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The press preps for war hopeful, skeptical

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From the Winter 2003 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 14.

From the Winter 2003 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 14.

By Kathleen Dunphy

Much to the surprise and skepticism of journalists, the Pentagon late last year announced plans to allow reporters onto the front lines of possible military action in Iraq. With war still pending, the Pentagon has no official policies — yet. Rather, it is examining what it calls a “contingency plan.”

Still, journalists are preparing for a role they hope to be allowed to fill if the United States attacks Iraq. News organization managers have met with Pentagon officials. By the end of February, four groups of about 238 journalists will have attended reporters’ military training camps to better prepare them for the battlefield. And the Pentagon has promised that “hundreds of reporters” will be embedded with troops.

The Pentagon made plans to embed reporters into military units at the request of media, said Bryan Whitman, Pentagon deputy assistant secretary of press affairs. Journalists’ desire to cover military operations as closely as possible influenced the Pentagon’s new plans, he said.

Most military reporters see this policy change as an about face from the access during the Gulf War.

Some journalists see the move as a method to combat possible propaganda from Saddam Hussein, while others say the administration learned the hazards of imposing harsh restrictions on the press. But only time will tell whether the government will implement this policy of openness or if it will fall by the wayside like so many before it.

During some of the discussions with media regarding the policy change last fall, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spelled out the Pentagon’s intention to cooperate with the press.

“I think that as a principle, given our Constitution and the way our free system works, that it’s always helpful, generally almost always helpful to have the press there to see things and be able to report and comment and provide information about what’s taking place,” Rumsfeld told a group of managers from news organizations. “There are obviously times when that’s not appropriate, the danger is too great or the confidentiality of what’s taking place is such that it’s not appropriate.”

Rumsfeld acknowledged that press access also can help the Pentagon: “Is it a core principle? Sure. It is something more than that. It’s also self-serving in this sense. So I consider it not just the right thing to do but also a helpful thing.”

Journalists and government officials discussed these issues at a January conference on covering the War on Terror in Washington, D.C.

“I’m skeptical as to whether the Pentagon is going to allow real coverage of this war,” Washington Post editor Len Downie told conference attendees.

Paul McMasters, ombudsman for the Freedom Forum, alluded to the patterns of the past.

“What amazes me about the American press and the American public is that we’re a bit like Charlie Brown kicking the football. Every time, there’s a lot of good honest talk. Then the day war breaks out it’s all jettisoned because ‘this war is different,'” McMasters said.

Col. Jay DeFrank, director of the Department of Defense press operations office also spoke at the conference and encouraged reporters to push as hard as they can to gain access.

“We’ll provide the greatest degrees of access possible commensurate with the safety of the people we put in harm’s way and the success of the mission,” DeFrank said.

Empty promises

Press access to military front lines has been a contentious subject since the Vietnam war, where extensive coverage was blamed for making the action unpopular at home.

The pool reporting system that was instituted in response to complaints over the lack of access during the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada did not satisfy reporters covering the Persian Gulf War in 1991, as they were never taken near the fighting and were left to collect information from Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s daily military briefings.

After the September 11 attacks, not even pool reporting was used in Afghanistan, where many reporters tried to gain access to the country without military escort in the hopes they could find information. That could now change if embedding programs are solidified and followed by the Defense Department.

The roots of the media’s skepticism go back to promises made by the Defense Department following the Gulf War in 1992.

The Pentagon and the press agreed upon nine points relating to military coverage, including commitments to give journalists access to all military units whenever feasible, to allow them to use their own methods of communication for filing stories, and to use press pools only when specifically required.

But reporters covering military engagements in Bosnia and Afghanistan faced restrictions beyond what the post-Gulf War agreement stated.

“What you know about Afghanistan successes and failures came from independent American reporters who risked their lives to get stories. The military prevented reporters from going up the mountain at Tora Bora. We don’t know how bin Laden escaped Tora Bora because reporters weren’t allowed to be there,” Downie said during the January conference.

Tom Bowman, military affairs reporter for The (Baltimore) Sun, experienced firsthand the frustration of the limited access.

“We didn’t have access to front line forces — the information was spotty at best. There was a small window of really good access. Overall it was pretty abysmal in Afghanistan,” Bowman said.

Reporters saw no notable shift in policy until the Pentagon announced in Fall 2002 that it was considering plans for news media coverage in Iraq.

McMasters sees the shift as a natural outcome of the sharp learning curve new administrations face.

“The people in place now have had the experience of Afghanistan under their belt and realize they might have been too restrictive,” McMasters said.

At the same time, McMasters questioned the likelihood that the government will implement these new regulations if a war against Iraq begins.

“It would be a pleasant surprise if the Pentagon followed through wholeheartedly. It would be a departure from past experiences,” he said.

“These arrangements have a way of keeping press mollified after and before actions begin, and they are difficult to re-negotiate,” McMasters said.

He acknowledged that both the press and the military need flexibility when creating policy because of the unknown aspects that confront both sides once wartime actions are initiated.

A good start

This call to increase access to the military not just at home but also in times of conflict is the reason a group of journalists established Military Reporters and Editors last fall.

Sig Christenson, a military reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, sees the new policies and training as a good start. A member of the newly formed MRE, he was among the first group of journalists to go through the military training offered by the Pentagon.

“Hopefully the armed services recognize the advantages of having us with the troops,” Christenson said. “This is all about the American people’s right to know what is being done and, as Walter Cronkite said, their obligation to know what is being done in their name.”

The Sun’s Bowman also has been through reporters’ military training at Fort Benning, Ga. He was one of 60 journalists to go through tactical training, learn first-aid techniques and practice battlefield maneuvers, including wearing chemical suits into a chamber filled with CS tear gas.

“I wouldn’t call it Club Med, but compared to boot camp this was mild. Anytime you can get out there away from the Pentagon and meet actual soldiers it’s great,” Bowman said.

His group, the second to go through the reporters’ training, spent a week in December honing their skills, and often did calisthenics with soldiers.

Christenson stressed the importance of actually spending time with troops, emphasizing their professionalism and dedication — something he feels is invisible to the public unless journalists are allowed to remain with the troops and document their lives in the field.

Reaction

While McMasters views the latest policies as a welcome change, he questions some components. If reporters embedded with troops were required to remain with one unit permanently (one of the regulations being discussed) the reporting could take a more limited scope. Also, journalists might not have any choice concerning which unit they are assigned to and at what level.

The Pentagon’s Whitman sees embedding as an opportunity for journalists to develop a relationship with the unit they cover. The best way to maximize coverage is for them to be in different areas at different levels, but there is no guarantee that will happen.

Mark Thompson, national security correspondent for Time magazine, said he feels one of the notable changes this time around is that the decisions regarding what is safe to report have moved from higher levels of military down to leaders in the field. He believes this allows for better reporting.

“Most military guys down at lower levels like having the press there and show the good as well as the bad,” Thompson said.

Another criticism raised by military journalists is that this new policy of openness is being implemented not as an acknowledgment of First Amendment rights, but as a weapon against the enemy.

“Having an independent, objective reporter on the battlefield has the effect of mitigating disinformation. Saddam Hussein is a practiced liar. I can’t think of a better way to counter that fact,” Whitman said.

Once any military action taken in Iraq is complete, there is no guarantee that the same embedding rules will be used in future attacks. A new enemy could likely inspire new tactics where increased freedom of the press does not serve the military as well, and is subsequently disregarded.

“I wouldn’t want to make any global worldwide statement about what a conflict might look like and how media might report on it,” Whitman said.

He added that the current policies are part of a contingency plan created for a possible attack on Iraq.

Despite the fact that reporters’ wishes were apparently instrumental in the Pentagon’s recent dedication to embedding reporters, Whitman explained that there is no way to know if such a practice will continue during later conflicts.

“No one suddenly slammed their hand against their forehead and said ‘Boy . . . that First Amendment!'” Bowman said.

Bowman said the military wants reporters as far forward in the action as possible so that there will be an independent record of what transpires. Despite these criticisms, no one called the policies a step backward. Most welcome them, and hope they stay in place.

The ideal situation McMasters envisions would be a balance between general independent reporting, pool reports and embedded accounts. Each has its value, and when combined can offer the most information to the public.

Independent reporting offers perspective while embedded reporters gain personal knowledge not just of the terrain, but of the soldiers fighting. This bird’s-eye view of the trenches offers the public a more personal glimpse of the war.

“We not only report the news, but record history,” Christenson said.