What part of war should the media show the public?

Thursday, March 27, 2003 at 1:00am

As the Iraqi campaign surges forward, what should the viewing public see on TV? Our answer: as much as possible, within the limits of good taste, operational security, and respect for the families of any casualties.

"This is a war for truth," insists Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. "The goal is to have accurate, truthful reporting from the battlefield." And that means the bad news along with the good.

As ABC's Ted Koppel put it: "I feel we do have an obligation to remind people in the most graphic way that war is a dreadful thing. Young Americans are dying. Young Iraqis are dying. To sanitize it too much is a dreadful mistake."

This question comes up now because Iraqi forces ambushed an American convoy, killing some soldiers and capturing others. Videotape of the victims was shot by Iraqi television and given to Al Jazeera, the Arab network based in Qatar, which then made it available worldwide.

The Pentagon urged American networks to withhold the tape, at least until relatives of the casualties could be notified, and most complied. Some eventually showed stills or short clips. Most declined to broadcast the most gruesome footage. All wrestled with their decisions, and there are some lessons to be learned that could prove useful.

First, in this era of global, real-time media, there is no way for the American military to control what TV viewers see. One implication: The Pentagon must speed up procedures for notifying the families of casualties.

Al Jazeera is available in millions of households throughout the Arabic-speaking world. The mother of one American captive learned of her son's fate on a Filipino channel, available by satellite in her New Mexico home. One Web site, The Drudge Report, explained its decision to display the material by arguing that if "anchormen and others in the media" have seen the pictures, "why can't the average citizen?" Fair question.

Second, even if visual images are widely available on other outlets, and there are no legal limits on press freedom, the American media still have an enormous responsibility to use their editorial power wisely. When it comes to casualties, blurring the faces of recognizable individuals is a reasonable compromise. Waiting a short time for families to be notified is another. Not showing the most grisly images in the middle of the afternoon, when small children might be watching TV unsupervised, also makes sense. But censorship definitely does not.

Third, the military will always try to shape the tone of news reports, and media outlets must resist being manipulated. The Pentagon was delighted when American TV showed footage of Iraqi prisoners because those images could have the effect of demoralizing enemy forces. But suddenly, when it was American prisoners on display, the military turned squeamish.

In fact, the episode points up a larger question of White House inconsistency, even hypocrisy. During the Afghan campaign, the president refused to grant POW status under the Geneva Convention to enemy fighters seized on the battlefield, saying they were not part of a regular army. We worried at the time that the administration was setting a bad precedent, and now, when the United States wants the protection of international law for its own prisoners, it has lost a measure of moral authority.

In the end, consistency is a good guideline for journalists as well as presidents. We agree with John Carroll, editor of The Los Angeles Times: "We've run pictures of prisoners taken by both sides. It's a war, and we're supposed to cover the whole thing, not just part of it."

Americans deserve to see the whole thing. That's the only way they can fairly judge their leaders who decided this war was necessary.

Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts are syndicated columnists.

Filed under: City Voices