The press, not the government, is supposed to define the news, said Jack Anderson, a nationally syndicated columnist, famed investigative reporter and native Utahn.
In Salt Lake City Thursday to help begin a yearlong celebration of the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Bill of Rights, Anderson spoke at the Utah State Bar Law and Justice Center.Focusing his keynote speech on the First Amendment, he de-nounced military censorship of the news and took special umbrage at restrictions placed on reporters in the Persian Gulf, where the military has prohibited free movement of unescorted reporters in war zones and routinely censors the news.
"Never has the Army had to shepherd me around," said Anderson, who has reported on World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. "I didn't have a major or lieutenant colonel holding my hand."
So why, he asked, is the military so sensitive about news emerging from gulf battlefields?
"The military is insecure," he said. "They don't want you watching over their shoulder. But public office is public duty."
The insecurity arose during the Vietnam War, a military exercise that became a national embarrassment, he said. The government blames reporters for the embarrassment because reporters exposed how badly the war was mishandled. But reporters shouldn't be held accountable for the military's mistakes, he said.
It is dangerous to allow the government to manage the news, he said, because if that precedent is set, "they will try it here at home."
And if the public allows the government to erode its freedoms, "you have made a bad bargain," he said.
Anderson acknowledged that military leaders have reasons for misleading Cable News Network reporters, whose live broadcasts are monitored by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
"I can't blame the military for wanting to mislead Saddam," he said. But when they do that, they are also misleading the American public, "and that is too high a price to pay."
War correspondents, he said, are as patriotic as any general, and certainly as patriotic as any politician. Journalists are capable of figuring out what limitations to set on their reporting.
During the Vietnam War's eight years, reporters committed security violations only twice, he said - and those reporters were free-lancers who probably shouldn't have been granted journalist credentials.
"I want to know what the government doesn't want me to know," he said. "I want to know what is really happening."
When reporters depend on newsmakers - that is, public officials - to give them the news, they are only talking to people who distort information to further their own agendas, he said. Too often, reporters operate on the premise that if they put together distortions from all sides, they get a story, Anderson said.
Better, he said, to get the news where the politicians get it: the experts. The problem is, much of that information is classified - a system of censorship Anderson also denounced.
Much of the information deemed secret is classified "to protect the political leaders, not to protect the public," he said. "There are no censorship stamps in Washington. So a politician stamps it `Secret.' He classifies it."
Anderson said he uses a network of informants to intercept classified material. "Is this a violation of security?" he said. "Absolutely not. It's a violation of censorship."
The worst security violator is President George Bush, Anderson said. And before him it was Ronald Reagan, and before him, Jimmy Carter, and so on. Presidents will always release so-called top-secret information to help their own agendas, he said.