The jeremiads were not devoid of a certain poignancy. Anchormen and columnists filled their “spaces,” both the psychological ones and those allocated to them during the prime time or on editorial pages, without bursts of the most righteous anger witnessed since Lancelot went on rampage and King Lear filled theaters with the outrage of sorrow. The reason: they were not allowed to land on Grenada with the U.S. forces. “Those are our soldiers, the people’s soldiers,” went the lamentations, “and the people have the right to know what happens to them. And who else is destined by God, Constitution, and immutable laws of history to make people know other than the American journalist–the paladin of the First Amendment? The government’s assertion that it wished to protect newspeople from the perils of battle is absurd and does not hold up in the light of the American military history, which is replete with tales of reporters who were killed in action.”
While the latter charge is true, and the circumstances of journalistic valor are heart warming in a nostalgic vein, some thing happened between the death of Ernie Pyle and the liberation of Grenada. During that time, the American soldier of every rank, rightly or wrongly, acquired a strange, often oppressive impression that although the American journalist may not be on the enemy’s side, he is not exactly on the soldier’s side, either. While it is difficult to formulate the reasons why this is so in a few sentences, it is apparent that the feeling reached its climax in Vietnam. The bitter complaints about the Administration’s handling of the press during the Grenada crisis actually bared the sickly affliction that, for the last two decades, contaminates the relationship between American society and the freest press on the planet.
The litany of dangerously vicious inanities which followed the Administration’s decision may well begin with that of a doltish female CBS correspondent who, after President Reagan’s first press conference on Grenada, felt personally abused by the President. She concluded that Mr. Reagan lied to her: he initially announced that he sent troops to save American lives; he subsequently noted that a Cuban menace existed (one that CBS News was unable to check in advance). The reflection that Mr. Reagan could have had the double objective of saving lives and annihilating the Cuban threat, and perhaps, had some other goals (like restoring a legitimate government to Grenada), and that all those objectives may have been equally valid (but not communicated to CBS at the net work’s schedule) never oppressed the lady’s mind. She held the President guilty of misinformation.
However, she still has a way to go before she will reach the level of sophisticated chutzpah of her colleague, Mr. Walter Cronkite, the TV icon of phony bonhomie, who intoned:
This nation is founded on the belief that people have the right to know and that we participate in our government’s actions….These are our Marines, our Rangers down there. This is our foreign policy and we havea right to know precisely what is happening, and there can be no excuse in denying the people that right.
We were always persuaded that our foreign policy is that of the President and the Congress, both duly elected according to the principles of representative democracy. If we do not like the kind of foreign policy the constitutionally mandated powers pursue, we vote them out of office. Actually, Mr. Cronkite’s whining is at the center of the disease which might grow tumorlike into the flesh of the American civilization: the Cronkites and other press overlords seem to believe that the First Amendment is not a warrant for free expression, but for dictating, forming, and superimposing upon the government and the nation a policy deemed right by them. We thus have in the press the nonelected rulers who, in the best imperial tradition, claim that they have “their” Rangers and “their” Marines–like the Queens Own Rifles. Mr. Cronkite conveniently forgets that his network is involved in a legal contention with a soldier, General Westmoreland, who accuses it of lying and until now has not been proven wrong. We know a gentleman in Connecticut who, during the Vietnam War, used to pass a clean piece of fabric over his TV screen each time after Mr. Cronkite’s image had appeared on it. “I’m wiping off lies from my appliance,” he noted, adding, “It’s a purification reflex.”
In the mourning rites, Mr. Cronkite was joined by Mr. Henry Grunwald, the lord of the Time-Life Inc. fiefdom who, in a more conciliatory and sober tone, tried to turn the tables around and prove that the exclusion of the press was not the President’s sin (“In many ways he is the most open President we have had in a long time”), but someone else’s, one who did “a real disservice to Ronald Reagan.” Yet, in an essay, Mr. Grunwald couldn’t resist forming a sentence that strikes us as even more mendacious than insidious:
The press has a serious quasi-constitutional function as a representative of the public.
One does know how to politely react to this kind of imperial usurpation. We do not recall making Time our representative in any area of public affairs, civic obligations, and social perception. Nor, for that matter, did we, as the part of the public, give any mandate to the New York Times, Rupert Murdoch (brrr! … what a disgusting idea … ), NBC, or Newsweek to represent us in any possible way, on any given issue. Mr. Grunwald’s intimation of “semi-constitutionality” inadvertently unveils the totalitarian mindset of the press lords: they apparently have already reached the verdict that democratic representation is achieved by subscription not by ballot. It will take a bolder and more determined Ronald Reagan to remind them that it is not so, and cut them to their proper size.
The Chicago Tribune, with its tradition of heavy-handed duplicity, brought some sort of relief to the dispute. In an editorial it duly ranted against the ban and “censorship,” announcing:
… once the invasion was underway the Pentagon should have made prompt arrangements for reporters to reach the scene, or at least to board the ships lying offshore. Because of the failure to do so, Americans for three days received sketchy, confusing and unreliable information on the situation.
Thus, the Tribune assumes–actually,it holds as a self-evident truth–that once the press is on location, it provides nonnegotiably reliable, never confusing, information. The editorial-page editors, however, omitted to check their own letters-to-the-editor department, wherein a retired U.S. Army colonel responded to some of the Tribune’s own journalistic practices on the subject of Vietnam:
I had thought that the passing years had made me more tolerant of uninformed journalistic commentary on Vietnam, but Kenneth R. Clark proved me wrong when he wrote about a “dispirited American Army” abandoning Saigon….
The U.S. Army turned over the fighting to the South Vietnamese long before Saigon fell, and only a few advisers and the State Department people remained to be evacuated. The army that had been withdrawn earlier had abandoned nothing and had never been dispirited. It was maligned only by such people as Clark. His perpetuation of historical error and repetition of the doubtful lore of the antiwar faction exacerbates the open national wounds he refers to.
I don’t know how Clark came by his impression, but I was in the U.S.Army. We may have been puzzled, but we were far from dispirited. To say otherwise is the final insult to those who served and the dead we are so fond of numbering in the press.
But we do not need to go back that far in order to pinpoint the American press’s mendacity, unreliability, and supercapacity to confuse minds. We now have Grenada and can see what the media are doing to it, what they are choosing not to say, and how they are assiduously working to deconstruct the rightness of Reagan’s policy and decision. The media would have the public–the people–believe that the U.S. efforts are as laudable of those of a giant who claims a victory by taking on an ant: it is regularly pointed out that Grenada has a smaller population and only slightly more square miles than the District of Columbia–as if storing modern arms for entire armies, organizing espionage networks, plotting terroristic activities, and building up sophisticated naval bases requires more space than that offered by Martha’s Vine yard. Mr. Albert Xavier, “former editor of Grenada’s only independent news paper, the Torchlight” (thus also a journalist, but obviously not a liberal New York-style one) who “left Grenada after the Bishop government closed his paper in 1979,” according to his credit line in the Wall Street Joumal, has published there an article in which he unveils the very scope of the subversion strategy invented in Moscow and Havana and centered on Grenada:
The plan to subvert the elected governments of the Eastern Caribbean and replace them with communist leaning revolutionary governments was hatched in 1976. Off the western coast of St. Lucia lies a rocky islet named Rat Island. It was here in 1976 that Maurice Bishop and Bernard Coard of Grenada, George Odlum of St. Lucia, Tim Hector of Antigua and a few other lesser-known communist sympathizers met in secret conference to plan the political future of the Caribbean.
No one, to our knowledge, referred to Mr. Xavier’s article in the bastions of the American liberal press: being unable to witness the shooting, this press feels absolved from the duty to analyze the fray’s real and concrete cause. Maurice Bishop, a former London pimp, a Brechtian character who rose to the depths of communism from the underclass and who overthrew a legitimately elected government and committed Grenada to the global communist planning, has not been exposed to much scrutiny in the pages of our most informative organs, either in spite of the American people’s right to know. Mr. Xavier had something to say about that matter:
There is no doubt in the minds of West Indian political analysts that the plan to subvert the democratic governments of the Eastern caribbean was coordinated by Fidel Castro, with Michael Manley as a willing ally. When Jamaica’s current prime minister, Edward Seaga, won the election and turned out Mr. Manley, the Eastern Caribbean operation became more urgent. Thus, the full import of the Grenada episode will become dearer when the ashes have settled.
When the Cronkites, Grunwalds, et al., are swept into the dustbin of history, an excerpt from a letter of one John A. Phillips to his parents can serve as the most trenchant, perspicacious, and,in the same breath, painful encapsulation of the “people’s right to know” issue:
If by some bizarre turn of events here I get killed, please don’t let anybody say anything leftist to the press, like (some other) families of Marines killed here.
Marine Sergeant Phillips has been killed in Lebanon, in the line of duty.