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Media-MX Deal Denies Protestors' Rights Through News Blackout
"SOMETHING WAS MISSING", wrote In These Times correspondent William Swislow, "from most of the media June 16 and 17." It was a big story — news of the MX missile's scheduled test launch and the secrecy under which the U.S. Air Force was conducting it.
Officials of Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara, California, called selected U.S. news outlets the morning of the 16th. They told assignment editors that they'd share the exact date and time of the test if the media outlet would keep that information out of the papers and off the air. The editors who agreed with the embargo would be given access for their journalists to the launch site. Those reporting the launch time would have their people barred.
Three outlets — one in Santa Barbara and two in Los Angeles — broke the ban, but most of the public in the U.S. and around the world was kept in the dark. The three outlets were barred. About 100 journalists showed up to cover the event. They outnumbered the people there to protest it. Previous protests had drawn thousands.
The reporters covering the launch got some spectacular pictures, nothing more. Only CBS reported the embargo. No outlet reported that Daniel Ellsberg was one of the 16 people arrested for protesting the launch.
The air force said the secrecy was to keep the Russians in the dark. Other officials "admitted the Russians had been informed of the test," Swislow reported. The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner said air force officials "left no doubt" the secrecy was prompted by a wish to prevent a protest — by means of denying the public information through the news media.
A Santa Barbara area TV employee was quoted by Swislow as saying: "The general public has no idea . . . of this . . . example of media manipulation. So the whole United States got a chance to watch the Pentagon jerk off in complete glory, and that's the only story they got."
An interesting sidelight, journalistically, was
whether air force officials are the only possible source for launch
timing information. In this case, inside opponents of the MX had phoned
news outlets and divulged the planned launch time correctly —
prior to the access deal.
Published in Sources Summer 1983