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Bush might see benefit of press access to war

From the Fall 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 9.

From the Fall 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 9.

By Patrick J. Sloyan

Seventeen reporters secretly flown to the front line to witness the start of the war against Osama Bin Laden, Inc., was evidence that, for the media, this one will be different.

Many wound up watching the first launch of warplanes from the deck of the USS Carl Vinson that bombed caves where Bin Laden once lived and strongholds of the Taliban. The extremist Islamic government in Kabul serves as host and protector for the Saudi exile.

Certainly, demands for more access by Washington bureau chiefs at a Sept. 28 Pentagon session contributed to the placement of writers and photographers with the carrier battlegroup.

But the reason the press and the world witnessed the catapulting of Hornets and Tomcats into attack was an order from the Commander-In-Chief: President George W. Bush wanted outraged Americans and their enemies to see some evidence of response to the Sept. 11 attacks on symbols of American military and economic supremacy.

In the coming months, Bush may be hard-pressed to come up with additional evidence of success against the elusive Bin Laden and his network of Islamic zealots who have inflicted serious wounds on the United States for the past 18 years.

One upshot is that Bush may open the way for journalists to be with front-line forces throughout the campaign, even traveling with Army Rangers who support Green Beret Special Forces as they comb the Hindu Kush for the bearded enemy.

To understand a looming sea-change for the media covering U.S. military operations, examine American operations during the Persian Gulf War:

Bush’s father, George Herbert Walker Bush, saw his presidential approval rating soar in 1991 as 300,000 allied troops confronted 400,000 Iraqi soldiers. Voter support of leaders–in Britain and Russia, too–tends to soar when the military is on the move.

For Bush the Elder, however, that political support could have vanished in the face of massive casualties–American or Iraqis. And so, Bush ordered Defense Secretary Dick Cheney to impose drastic curbs on the press to hide battlefield gore.

The only journalists permitted into Saudi Arabia to witness the conflict needed Saudi visas, which could be obtained only with U.S. approval. Newspaper, magazine, radio and television reporters alike were herded into a pool system agreed to by the Washington media establishment.

The richest, freest and most influential news organizations in the world bowed to imposition of press censorship.

Fears of a gas attack on allied troops by Saddam Hussein led Bush to declare a press blackout during the ground war. Dispatches, stills and film were delayed or “lost” by military censors. For the 150 reporters deployed in the pool with various units, not one obtained an eyewitness account, a photograph or a strip of video of the Army’s biggest ground action since World War II.

Journalists who defied the pool system found roadblocks everywhere. More than 100 were detained, arrested and often roughed up by military police and public affairs officers. Associated Press photographer Scott Applewhite was punched, handcuffed and had his film seized when he photographed American soldiers killed by an Iraqi Scud missile.

Meanwhile, the world was treated to video footage of “smart bombs” destroying empty bridges, sterile-looking buildings, bunkers and other targets in which no human being could be seen. There was no killing, no blood, no grief and no tragedies that are a part of every military conflict.

Bush and Cheney so masked the reality of war that many were stunned by my accounts in Newsday months after Desert Storm ended. My 13 articles, including one on the burial of thousands of Iraqi soldiers by U.S. tanks mounted with plows, won the Pulitzer for International Reporting as well as the George Polk Award for War Reporting.

For Bush the Younger and Cheney, now Vice President, it will be almost impossible to manipulate the reality of war.

Major news organizations have fielded reporters in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and other locations. Initial airstrikes were televised and thoroughly reviewed by journalists on the ground. And, American military options may be so limited and ground operations so small in scale that it may appear that Bush is doing little to deliver on his promise to bring them to justice, dead or alive.

As a result, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is “thinking out of the box,” as his aides say. That could include “embedding,” or sending along reporters with strike forces. And, no Pentagon “security review” — the euphemism for censorship — for dispatches, film and video.

Unfettering the press may give Bush the maximum exposure for efforts that seem minimal in contrast to Desert Storm.

For sure, some senior military commanders may balk at reporters at the front, just as they have in the past. But the military follows orders: It is naive to believe the generals or the sergeants are deciding ground rules for the media. Coverage of the coming conflict will be up to President Bush, who was transformed into a bigger man by events of Sept. 11. And, it is the press who will take his measure as the months go by.

While grabbing or squashing Bin Laden would help, there are no dramatic victories on the horizon that would quench the bloodlust abroad in the United States. In the past, U.S. efforts to nail men who staged terrorist strikes simply tailed off as memories faded. One of the faces on the Most Wanted poster issued recently by Bush included a man wanted in connection with the massacre of 241 Marines and others in Beirut in 1983. Diplomatic and political barriers have frustrated official revenge for the bombing of Pan Am 106 over Lockerbie and U.S. Air Force barracks at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia.

There are plenty of suspects in Iran, Syria and Iraq. Rounding those folks up will be more than difficult for Bush.

Sloyan is currently working on a book about events in 1963 that led to the U.S. commitment to a 10-year war in Vietnam. He retired as senior correspondent for Newsday‘s Washington bureau after covering national and international news for more than 40 years.