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Overseas Press Corps vs. Donald Rumsfeld

04/25/02 12:00AM By Bill Seamans

(Host) Commentator Bill Seamans says that there's growing concern over the military's control of the media's efforts to cover the war on terror.

(Seamans) Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has become a television celebrity who, the TV critics say, is especially appealing to the women's audience. But he's not so popular around the Overseas Press Club in New York City. The OPC, as it's called, is a kind of a laid-back organization where visiting foreign correspondents, former overseas veterans, and other media people meet for a convivial glass, a meal and these days lots of talk about Pentagon censorship.

The OPC, however laid back, has been doing a slow burn over what it regards as the creeping censorship imposed by the Pentagon's master, Donald Rumsfeld. The situation boiled over when the OPC board decided it was time to write a letter to Rumsfeld demanding that he unleash the media to report the war against terrorism.

What is missing from the war on terrorism, the OPC said, is genuine war reporting. The OPC charged that the war in Afghanistan has been fought largely in secret with Rumsfeld, in his TV briefings, ruling over a virtual monopoly on news about the war. The OPC charges that both the flavor and substance of the war are absent from the Pentagon briefings and that Americans need to get their news and analysis unfiltered by the military establishment and official bias. It was said that central control of war news is always counterproductive because the people rapidly learn to distrust it. As more of our servicepersons come home and "tell it how it was" Rumsfeld's version might be cast in doubt.

Walter Cronkite entered the Pentagon censorship controversy when he wrote, "It is not acceptable that reports on our military's performance should be limited to the military's version. And it is insulting to the courage of correspondents and to the memory of those who have died in combat situations that the military should continue to insist that it is trying to protect from harm those who will take any risk to give people the truth." I wish to emphasize here that our foreign correspondents, while asking for access to combat situations, do not want to avoid having their reports vetted for any information that might endanger our troops. This is an absolute credo of our foreign correspondents who put the safety of our troops above any story.

The OPC letter wound up with some powerful words that I hope President Bush has read: "This is not George W. Bush's war, or Donald Rumsfeld's either. Like it or not, it is our war. We are all responsible for what these people are doing, and within the bounds of legitimate security, they owe us an honest accounting."

This is Bill Seamans.

Award-winning journalist Bill Seamans is a former correspondent and bureau chief for ABC News in the Middle East.
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