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Walter Cronkite is one of the most famous reporters in American history. Having served as a front-line journalist since the Vietnam War, he has tremendous experience with government censorship and its progression from the 1960s to the present. In the following essay, he discusses that progression and comments on the condition of war-time journalism today.

Walter Cronkite on Censorship

[The day's stories] would depend entirely on the action. It might very well be a feature story of some bravery that I witnessed or heard about, or it would be the difficulty or success a unit might have had in action. The unit might be as small as a platoon and could be as large as a brigade; it was just whatever was going on.

We were right with the soldiers — no problem with access whatsoever. We talked to them; they talked to us, G.I.s and officers alike. The military did not make any attempt to monitor the interviews we got with the men. There was nothing like we had in the [Persian] Gulf War [in 1991], where they had a senior officer standing by whenever we talked to a G.I. or an officer.

In the evening we got back to press camp and wrote the story. We had to file it with the intelligence officer for whatever unit you were with. Then that went to the army G-2 [intelligence] officer, and he would pass it for transmission, or sometimes made deletions and changes. The copy was passed back to us to see whether we wanted to transmit it that way. If we didn't want to transmit it that way, we could argue about it. Sometimes we won and sometimes we lost. The copy sometimes was held up in London; the top G-2 would spike it. But we were advised that it was spiked and it would be held until it could be released. For instance, if there was something about losses and they didn't want to reveal that for the next two or three days, they'd hold it three days and then release it. If it was new equipment being committed to battle, which happened with the Air Force more than once, they might want to hold it for weeks. But eventually
they would release it.

[Censorship] would begin with a simple statement: "You can't print that!" Then you'd find out why. There were certain things we knew weren't going to pass. We tried to get by with them because we were trying to report everything we could. But casualties, for instance — they weren't anxious to let the enemy know how successful they had been in any given action, how many lives they'd claimed, how much materiel they'd destroyed, the disposition of forces, where the various forces were and what they were equipped with, what kind of vehicles they had, what kind of guns they had. All that kind of thing was pretty much always held up. We could write around it, which we did. We could say that losses were heavy or losses were light. We just couldn't give specifics.

I didn't run into censorship [on stories of servicemen suffering battle fatigue]. But where I was writing that kind of story was mostly during the air war, so I had the benefit of working with the chief censor in London, and that was a very intelligent operation. Those were mostly lawyers who were rounded up and put into that job. They had an understanding of protecting the public's right to know. They were not military men by instinct.

They should have had censorship in Vietnam. I believe there should be censorship in wartime. I believe it absolutely firmly. I'm more comfortable when we are clear that our reporting is not putting our troops in jeopardy and making the job more difficult and prolonging the killing. I also understand that the military, in exercising that censorship, definitely needs a civilian appeals court — civilian-trained individuals [who would] understand the right of the people to know.

The point is that in any war situation, this is the most intimate commitment that the American government can make of its people. This is our war, our troops, our boys, our girls. We need to know every detail about how they are performing in our name, both when they perform well and when they perform badly. It's most important when they perform badly, as a matter of fact. So war should be covered intimately. Correspondents should be there reporting on it. Their dispatches should go through a censorship procedure so that no military secrets are given to the enemy. But there is the report; it is there for history. It may not be released by censorship immediately, maybe not the next day, maybe not the next month, but it'll be there next year. It'll be there ten years from now.

Today we have no independent film of the [1991] Persian Gulf War — none — because our correspondents, our film crews, were not permitted to go out on the front with the troops. They should have been. The tape they shot should have been sent back to censorship. If it couldn't be released immediately, at least it would be held for eventual release and for history. We don't have that history now. That history is lost to us. It's a crime against the democracy.

1st June 2007
Walter Cronkite