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[infowar.de] LAT 1.11.01: Media Still Wait to Be Called Up
Media Still Wait to Be Called Up
Reporters grow increasingly frustrated at Pentagon's denial of
access to the battle against terrorism
By DAVID SHAW
Times Staff Writer
November 1 2001
U.S. military forces are waging an unprecedented war on terrorism
thousands of miles from home, but Americans eager to know how the
troops are doing have had to rely largely on the Pentagon to
evaluate its own success.
Major news organizations have journalists aboard several U.S.
warships in the Arabian Sea, as well as in narrowly circumscribed
areas of Afghanistan and in a number of surrounding countries. But
the media have had no direct access to military units on the ground
or to the sites from which they have been launched.
Questions about military action have often been brushed aside by
Pentagon officials as venturing onto the forbidden terrain of
"tactics, techniques and procedures." Gen. Tommy Franks, commander
of the U.S. troops, has given only two news briefings, in contrast
with his counterpart in the Gulf War, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf,
who sometimes seemed to spend as much time with the media as with
Pentagon officials have said repeatedly that the war effort is
succeeding. "We're pretty much on our plan . . . we're in the
driver's seat," Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff, said at Monday's news briefing.
But congressional critics, and even some U.S. allies, question this
assertion. They wonder if the U.S. campaign is stalling, perhaps
even backfiring, given continued resistance by Afghanistan's Taliban
rulers, the accidental bombing of civilian targets, and the failure
to capture Osama bin Laden.
Who's right? Because of restrictions on access, U.S. reporters
cannot provide much independent, first-hand observation.
Tension between the U.S. military and the media is not new. Three
decades of mutual distrust and a natural, ever-widening cultural gap
have made it increasingly difficult for the two to work together.
In this war--fought in a remote combat zone against an elusive
enemy, with success almost as difficult to evaluate as it is to
achieve--the media are finding it more challenging than ever to
fulfill their obligation to tell the American people what the
government is doing and how well it's doing it.
John Barry, Newsweek's Pentagon reporter, says access is being
restricted precisely because the Bush administration and the Defense
Department "don't really know how well the war is going" and are
reluctant to permit coverage that "might not be consonant with their
basic message that they're making inexorable progress toward
"They've had a whole series of minor tactical successes, but they
don't know if that adds up to a major strategic success," Barry
says. "They don't even know how to measure success in this kind of
war, and they're as frustrated by that as the reporters are."
Despite some slippage, public opinion continues to be solidly behind
the military. In a Pew Research Center Poll released last week, 59%
of respondents said the military "should exert more control" over
reporting on the war. Only 28% said decisions on coverage should be
left to news organizations.
Journalists are growing increasingly frustrated. They are frustrated
because the military controls the information and the access and
because the public doesn't appear to see the media as its surrogate,
as an essential, trustworthy source of information on the conduct of
'It's fundamentally important that when America goes to war,
independent journalists--in every case where it is practical and
possible--be there as the country's eyes and ears," says Clark Hoyt,
Washington editor for the Knight Ridder newspaper chain. "In the
long run . . . when all that people learn about the war comes
through official government channels and enemy channels, it can lead
to questions of government credibility."
Donald H. Rumsfeld, the secretary of Defense, told reporters last
week that he recognizes "the need to provide the press--and, through
you, the American people--with information to the fullest extent
possible. . . . Defending our freedom and way of life is what this
conflict is all about, and that certainly includes freedom of the
But Rumsfeld and President Bush have often said that some operations
will be conducted in secret and will remain secret. The Pentagon
says it's providing as much information and access as it can without
jeopardizing its missions and its troops.
Journalists realize they can't parachute into hostile territory with
special operations units, and they say they don't want to put the
U.S. war effort at risk. Victoria Clarke, the Defense Department
spokeswoman, says the overwhelming majority of Pentagon
correspondents "support completely our concerns about operational
security and troop safety" and have often checked with her when they
had information they thought might put someone at risk.
Reporters knew in advance when the ground assault in the Gulf War
and the air bombardment in Afghanistan would begin, and they
disclosed neither beforehand.
In many instances in previous conflicts--and several times since the
bombing in Afghanistan began--the Pentagon has asked the media to
withhold certain details or delay certain stories, and the media
have complied. The New York Times did so most famously on the eve of
the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1962, and President John F. Kennedy
subsequently told the paper's executive editor: "If you had printed
more about the operation, you would have saved us from a colossal
In the current conflict, reporters want access to the staging areas
for special operations forces, aboard the aircraft carrier Kitty
Hawk and on the ground in central Asia.
"We want to talk to these guys before they go in and after they come
back and try to get as close a sense of reality as we can," says
David Martin, longtime Pentagon correspondent for CBS News.
Journalists say that access would enable them to put a human face on
the war effort and "find out what actually happened," in the words
of Robert Burns, Pentagon correspondent for Associated Press.
David Shribman, Washington bureau chief for the Boston Globe, says
reporters are "so separate from the action that we don't even know
what questions we should be asking."
Rumsfeld has endorsed nine principles of combat coverage negotiated
by news organizations and the Pentagon after the Gulf War. These
call for--among other things--independent combat reporting and media
access to "all major military units.' But reporters have yet to
Even when they have been granted access, journalists have operated
under Pentagon control--as when their first stories from the
aircraft carriers that launched the attacks on Afghanistan were
delayed several hours.
Clarke, the Pentagon spokeswoman, said Wednesday that she had
received approval for reporters to interview "soon," by telephone or
video telephone, members of the special operations units that
parachuted into Afghanistan on Oct. 19. She also said her superiors
had approved--and she would soon schedule--phone interviews with
troops of the 10th Mountain Division, in Uzbekistan.
Rumsfeld has granted a number of interviews and has frequently given
the daily news briefing as well--answering questions, Martin says,
rather than simply repeating talking points, as many of his
predecessors did. But Rumsfeld has been more available than
"I've covered a dozen conflicts, either from Washington or from the
battlefield, and to cover them well, you need as much detail as you
can get, and we're just not getting that kind of detail," says John
McWethy, veteran Pentagon correspondent for ABC News.
Rumsfeld, says Burns, has "a natural disinclination to say more than
absolutely necessary in any circumstance."
This is important, several Pentagon correspondents say, because
Rumsfeld has become "the voice of this war." He has supplanted
on-the-scene military commanders who served as news media briefers
in previous wars and "unilaterally shut down other channels of
communication in an unprecedented fashion," says Thomas E. Ricks,
Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post.
"The kind of people we usually go to in the Pentagon for guidance on
a background basis now say, 'If they knew I was talking to you,
they'd cut my tongue out,' " Ricks says.
This attitude arises in large measure from a deep, long-standing
cultural gap between the military and the media.
The military has its mission--win the war--and sometimes, to avoid
jeopardizing operations and endangering troops, that means not
giving the media what they want when they want it. The news media
has its mission--report the facts--and, sometimes that means
disclosing failures and foul-ups, even if doing so threatens
military morale and civilian support.
Journalists are skeptical and iconoclastic. They see their role in
society as speaking uncomfortable truth to entrenched power. They're
inclined to challenge--and often to distrust--authority, to question
everything and everyone.
The military is hierarchical and traditional. It teaches respect for
and obedience to authority; ultimately, troops are trained for war,
and questioning orders on the battlefield can lead to delay,
Reporters have been covering military conflicts since the Crimean
War in the mid-19th century, and American correspondents have been
dying in combat since the Civil War. While there were occasional
conflicts between the media and the military over the next century,
reporters and photographers were largely welcome among the troops,
who recognized and appreciated their shared risk. Some reporters
became heroes to the men they covered--most notably Ernie Pyle, who
wrote about the everyday lives of soldiers in World War II.
"Our soldiers always seemed to fight a little better when Ernie was
around," Gen. Omar Bradley said before Pyle was killed by a Japanese
sniper on an island in the Pacific in 1945.
Relations between the media and the military changed dramatically
during the war in Vietnam. Journalists says the military brass lied
to them by understating American casualties, overstating enemy
casualties and claiming imminent victory in a war they were doomed
The military blamed critical media coverage and dramatic television
footage for the erosion of public support for the war, and the
Pentagon has been determined to avoid that outcome in every
Reporters and photographers were excluded from the first two days of
the invasion of Panama in 1983, and their movements and access were
severely restricted during the military action in Panama in 1989 and
the Gulf War in 1991.
During the Gulf War, the military spoke often of its great success
with "smart bombs" and of its widespread destruction of Iraqi Scud
missile launchers. In the first week alone, the Air Force claimed an
80% success rate on its bombing missions. It wasn't until after the
war that reporters learned that a great many Scud launchers were
missed and that 8.8% of the bombs dropped had precision-guidance
Former Pentagon analyst Pierre Sprey told a House committee after
the war that "there were 70 or 75 misses" for every bomb that hit a
target. That demonstrated "just how shameless" military reports were
during the war, Sprey said.
Reporters are determined to avoid being manipulated again, and the
only way they see to avoid that is by "flooding the area with as
many people as we can, putting as many feet on the ground as we can
in Afghanistan and wherever else the war is being fought," as Tom
Bowman, Pentagon correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, puts it.
Most people in the trenches still want the media present, says Maj.
Patrick Gibbons, a longtime public information specialist with the
Marines. "The troops think the media help them get the credit they
deserve for their hard work, and the media also help show that
people care what they're doing," Gibbons says.
"But the commanders on the ground look at it a little differently,"
Gibbons says. "They know the media has a bias toward the
extremes--everything is either real good or real bad. Most of what
happens in war is neither, though, because it's a slow process. The
commander on the ground thinks that lacking something real good to
report, the media will inevitably look for the real bad. That's why,
in a war like this, where success is especially difficult to
measure, the military is taking a very go-slow approach" in giving
the media access.
Just as the news media think the military often invoke "mission
security" to justify withholding information and access, so these
commanders think the media sometimes invoke "the public's right to
know" to justify their pursuit of scoops and sensationalism,
especially stories that show military failure.
The 24-hour news cycle has contributed to the media's rush to be
first and the military's skepticism. As recently as the Gulf War,
there was no MSNBC, no Fox News and no Internet--just CNN. But news
is now what Gibbons calls a perpetually "unfinished product."
"It used to be that a reporter worked as hard as he could to get
something right. . . . Now you just put it out there as soon as you
know it and figure that if it's wrong, you can fix it 15 minutes
later. That's a really big deal to a commander in the field. The
fact that you can fix your mistake in 15 minutes is not a real big
comfort to a commander."
The natural cultural gap between the media and the military has
widened appreciably over the years. Some of the increased friction
derives from the Vietnam experience. Some comes because a generation
of relative peace and the end of the military draft have contributed
to a press corps short on military experience and understanding.
A 1995 report by the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center found
that 74% of the journalists polled agreed with the statement that
"few members of the news media are knowledgeable about national
Sometimes, however, the media and the military clash simply because
they have different responsibilities. Soon after special operations
units went into Afghanistan on Oct. 19, a few news organizations
found out about it. Once the story was out, others in the media
called the Pentagon, which declined to confirm it.
Shribman, of the Boston Globe, complained about this in a Pentagon
meeting with Clarke last week. Shribman said the media had been
responsible and disciplined in trying to confirm the report "rather
than to just go up to the typewriter and just rewrite what we
But Clarke said that until all troops had "cleared the area," the
Pentagon was determined to "say as little as possible about it."
Reporters sometimes ask questions of the military not because the
public necessarily needs the information, but because--well, just
because--even though they acknowledge that the answers they want
could be useful to the enemy.
When Rumsfeld was asked in his briefing if special operations units
had brought any prisoners or defectors back from their mission, he
said they had not--and he then said he would not answer that
question after future operations.
"They may not know whether we did or not," he said. "Our goal is not
to demystify things for the other side. . . . The goal is to
confuse, it is to make more difficult."
In an interview after that briefing, Andrea Stone, Pentagon
correspondent for USA Today, said she understood Rumsfeld's
position. "The more confused the Taliban are, the more uncertainty
they have, the better for us," she said. "But the press doesn't work
that way. We like to know."
The media have generally been careful to voice their disagreements
and protests politely, even deferentially. At a recent Pentagon news
conference, one reporter asked Rumsfeld: "With great respect, how do
we evaluate your credibility when you're answering us?"
Rumsfeld repeated earlier promises to provide "only honest, direct
answers," and while many reporters are skeptical, they say they
appreciate his availability and his endorsement of the nine
principles of combat coverage hammered out by representatives of the
media and the Pentagon after the Gulf War.
In that conflict, military commanders often confined journalists to
pools--small groups of reporters and photographers who agree to
share their material with their colleagues--and then isolated those
pools far from the action.
One of the nine principles says that while pools may sometimes be
necessary, they "are not to serve as the standard of covering U.S.
military operations." The first and most important of the principles
states: "Open and independent reporting will be the principal means
of coverage of U.S. military operations."
Though Rumsfeld says these principles may have to be "tweaked,"
given the unusual nature of this war, Clarke has assured reporters
they will be consulted on any changes. Meanwhile, she is working on
reporters' requests for access to staging areas for ground units.
Reporters are skeptical.
"They've been saying it's under consideration for weeks," says the
Sun's Bowman. "Are we going to hear that for the rest of the year?
Into next year? My concern is they'll keep kicking this can down the
road, and then it will be over, and we won't know what's been done
in our name."
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