AP leader: U.S. should expand access for journalists in wartime

Fourth estate’s importance increases with growth of government ‘influence operations,’ he says

Tom Curley, CEO of The Associated Press, responds Friday to a journalism student’s question in the University Daily Kansan newsroom at Stauffer-Flint Hall on the Kansas University campus. Curley was awarded the William Allen White National Citation on Friday.

The president and CEO of The Associated Press called Friday for the government to increase access to journalists on the battlefield.

“No government will give us our rights if we are not willing to stand up and fight for them,” said Tom Curley, who received the William Allen White National Citation at Kansas University on Friday.

He received the award given by the William Allen White Foundation at the Woodruff Auditorium in the Kansas Union.

The citation is given annually to a journalist who exemplifies the ideals of White, a former publisher of the Emporia Gazette and namesake of the KU School of Journalism.

With governments spending more on public relations and propaganda, the role of the fourth estate is ever more important, he said. He cited a recent report detailing how the Department of Defense spends about $4.7 billion annually on “influence operations,” from recruiters in communities to producing television and print news stories placed in foreign media sources.

With the information control from the government, and a potential expansion of conflict looming in Afghanistan, Curley called on the military to sit down with journalists to come up with a new way to increase access to information.

“Americans understand hardships and setbacks,” he said. “They expect honest answers about what’s happening to their sons and daughters.”

He referenced a speech from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in which Curley quoted Gates as saying that it is “just plain embarrassing” that al-Qaida has a better way of getting its message out than the U.S. military.

“Does America need to resort to al-Qaida tactics?” Curley asked, wondering whether building a fake news organization and planting stories in foreign media sources were necessary.

He said The AP is an organization born of war, beginning in 1846 during the Mexican-American War. Wartime reporting remains a priority of the agency today, he said.

During a question-and-answer session following his speech, Curley noted that while some prospects for open government look good under the Obama administration compared with the Bush years, there have been setbacks as well.

He said AP photographers were denied access to President Obama’s second swearing-in ceremony. However, on the third day of the new administration, the president called for the opening of some government documents and reports.

“That gives us some encouragement,” he said.

He told the audience of mostly educators and journalists from across the state to undertake one act of journalism to honor White.

That could come in the form of an investigative story, he said, or could be something as basic as to “simply speak truth to power.”

“We are the only force out there to keep the government in check and to hold it accountable,” he said.

Curley joined The AP in 2003 after leaving USA Today, where he was president and publisher.