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Pentagon considers 'embedding' journalists in fighting units

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Newsgathering         Oct 1, 2001    

Pentagon considers ’embedding’ journalists in fighting units

  • Allowing reporters to join troops in combat in a limited way surfaces as a possibility, as defense officials and the news media began negotiating the ground rules for reporting U.S. military operations following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

For the next war, American journalists might — in a limited way — join troops in ground attacks against Afghanistan or stand aboard aircraft carriers serving as launch pads for jets on bombing raids.

But then, they may be forced to gather in press pools, similar to those assembled for reporting the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

Both situations and various other scenarios surfaced as possibilities last week, as defense officials and the news media began negotiating the ground rules for covering any U.S. military operations following terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon building on Sept. 11.

But a Sept. 28 meeting between Pentagon officials and news media representatives left it clear that ground rules for reporting a new war are not clear.

“We are in a whole new world here,” defense department spokesperson Torie Clarke told nearly four dozen Washington bureau chiefs. “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.”

Throughout the meeting, Clarke and other Pentagon officials stressed the need for providing as much news as possible and making access rules “as transparent as possible, to be as open as possible.” But they warned that the perfect scenario for journalists in the upcoming war isn’t immediately apparent, given the unknown conditions that may arise in a coming war.

“Essentially, they opened up the floor for negotiations,” said John Henry, Washington bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle. “They had no set plan at this point. It looks like we’re going to be designing policy as we go along.”

The Pentagon on Sept. 28 gathered the bureau chiefs to discuss what kind of access to military operations American journalists should enjoy in the coming months.

The meeting follows concerns of journalists that defense officials might try to stifle their efforts of covering the war by keeping them to the sidelines.

Journalists roundly criticized defense officials during the Gulf War in 1991 for herding reporters into press pools, essentially keeping them away from most of the action. That led to a series of discussions that eventually resulted in a nine-point agreement on media affairs in future engagements.

Defense officials said they planned to use those rules as a starting point for future discussions and asked the bureau chiefs to offer their recommendations by today.

Clarke said Pentagon officials are strongly considering ways to “embed” journalists into military operations. But she said they would likely resort to press pools in certain situations.

The Pentagon has used the national media pool only sporadically since the Persian Gulf War and not at all within the past five years. 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.

Army Col. Lane Van de Steeg, coordinator of the pool, said the Pentagon stands ready to deploy the pool again. For the next three months, the pool will include reporters from CBS Radio, NBC News, Time magazine, the Associated Press, Knight-Ridder, the Baltimore Sun, the Christian Science Monitor and Media General.

“Pools are not the ideal by any means; it’s almost the last resort,” Clarke said. “We would much rather have open reporting. It is just one of many contingencies we’re trying to plan for.”

PT

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