American invasion of tiny Carribean island changed everything for press
From the Fall 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 8.
The Vietnam War yielded a new kind of combat coverage for the press, one with reports coming straight from the battlefield and into the homes of the American public.
Journalists enjoyed considerable liberties in covering the war, often talking to soldiers directly and gathering news from all fronts. Occasionally, they gathered for military briefings — moments they jokingly referred to as the Five O’Clock Follies — for the official government line.
But an early morning invasion of a tiny island in the Caribbean on Oct. 5, 1983, changed everything.
A press corps once comfortable with the freedoms and responsibilities of open war coverage was now shuttered.
Defense officials had long blamed press coverage for the failings of the Vietnam War. So when hostilities heated to boiling in Grenada, they used that war as their excuse to make sure that they had the press under control.
When American soldiers stormed the island’s beaches at 5 a.m., journalists weren’t there to document the invasion.
Even though State Department officials notified Cuba, the Soviet Union and Western European Allies about the invasion several hours before it happened, they left the nation’s press corps in the cold until President Reagan announced the invasion at 9 a.m. that same day. Even then, they restricted reporters to Barbados for another 48 hours.
Armed forces scuttled attempts by reporters to access the island by boat or small plane.
On Oct. 27, officials offered a small press pool a limited tour of the island. But then they grounded the media plane so reporters couldn’t file their stories until after Reagan gave a speech on the invasion. On Oct. 30, reporters finally enjoyed unlimited access to Grenada but had to resort to footage and eyewitness accounts from military sources.
By then, the invasion already had been deemed a qualified success, despite later reports that the military had to use tourist maps during the attack and nearly bungled a rescue of medical students because they didn’t know the island’s university had two campuses.
“What the Pentagon learned from keeping the press from Grenada for the first 48 hours is that first impressions are lasting impressions,” said Jacqueline Sharkey, author of “Under Fire — U.S. Military Restrictions on the Media from Grenada to the Persian Gulf.”
The treatment irked the press corps, which demanded immediate changes in the way the military handled combat coverage. A commission, led by retired Maj. Gen. Winant Sidle, determined that while open coverage of conflict would be the preferred method, a pool of reporters would be acceptable and, at times, desirable in covering early stages of combat or surprise attacks.
A compromise led to the creation of an official national media pool, a rotation of national journalists that could be called in a moment’s notice to cover the opening stages of a war, an invasion or other military maneuver.
Chuck Lewis, Washington bureau chief for Hearst Newspapers, was serving in that capacity for the Associated Press when they reached the compromise with defense officials. The pool, created in April 1985, was designed to offer journalists access in unique military situations.
“The pool approach is not the preferred approach,” Lewis said. “We would much rather be out there on our own. But the advantage of a pool is that it allows some media examination of the first wave, as it were, of a military invasion in an environment where there are no news outlets.”
Lewis remembers that the first drill of the pool did not go well, offering fodder to military advisers who wanted to keep the press out of combat. As the pool members gathered in secret with military officials, a radio engineer testing his equipment accidentally plugged it into a common feed and broadcast the drill to dozens of other radio stations.
“But Weinburger, to his credit, would not give up on the pool,” Lewis said of then-Defense Secretary Casper Weinburger. “He said, ‘Work it, practice it and perfect it. Don’t settle for less.’ And they did.”
And future drills went without a hitch.
But the invasion of Panama in December 1989 offered little assurances that things had changed.
The Pentagon hemmed in reporters, keeping them from covering the first 48 hours of the fighting. Veteran war journalist Peter Arnett remembers Fred Francis of NBC News, in particular, because Francis was so incensed that he had to watch the early moments of the fighting from a country club golf course three miles away.
And pooled journalists became impatient with Pentagon briefings stating that fighting had ended when they were getting calls from Panamanians that it hadn’t.
“That still haunts the United States down there, because there were many civilians killed around Noriega’s headquarters, but the United States never acknowledged it,” Arnett said.
Vice President Dick Cheney, then the defense secretary, reissued a set of principles devised by previous defense secretaries guiding how the Pentagon issues combat information. In part, the principles stated department policy to make timely and accurate information available to the public about military matters.
But press advocates say Cheney quickly tossed the principles to the wind as the nation began preparing for the Persian Gulf War.
The first troops left for Saudi Arabia on Aug. 7, 1990, again without a single journalist. The Pentagon had not activated the national pool and reporters found it difficult to get visas for Saudi Arabia, a country traditionally hostile to western media.
Once there, reporters had to resort to gathering most of their information through the government press pools and found themselves heavily deterred from going out onto the battlefields themselves.
Pete Williams, spokesman for the Pentagon during Desert Storm, testified in congressional hearings that the pool coverage had mixed successes. Williams said officials managed to get reporters to the action within four hours of the Jan. 17, 1991, invasion. But he said they weren’t able to get them to the scene of the shooting in time because of logistical problems.
Infuriated with their treatment in the gulf, reporters demanded more changes.
Another agreement, a nine-point statement of principles signed by the Pentagon and news media representatives on March 11, 1992, stated that “open and independent reporting will be the principal means of coverage of U.S. military operations.”
The new principles allowed the Pentagon to establish credentials for journalists, organize pools in extreme circumstances and eject those who fail to adhere to ground rules. But the principles called for as much open coverage as possible, encouraging military officials to permit journalists to ride on military vehicles and aircraft where possible.
In signing the agreement, defense officials stated that the department “believes that it must retain the option to review news material, to avoid the inadvertent inclusion in news reports of information that could endanger troop safety or the success of a mission.”
But in recent years, it wasn’t clear if the department would adhere to the principles. As the war in Afghanistan began, defense officials said they would use them as a starting point in determining how the press would cover it.
The press corps, however, signed the 1992 agreement, noting that it believes it showed in previous conflicts that journalists could act responsibly in times of war and that they shouldn’t be subject to prior security reviews.
The press made a promise: “We will challenge prior security review in the event that the Pentagon attempts to impose it in some future military operation.” — PT