A Call for Self-Scrutiny

Taking Note

IN RECENT DAYS, the press has assailed the White House mercilessly for its "disinformation" campaign aimed at toppling Libyan leader Muammar Khaddafy.

But the press overshot its mark. Aside from attacking the deceptive plan masterminded by National Security Advisor John Poindexter, the media should have taken a look at its own role in the disinformation fiasco.

The Administration's ill-conceived plot--disseminating false reports predicting a second confrontation between the U.S. and Libya--undermined Reagan's credibility with the American public and other nations, strengthened Khaddafy rather than weakening him and made a mockery of the communication process between the White House and the media.

But hold on. Who is responsible for splashing the stories all over the nation's newspapers? Who hyped the reports and led many Americans to believe that the U.S. and Libya were on a "collision course"? The media of course. The press turned false information into front-page news.

Two of the nation's most respected newspapers, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post ran extensive coverage in late August and early September, leading to a mild frenzy over the possibility of further U.S. agression against Libya. On August 25, the Journal featured a front page story that detailed renewed U.S. military maneuvers geared toward a possible second strike against Khaddafy. The Post featured a series of articles reporting that the U.S. had strong evidence that Khaddafy was again planning terrorist activities.

THE AMERICAN people wanted to hear that Reagan was saddling up his war horse to kick Khaddafy's rump off the globe. The press wanted the big scoop. As The Boston Globe quoted one Administration insider, reporters often run stories when supplied with unsubstantiated tips. Although inside information on national security policy may be tightly controlled, reporters must be wary of ulterior motives lurking behind leaked information.

The press has pleaded victim to the Administration's deceptive tactics. But it was hardly an unwilling victim. In the months preceding the disinformation campaign, Khaddafy had been inactive on the terrorist front, and a concurrent Administration memo available to the press had characterized the Libyan leader as "quiescent."

Furthermore, given the fact that every administration in recent memory has sought to deceive the press in order to cover up its wrong-doing, a la Richard Nixon, or has tried to use the press as a tool for its foreign policy goals--as Lyndon Johnson did during the Vietnam War, and as Reagan has during the turmoil in Grenada and Nicaragua--reporters have little excuse for being duped by this Administration's latest ploy.

Especially in a sensitive issue like U.S. relations with Libya--and one out of which Reagan has gotten a lot of propaganda mileage--careful checking of sources, or holding off on the front-page headlines for stronger evidence is crucial to maintaining a credible press. As we all learned in high school, the press is supposed to be a "watchdog" of government, but it isn't if it wags its tail and licks Reagan's face every time he throws it a bone.

THE PRESS KNOWS, however, that in a pinch it can blame the White House and shirk its own responsibility. While numerous legislators and other government officials outside the Administration have lambasted the disinformation campaign, few have asked how the reports got so much attention in the first place. Until the public begins holding the press responsible for its inadequate research and sensationalistic practices, the media will have no incentive to do so.

For now, the media can belly-ache all it wants about deception by the White House. But, as the fisherman said, "It don't matter what bait you use if the fish ain't biting," and the fact remains that the press must be held responsible for the stories it chooses to print. Admittedly, the Administration acted wrongly and foolishly, but the press must share complicity in this public and foreign relations debacle.