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How Has the Onset of War Coincided with Limitations on Press Freedom Throughout Our Nation's History?

The famous muckraker, Upton Sinclair, once asked, “What good does it do us to fight for freedom abroad if, in the mean time, we are losing it at home?” The sentiment may seem to be strictly a modern, liberal anxiety (Sinclair was a socialist), but it has roots deep in American history. In his farewell address, George Washington worried that foreign entanglements might diminish the commitment to liberty at home.

With an ongoing war both abroad and at home, some have voiced fears that restrictions will be imposed on the freedom of the press. A recent poll by The Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center indicated that 7 in 10 Americans agree -- very or somewhat strongly -- that the government ought to keep the media in check. How has the onset of war coincided with limitations on press freedom throughout our nation’s history?

-In 1798, with an undeclared naval war with France raging, the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed. The Sedition Act prohibited the publication of “false, scandalous, or malicious writing” directed against the government. Specific prohibited acts included publicly opposing any law or presidential act. Only 25 were arrested (though one was a Congressman) and the Acts expired in 1801.

-In the War of 1812, there was little effort to control the press, though General Andy Jackson jailed one irksome reporter. Public opposition was so great that there was serious debate in several New England states over the issue of possible secession.

-In the Mexican War (1846-47) there were again few restrictions on the press. Northern newspapers openly criticized the war as an imperialistic land-grab by the pro-slavery forces. Among those opponents was a freshman Congressman named Abraham Lincoln.

-By the Civil War (1861-65), the invention of the telegraph meant that communications from the front could be instantaneous and the possibility of war correspondents aiding the enemy became cause for concern. As a result, battlefield reporters were strictly controlled, and articles were censored and often delayed for days. The military monitored all telegraph communications. The Secretary of War suspended the publication of several newspapers, arrested editors, threatened to court-martial publishers, and at one point ordered that a defiant field reporter be shot for refusing to turn over an article (the reporter escaped execution). (Lincoln asked,"Should I hang a soldier for treason and then let editors walk free whose words serve to further rebellion?")

-The press freedoms during the Spanish-American War (1898) are notorious. Newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst not only inflamed war fever at home, he armed his staff, steamed to Cuba, entered combat, and claimed to have personally captured 25 Spaniards, making them chant “Hurrah for George Washington!” He also sent terms of surrender to the King of Spain.

-In 1917, when the U.S. began its involvement in the First World War, President Wilson and supporters in Congress were determined to maintain public enthusiasm by instituting extremely strict measures. The 1917 Espionage Act forbade the publication of any reports that could be construed as aiding the enemy. The Trading With the Enemy Act gave Wilson the power to censor the foreign language press in the United States and all international communications. Reports from the front were strictly censored and often blocked entirely.

The 1918 amendments to the Espionage Act (popularly known as the Sedition Act) gave the government the power to control both written and verbal communications; the government did not have to prove that the communications directly aided the enemy. Any negative remark about the government, flag, or even military uniforms was banned.

The U.S. controls were even stricter than in France, where the war was actually being fought. More than 2,000 people were arrested and 1,055 convicted under the Espionage and Trading With the Enemy Acts. Socialist Eugene Debs received a ten-year prison sentence for making an antiwar speech. Film producer Robert Goldstein also received a ten-year sentence for producing a film about the Revolutionary War that was deemed treasonous because it portrayed the British (our ally) in a negative light. It was even illegal to state that the conscription law was unconstitutional even though the Supreme Court had yet to rule on the law. Some were arrested for criticizing the YMCA and the Red Cross. By 1920, the FBI had files on over two million people deemed “disloyal.” The Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Holmes, upheld the Espionage Act, using the “shouting fire in a crowded theatre” argument. The 1918 amendments to the Espionage Act were repealed in 1921, but the other Acts remain on the books.

-Early in 1941, President Roosevelt declared, “Suppression of opinion and censorship of news are among the mortal weapons that dictatorships direct against their own people.” Eight days after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt established the Office of Censorship which had the power to control all international communications. Unlike the First World War, however, the Second won nearly universal public support, so restrictions were looser. Negative, but not critical, reports from the front did reach the public, though the military often delayed them for days or weeks at a time. Significantly, the press exercised significant self-censorship. The editor of the Nation, Freda Kirchney, said that disloyal publications “should be exterminated exactly as if they were enemy machine guns in the Bataan jungle.” The only significant arrests were of the publishers of avidly pro-Fascist material.

-During the Korean War (1950-51), the media at home were left untrammeled and field reporters were, for a time, allowed to send home stories without fear of censorship. After the intervention of Chinese forces, however, General McArthur strictly controlled the dispatches of correspondents.

-The Vietnam conflict was marked by significant press freedom. Television cameras captured the terror of combat and transmitted them to the public within days. At home, criticism of the war was open and frequent. Many in the military at the time (some still serving) blame the media for portraying the Tet Offensive, a strategic victory for the U.S., as a bloody setback.

During both Ronald Reagan’s Grenada invasion (1983) and George Bush’s Panama invasion, (1989-90) the lessons of Vietnam were strictly and effectively applied. Reporters were delayed, misdirected, and prevented from seeing the crucial combat zones until well after the conflicts ended. As a result, casualty figures in Panama were misreported. The Pentagon claimed at the time that about 300 enemy soldiers were killed and just a few dozen civilians. In fact, the civilian death toll was much higher and the military losses much lower.

-In the Gulf War, the military met the demands of the press for access by arranging “pools” with guided tours of the combat area. Dramatic bombing and combat footage was provided to television networks by the military itself. The military realized the press wanted a story more than access itself so daily news conferences, led by carefully auditioned and rehearsed liaisons, were conducted. Nevertheless, no domestic restrictions were undertaken.

And this time? Excepting news gathered by reporters in areas controlled by the Northern Alliance, the only news the American people are receiving about the war's progress is coming from the Pentagon.