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[] NYT 22.10.01: Reporters Want More Access, But Are Careful To Ask Nicely,
New York Times
October 22, 2001

Reporters Want More Access, But Are Careful To Ask Nicely

By Felicity Barringer

Severely restricted in their ability to cover American military action in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, American reporters and editors have been frustrated and careful about expressing that frustration publicly in recent days.

Although pressing for maximum access, they are modulating their requests. Some journalists want to avoid the appearance of being intemperate, which could endanger their chances for access.

If both the public, which is strongly behind the military, and the Pentagon itself, which has almost complete control over access to combat, turn against the news media, it could take months before any journalist came close to operations on the ground, the thinking goes.

Certainly, most journalists see the need to keep covert missions secret.

The news media are operating perhaps under the most severe limitations of any recent conflict. Unable to accompany ground troops, they cannot independently judge the effectiveness of the actions.

The ambivalence of news organizations was evident Saturday when Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, released video from a paratroop mission to Kandahar, Afghanistan. The quick delivery of the footage ? apparently less than 24 hours after the mission ? drew praise. CNN's Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre, said, "It's unprecedented ? we didn't see that in the gulf war." But he added, "While I have greatest respect for General Myers, I am still uncomfortable with fact that the entire version is based on what they told us and the selective video."

As Doyle McManus, the Washington bureau chief of The Los Angeles Times, said yesterday: "It's pretty easy to see that we're not going to have real-time reporting or verification of commando raids or covert action. I don't think most of us ever expected to. And in those areas the restrictions on their face are quite reasonable."

Mr. McManus added, "The question is going to arise more acutely a little down the road as we try and evaluate how this war is going, whether after a succession of different kinds of military operations, the strategy is working."

What journalists want to do, however, is get a little closer to the action ? onto the carrier Kitty Hawk, from which Friday's operation was launched ? to interview the participants after the mission.

"We all know that a year or two from now, some of them are going to be writing detailed, first-person colorful memoirs," Mr. McManus said. "What we'd like to do is reduce the gap between the mission and the memoirs."

However, Michael Getler, the former deputy managing editor of The Washington Post and its current ombudsman, says he believes the policy of keeping news organizations away from the fight or the fighters is likely to continue until pressure is exerted on the news media's behalf from high-ranking government officials.

"There's got to be a forceful advocate at a high place in the administration who also understands that the press's ability to carry out its mission is important," Mr. Getler said.

News organizations have pressed, politely, for a mutual understanding about accompanying troops since shortly after Sept. 11. On Thursday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld met with news media representatives and agreed, in principle, to accept the basic blueprint for front- line coverage that the news media and the Pentagon, then under Secretary Dick Cheney, agreed to in 1992.

Some requests for access have been met, at least partly. Lt. Cmdr. Dave Culler, a Pentagon news media officer, said yesterday that reporters had been working from three aircraft carriers in the region. The Enterprise, he said, has had 33 journalists on board. The Carl Vincent has had 39 journalists and the Theodore Roosevelt 16. The reporters and camera operators rotate through, each staying from two to five nights.

In Washington, the Pentagon correspondents got some response last week to their request for daily briefings, like those held at the White House and the State Department. On Thursday, Mr. Rumsfeld said the dynamics of daily briefings could result in a misplaced focus on issues he considered tangential. Pressed, he added jovially: "Let's hear it for the essential daily briefing, however hollow and empty it might be. We'll do it. Five days a week, not seven."

In the area of operations in Central and Southwest Asia, however, there is no give-and-take. There is no access to ground troops in the central command theater.

Mr. Rumsfeld indicated at the Thursday briefing that such restrictions could reflect the wishes of the host governments.

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