Journalists fear Bush, Pentagon will resort to old coverage ways with latest war
From the Fall 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 4.
By Phillip Taylor
Assistant Defense Secretary Victoria Clarke and a battery of U.S. military officials stood before four dozen Washington press bureau chiefs in the briefing room of a disfigured Pentagon building, trying to assuage the journalists’ worries that the latest conflict might go as a war uncovered.
War coverage, Clarke told them during the Sept. 28 meeting, is essential to both the public and the military. She said that while it’s a difficult task to draw up agreements between the military and the media during times of conflict, they would be completed.
“We are in a whole new world here,” she said. “We’re trying to figure out the rules of the road. We are trying to figure out how to work with you, how to make sure you get what you need . . . while protecting the national security and the safety of the men and women in uniform.”
Even as she offered the journalists assurances about coverage, reports spilled out from Afghanistan that U.S. special forces were scouring the country already and, perhaps, had been there days earlier. Nine days later, America struck Afghanistan full force without a formal military-media agreement in place.
Shades of the Persian Gulf, some bureau chiefs say, recalling the setting of a 33-day war many press advocates consider one of the most restricted in history in terms of media coverage. They remember well how armed forces reached the gulf three days before the journalists. And when the press corps finally arrived, Pentagon officials corralled their reporters into daily press briefings and pools.
Although the Pentagon summoned 40 journalists to cover the start of the new war from three U.S. warships, the chiefs worry that their best vantage point for the war won’t be amid the action.
Clark Hoyt, longtime Washington editor for Knight-Ridder, praised some of the Pentagon’s first steps in allowing press access to the United States’ burgeoning conflict with terrorists and those who harbor them. But Hoyt stressed that there must be more.
“There’s a strong predilection in many areas of the uniformed services to shut out journalists and not want to have to deal with them,” he said. “It’s really the responsibility of civilian leaders and the top military leadership to change that culture and to open operations up to the extent that legitimate security concerns allow.”
Pentagon officials insist they understand the need to make access rules “as transparent as possible, to be as open as possible.” And they warned that the perfect coverage scenario isn’t apparent, given the unknown conditions that might arise in the current war.
Old talk, new war
Peter Arnett, a veteran journalist of the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, has heard the talk before — first, 37 years ago in Vietnam, and then again, 26 years later, in Iraq.
Defense officials once dubbed the conflicts in Southeast Asia a “secret war,” describing it as “one like no other” and, thus, one requiring careful thinking before dumping hundreds of journalists into an unforgiving jungle. And then officials commandeering the forces in the Persian Gulf arena, with its desert background and a chemical-weapons threat, considered the war to be a uniquely different one as well.
All wars are different, Arnett said, yet two military concerns — secrecy and security — remain constant.
“Military officials always are concerned about reporters getting information out there that could be damaging to their operations,” he said.
Despite those concerns, the journalist must be there to document the wars, Arnett said. But he fears the Pentagon has been too successful in restricting journalists from collecting real-life accounts during recent wars, forcing them to rely on government footage and information.
“As journalists, where are the kinds of historical photographs and accounts that will be used later on?” Arnett asked about the current war. “I feel like, this time, we’re not even covering the buildup.”
Security, secrecy concerns
For weeks, the Bush administration and the Pentagon stressed that much of the “Enduring Freedom” operation would be conducted under a shroud of secrecy. Emphasizing the “different war” concept, officials said many aspects of the war might not be evident, suggesting that the battlefield would extend beyond the American home front, beyond Afghanistan, and into cyberspace.
The results of battle, they said, might not be known until well after the battle had been waged.
President Bush warned the press that he wouldn’t be amenable to making it easy for journalists to get inside the heads of his military advisers.
“Let me condition the press this way: Any sources and methods of intelligence will remain guarded in secret,” Bush said. “My administration will not talk about how we gather intelligence, if we gather intelligence and what the intelligence says. That’s for the protection of the American people.”
Attorney General John Ashcroft echoed those concerns in an Oct. 12 memo directing agency leaders to be cautious in releasing records to journalists and others under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
“Any discretionary decision by your agency to disclose information protected under the FOIA should be made only after full and deliberate consideration of the institutional, commercial, and personal privacy interests” in releasing those records, Ashcroft wrote.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, too, strongly cautioned government workers, as potential leakers of classified information, that such exposure jeopardizes the “lives of men and women in uniform” and would be prosecuted.
Such caution has filtered through the ranks as shown in a recent issue of Tip of the Sword, the newsletter of the U.S. Air Force 39th Wing based in Turkey, where a public affairs officer warns air personnel to direct all media inquiries to his office.
“A key thing to remember when it comes to the media is they as an entity look for soundbites that help them sell newspapers or broadcast airtime,” Capt. John Haynes wrote. “They are not always concerned about maintaining communications security, keeping their interview subject out of trouble, or the good of the Air Force.”
Those things said, bureau chiefs said Pentagon officials seemed genuinely sincere during the Sept. 28 meeting that they wanted to allow the press as much room as possible in covering the new war.
“The Pentagon is literally writing it as it goes,” said Chuck Lewis, Washington bureau chief for Hearst Newspapers. “But the meeting . . . was filled with an expression of good faith and hope that we can figure this out. It’s not a model that has been pulled off the shelf.”
Although the two groups failed to craft a definitive military-media agreement before the war started on Oct. 7, the Pentagon summoned 40 journalists to join military forces. Some were placed on the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier and two other U.S. warships, free to talk to soldiers and sailors provided they didn’t publish their sources’ last names or reveal sensitive military information.
The absence of the agreement, however, left concerns about how other matters of war would be covered by the press, if at all.
Off the battlefield
Jacqueline Sharkey, a University of Arizona journalism professor and author of “Under Fire — U.S. Military Restrictions on the Media from Grenada to the Persian Gulf,” said history shows that the news media should remain concerned about restrictions.
“The indications that the White House and the Pentagon will work to keep reporters off the battlefield are very disturbing because it is crucial that journalists be there as eyewitnesses, even if they can’t report on what they see immediately or even in the short term,” Sharkey said.
“The most important thing is for the public to be informed — in the long term — about military engagements,” she said. “There are few decisions more important in a democracy than the decision to go to war.”
And that means, she said, for journalists not only to be at command centers but at the front lines, gathering information about how the military conducts its business.
“It’s impossible for the public to make informed decisions about war if the only information comes from the government.”
She debunks as myths concerns that journalists can’t keep secrets or that they haphazardly violate security measures, adding that she has never heard of any journalist who wasn’t willing to withhold information when troop movement or national security was at stake.
“Journalists have always agreed that those are the two reasons to withhold information,” she said. “And journalists have always agreed to abide by those rules.”
The record shows an impressive history.
Journalists dressed in military uniform stormed the beaches alongside soldiers during the Normandy Invasion and upheld an agreement to not file their stories until after the invasion had been deemed successful. A New York Times reporter later in the war rode with the bombing squad on its way to Hiroshima, agreeing to withhold his account until three days later.
Ten years of fighting in Vietnam yielded fewer than a dozen serious national security violations, according to statistics compiled by the Pentagon itself. Sharkey noted that some were due to foreign journalists and none contributed to the death of American soldiers.
Journalists, too, knew of the infamous “left hook” plan of attack during the Persian Gulf War but never revealed that the amphibious attack planned for Iraq’s Gulf shore was merely a ruse.
And more recently, the Washington press corps knew days before the Oct. 7 attack that combat was imminent as the Pentagon called their reporters for press pool duty. And not one journalist revealed a thing.
John MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s and author of “Second Front,” a book about Gulf War censorship, predicts that the war would soon become “the most censored war in history,” noting that coverage is on course with that of the Gulf War.
And he blames the American press corps for committing neither the energy nor the resources to wage a battle for its right of access to the battlefield.
“They have violated this by the principle of informed consent,” MacArthur said. “If things go badly or things go well, the American people have a right to know what is being done in their name. They have a right to change their mind.”
The Pentagon, he added, plans to restrict coverage as much as possible to maintain public support. Military officials don’t want a repeat of footage captured in Somalia, where rebels dragged the corpses of dead Americans through the streets.
“They talk about invisible victories, but there will also be invisible defeats,” said MacArthur, whose magazine joined The Nation, the Village Voice and others to sue the government over press restrictions during the Gulf War.
That lawsuit was dismissed in April 1991 because of the war’s end. But MacArthur said the federal district judge wrote a good opinion expressing the importance of the issue, thus giving weight to perhaps another lawsuit in the near future.
Again, MacArthur and company might remain alone in their challenge, as larger media groups try to tackle press restrictions in other ways.
“The press is not in great shape to resist all of this,” said Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum. “News organizations are scrambling to refurbish long-neglected foreign operations in a probably futile effort to be ready for a very different kind of ‘war’ on multiple fronts with multiple modes of battle against an unseen enemy.”
The compromise the media made with the military is the national media pool.
The Pentagon has used the pool only sporadically since the Persian Gulf War and not at all since a brief engagement in Peru in 1997. Defense officials secretly organized one of its largest pools to date — 23 journalists and five military escorts — for an invasion of Haiti in 1994 that was later scrapped.
But the pool was never designed as a substitute for open coverage, said Fred Hoffman, chairman of the Pentagon’s investigation into news coverage of the invasion of Panama.
“After the pool had done its job in the early stage of an operation where there was no other American news presence, then at the earliest possible time, it was supposed to transition to open coverage,” Hoffman told a Senate panel in 1991, noting his distress when it didn’t happen in the Persian Gulf War.
Hoffman dismissed concerns about the safety of journalists, noting that newsmen and women had always risked their lives to gather information. And he said that journalists rarely created security breaches as proven by the Pentagon’s own research.
Peter Arnett said the media pool does enable journalists to report wars in forbidding places such as a jungle or a desert.
“There are some intrepid reporters driving across the border, but it’s really, really dangerous,” said Arnett, who covered the initial bombing of the Persian Gulf War for CNN from a hotel room in downtown Baghdad.
“It’s very difficult for personal initiatives.”
But he said open coverage is necessary to get the complete story with little government interference. And that means not only keeping the Pentagon honest, but American enemies as well.
“If we weren’t in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein could have said there were 10,000 casualties that first day,” said Arnett, who was on the scene with colleagues Bernard Shaw and John Holliman. “We were able to say there was none.”
And he disagreed that press coverage circumvents public support for war. The American people, he said, are smart enough to make decisions for themselves.
“Words don’t melt people’s brains,” he said.
Clark Hoyt of Knight Ridder agrees, saying he doesn’t want a repeat of the Persian Gulf War. While pool coverage might work in the early days of an invasion, it must yield to open coverage.
“I think pools were misused and reporters were, in some cases, held incommunicado,” Hoyt said. “The pools were a way of capturing reporters instead of letting them do their jobs. The Persian Gulf War was a war by briefing and Department of Defense videotapes, and a war remarkably uncovered.”