as the war briefly climaxed in Baghdad, the restrictions seemed to cease as an increase in graphic photographs began appearing in America's magazines and newspapers.

The rest of this site provides links to online source material on this topic. Whether you are doing research or just interested in learning more about the issue, the sites should provide you with useful information.

 

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Copyright© David Zentz
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Site last updated 4/17/03