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[] WPO 22.10.01: Media Notes,
Washington Post
October 22, 2001

Media Notes

By Howard Kurtz, Washington Post Staff Writer

Armed With A Pencil, New Recruits Learn The War Beat

The reinforcements are arriving at the Pentagon.

As the sometimes-lonely outpost across the Potomac is transformed into a 24-hour hot spot, the networks have been forced to send fresh troops to the front lines. And some journalists who couldn't tell a Stinger from a Scud are trying to penetrate the military culture in the midst of the war in Afghanistan.

"Since you're dealing with classified information on a daily basis, people aren't willing to share it with just anyone," says Jim Miklaszewski of NBC, a seven-year veteran. "You really do have to establish yourself and build a reputation before people are willing to trust you."

That, he says, means pounding the marble across 17 1/2 miles of corridors: "The people you have to talk to are told their phones are subjected to monitoring by various security agencies within the military."

While Miklaszewski and his most experienced colleagues -- David Martin of CBS, John McWethy of ABC and Jamie McIntyre of CNN -- have been well wired for years, the "newcomers," as the brass calls them, are conscious of their neophyte status.

"You have to get up to speed on a lot of different things, different issues, different pieces of equipment," says Bret Baier of Fox News, who was brought in from Atlanta. "You're going up against the Miklaszewskis, McWethys, McIntyres and Martins of the world, who have been here a long time."

Norah O'Donnell, an MSNBC political reporter drafted for Pentagon duty, says she knows some officials there from a stint during Kosovo. "The problem is developing good sources who are willing to give you good information they aren't giving anyone else," she says. "That comes with time."

As for the complexities, says O'Donnell, "I'm an Army brat, so I'm familiar with the terminology. I wasn't an expert on AC-130 gunships or B-1s, B-2s and B-52s, but I certainly am now."

CNN's Bob Franken says the Pentagon is now his temporary home. "It's a specialized beat, but a reporter's job is to get familiar damn fast," he says. But, he complains, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld "handles my questions with too much ease for my ego."

The military beat is quite a change for Franken: "My last big assignment was Gary Condit, a story of, how shall I say it, somewhat less significance, although consuming interest. This one, obviously, is history."

Sheilah Kast, a former ABC reporter, is doing freelance work for CNN at the Pentagon. "I raised my hand," she says. "I looked at the pictures on September 11 and thought I want to do something, and television news is what I know how to do."

Still, there's no substitute for experience. "The biggest thing is being able to read the code," says CBS's Martin, an 18-year veteran who says he knew to the hour when the air war would start. "If they use one word different, I'm all over it. I can get grunts and nods.

"The other thing is body language. You can just tell after X number of years. When something's about to happen, it's so obvious they might as well have their hats on backwards. Guys whose doors used to be open are closed, or they're walking a half-step faster in the hallways."

In the months before the terrorist attacks, Miklaszewski says, "this place just sort of fell off the face of the news planet for a while. Trying to sell military reorganization or quadrennial defense reviews to television -- even the reporters covering the story had their eyes rolling in the back of their head." These days, he works from 5:45 a.m. to 8 or 9 p.m. -- a far cry from the summertime lull.

Footnote: Print organizations are also calling in backup support. The Los Angeles Times, for example, has temporarily tapped National Journal military writer George Wilson (a longtime Washington Post veteran) and hired Seattle Times reporter John Hendren.

Captive Audience

When American warplanes took off for Afghanistan Oct. 7, the television reporters on the USS Carl Vinson were one frustrated lot.

Their stories didn't air until as much as 20 hours later, after their videotape was helicoptered to Bahrain for transmission -- well after newspapers and Web sites carried the news. "The Navy locked us down and we could not file live," CNN's Walter Rodgers said on the air.

Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke says Navy officials "couldn't get the helicopters up and going fast enough. It wasn't held back for any editorial reasons. People were preoccupied with the first night of the activities." The problem, she says, has not recurred.

How Dumb Are Journalists?

Assignment editor Bryan Thielke at Seattle's KIRO-TV faces possible charges after filling an envelope with crushed peppermint Life Savers and mailing it to the newsroom with an "Anthrax, FL" return address. Police were quickly summoned.

And Steve Oswalt, a reporter at Des Moines' KCCI-TV, was fired after sprinkling face powder in the newsroom in front of some colleagues.

Censorship Struggle

The late Washington columnist Drew Pearson would have been amused by the emerging debate over what the media should report about the war against terrorism.

In his new book, "Secrets of Victory," author Michael Sweeney recalls how Pearson was often in trouble with the Office of Censorship during World War II.

Five days after Pearl Harbor, according to Pearson, FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover threatened to jail him unless he killed a column detailing the damage from the Japanese attack. "I told Edgar that he was nuts," Pearson wrote in his diary. Still, he and his co-author persuaded all but one newspaper client to spike the piece.

In the spring of 1942, Pearson told a New York gathering about the damage at Pearl Harbor. A New York Times reporter in the audience wrote a memo to his bosses, which made its way to Publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who notified the Roosevelt administration. That triggered an FBI probe of Pearson, who was ordered to submit all his radio scripts for federal approval.

In a 1943 broadcast on WMAL, the muckraker revealed what several reporters had suppressed: that Gen. George Patton had slapped a soldier in Sicily. Times Managing Editor Edwin James reminded censorship chief Byron Price that Price had already killed the paper's Pearl Harbor story. As for the slapping incident, he wrote, "we did not even bother about submitting it to you because we thought you would say we should not publish it. . . . Aren't the newspapers being suckers?"

Pearson redeemed himself in the administration's eyes by holding back news long before Hiroshima that America was developing an atomic bomb.

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