Two things are clear: Legitimate security concerns will require the news media to exercise some restraint in how they cover the U.S. response to the terrorist attacks; and the First Amendment could be threatened if we fail to distinguish between information that discomfits the government and that which threatens national security. As we have seen with the classification of too many documents as "confidential," the government cannot always be counted on to distinguish between the two.
That discomfitting speech may include voices of dissent. The degree to which such voices are silenced, either officially or by industry pressure, will be the measure of how far down the road to unwarranted censorship we have gone. Those who conduct or condone attacks on dissent are in lockstep with anybody who attacks people simply because they wear a turban. Both are born of ignorance and nurtured by a crisis mentality.
On the issue of restraint, NBC News executive Bill Wheatley last week warned his troops not to "inadvertently pass along information that could prove helpful to those who would do harm to our citizens, our officials and our military." Soon after, one of our unofficial correspondents in the field called to point out that a network was showing a real-time, electronic map with the position of all the planes in the air, illustrating how much air traffic had decreased. Two weeks ago, that might have been OK.
At times, revealing the President's whereabouts may not be a good idea. But reporting on where he stands on issues, or on his job performance, or where his policies could lead us—that's a journalist's job. Now more than ever, how well the President is perceived as doing his job is key information for a populace whose future may well hinge on his success.
Good journalism has always been about making tough calls. Some of those calls just got a lot tougher.
Good for them
In the Lassie-eat-Rin Tin Tin world of syndicated TV distribution, success is measured in cold, hard cash. They are a hard-nosed, hardball-playing lot, these syndicators, none more so than Warner Bros. That's why we were impressed when it was the first to decide, or at least to announce, that it would not seek make-goods from stations for the barter-ad time (translation: dollars) the distributor lost when its syndicated shows were shelved for coverage of the terrorist attack.
Warner Bros. was soon joined by others, including NBC, Twentieth, Tribune and Paramount, with more to follow we expect. A few drops in the bucket? Perhaps, but they will have helped broadcasters in their duty to keep the nation informed.