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The Generals And the Press

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THE war in the Gulf has precipitated another kind of confrontation - between the press and military. It is a confrontation that besets most democracies when they take up arms and must balance military security versus the people's right to know.

It is a confrontation not peculiar to the current war. Correspondents and the military fussed over censorship and pool arrangements in World War II and Korea. They feuded bitterly in Vietnam - one of the most open wars the press has ever covered - and in Grenada, one of the most closed wars.

It is a tension compounded by the press's suspicion that the military are trying to put the best gloss on a campaign, and the military's suspicion that the press is preoccupied with the hunt for the negatives and mistakes.

But if the confrontation between press and military is long-lasting, it has some brand new wrinkles in the Gulf. This is the first war to beam instant coverage into our living rooms.

In earlier wars, hours and sometimes days elapsed before wire service reports became print in our local newspapers. Even the television coverage of Vietnam was not instant; film had to be shipped back to New York, with time for correction, reflection, and editing. This time around, we see the TV correspondents live, by satellite, and if the news flashes to us faster, so do the mistaken reports, as when a correspondent passes on rumors that one Scud carried a chemical weapons warhead.

Another problem with instant coverage is that it is available instantly to the enemy. Cable News Network, which has led the television coverage of the war, counts Saddam Hussein a regular viewer in Baghdad. If a network becomes too detailed in its reporting of the war, does it provide the enemy with useful information?

And what about manipulation by the enemy? Iraq has permitted CNN to maintain correspondent Peter Arnett in Baghdad. He sees what the Iraqi government wants him to see. But CNN's value to Iraq is offset by the value it offers to Americans in producing a rare, if censored, inside view of Baghdad.


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