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Lingering limits on war coverage frustrates Washington press corps

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Newsgathering         Oct 24, 2001    

Lingering limits on war coverage frustrates Washington press corps

  • Seventeen days into the war, the Pentagon continued to denounce press leaks and maintain a policy of forbidding reporters from covering raids and many other military encounters first hand.

Nearly a month has passed since defense officials promised four dozen Washington bureau chiefs that the Pentagon and the nation’s press corps would reach agreement on wartime coverage.

But 17 days into the war on Afghanistan, reporters remain on the sidelines.

Chuck Lewis, Washington bureau chief for Hearst Newspapers, said defense officials cast a sort of “velvet fog” over press briefings and media-military meetings, never really allowing coverage but never quite refusing it either.

“They never say no,” Lewis said. “It’s like a large feather mattress. Everything is left warm and fuzzy, and there is never any issue that gets people angry. Everything is possible. Everything is under consideration.”

The Pentagon and the press corps plan yet another meeting for Oct. 25 to renew discussions for an agreement for more open coverage in the new war.

Bureau chiefs don’t expect a breakthrough.

“They say they’ll get back to us and it’s still being studied,” Lewis said. “The only thing they ever say no on is, ‘No, you can’t go on special forces missions.'”

In the meantime, most reporters have resorted to culling information from press briefings at the Pentagon, occasional interviews on a U.S. aircraft carrier or on humanitarian aid airlifts or from carefully selected military videos. Leaks have served as the source of several stories about the war.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld denounced the leaks, particularly those about a late-night raid on Oct. 19 involving U.S. Army Rangers and other special forces near Kandahar, Afghanistan.

“The fact that some members of the press knew enough about those operations to ask the questions and to print the stories was clearly because someone in the Pentagon had provided them that information,” Rumsfeld said. “And clearly, it put at risk the individuals involved in the operation.”

Rumsfeld said he declined to answer questions last week because some of the forces remained in Afghanistan. On Oct. 22, he said the reports didn’t jeopardize the mission and that all of the troops returned safely.

But reporters still don’t know the purpose of the raid or whether it was successful, Lewis said.

To open up coverage, several news organizations and press-freedom groups called for Rumsfeld to relax restrictions on press coverage of the war. In an Oct. 17 letter, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 10 other groups appealed to the defense secretary for open war coverage and better access to information domestically. The American Society for Newspaper Editors and the Newspaper Association of America also urged Rumsfeld to adhere to principles of news coverage negotiated in 1992.

Pentagon officials haven’t responded to those concerns. But Rumsfeld, during the Oct. 22 briefing, reiterated a promise that he would not lie about U.S. military operations.

“You will receive only honest, direct answers from me, and they’ll either be that I know and I’ll answer you, or I don’t know, or I know and I won’t answer you,” he said. “And that’ll be it.”

PT

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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