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[] WSJ 06.01.03: News From The Frontline,

Wall Street Journal
January 6, 2003

News From The Frontline

By Walter Isaacson and Eason Jordan

In planning for a possible war with Iraq, the Pentagon is considering 
something quite old-fashioned: letting reporters actually cover the 
fighting. This would be a good thing, for the military as well as the press 
and public.

Both war-fighting and journalism have changed since the days when reporters 
like Ernie Pyle donned uniforms to move with the troops and cover World War 
II. Even back then, there were occasional conflicts between the press and 
the military. The Chicago Tribune under Colonel Robert McCormick, for 
example, infuriated Franklin Roosevelt by publishing war plans and a report 
indicating that Japanese naval codes had been broken. But that adversarial 
relationship was intensified and then institutionalized during Vietnam, 
when the Pentagon and the press both seemed to lose respect for the 
mission, veracity and honor of the other side.

The military has many causes for concern, especially in an age of real-time 
transmission technology. Reports from the front lines could compromise the 
security of ongoing operations. In addition, scenes of casualties and 
carnage, such as came out of Somalia in 1993, can sap public support for a 
war. The so-called "CNN effect," which arises when the public can watch a 
war as it happens, can cause generals to feel pressured to prosecute it too 
quickly. And finally, the military, like any other institution, has a 
natural inclination to avoid having its inevitable lapses and failures 
publicized, which leads it to want to control coverage as tightly as possible.

This sometimes led the U.S. government, both during the 1991 Gulf War and 
the Afghan conflict a year ago, to try to confine coverage to centralized 
briefings and carefully-corralled pool reporters. As a result, much went 
unreported. This has not always served the military well. "We made a huge 
mistake trying to restrict press coverage in the first Gulf War because of 
our Vietnam mentality," says Gen. Wesley Clark, now a CNN military analyst. 
"We had a First Armored Division tank battle that was just incredible, 
perhaps the biggest armored battle ever, but not a single image was 
reported or documented for history by the press. I hope we don't make that 
mistake again."

Nor has this process always served the public well. When U.S. special 
forces raided the compound of Taliban leader Mullah Omar in October 2001, 
reporters were kept in the dark. Instead, the military covered the 
operation itself using its Joint Combat Camera Center and then released a 
highlights reel for the networks to show. It made for good TV, but not for 
good journalism. Weeks later, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh wrote a 
scathing account of the mission in the New Yorker, alleging that it was 
bungled. The Pentagon heatedly denied his assertions, but there was little 
independent reporting to inform the debate.

Later in the Afghan conflict, the military began to appreciate more fully 
the value, and the practicality, of allowing coverage. When Operation 
Anaconda was launched in the Shah-e-kot Valley last March, CNN's Martin 
Savidge was secretly briefed in advance and then embedded with U.S. forces 
so that he and a cameraman could cover it as pool reporters servicing all 
the networks. Operational security was not compromised, and both public and 
military benefited from a full, independent chronicle of what was the 
largest U.S. ground operation in a decade.

As the military prepares for a possible new engagement in Iraq, it is 
experimenting with ways to embed reporters with troops, and American 
correspondents in Kuwait have already gone on training exercises with tank 
units. Victoria Clarke, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public 
Affairs, has raised the possibility that coverage decisions might be left 
mainly to the commanders in the field, an approach these officers heartily 
support. They are, after all, the ones who best know the security risks 
involved, the coverage rules that make the most sense for each mission, and 
the benefits that could come from allowing the public to see how their 
troops performed. They are proud of these men and women, know them to be 
professional and honorable, and want their exploits to be documented and 
told. Indeed, they made it very clear to us, when we visited the Camp Doha 
Army base in Kuwait and the aircraft carrier Constellation in the Gulf, 
that they believe that the best representatives to convey America's 
intentions and capabilities are the sailors and soldiers in the field.

Some journalists worry that being embedded with the military might be 
tantamount to being in bed with the military. And yes, such coziness is 
probably more likely than the contrary fear of some in the military that 
letting journalists into their tent, literally and figuratively, will lead 
to a barrage of negative stories. Embedded reporters might be tempted to 
stay on friendly terms with their unit in order to assure continued access. 
Some may even be prone, for the sake of a good story or because they have 
been swept up by the camaraderie, to play up acts of heroism and play down 
any lapses.

But this is just as true on presidential campaigns, which can have the same 
elements of camaraderie plus the enticement of a White House assignment if 
it succeeds. It's even true for other reporting beats, from police to 
sports. Good journalists know how to keep their independence by reporting 
honestly, and bad ones don't. That is why it helps to have multiple sources 
of news, and why it is proper that the Pentagon seems inclined to let the 
embedded reporters compete rather than to require that all their coverage 
be pooled.

For the system to work, both sides will have to agree on which of the 
military's concerns are legitimate and which are not. First among the 
former is that there should be no reporting that compromises the security 
of a mission. Embedding reporters on those missions is, of course, one sure 
way to make sure they share that interest fully. On the other hand, it is 
not legitimate for the military or government to try to shield the public 
from truthful and independent coverage of the realities of war, even its 
failures and embarrassments. Disquieting scenes like the ones from Somalia 
could indeed cause some of the public to question whether the war is worth 
the cost, but it is the duty of the government to make a case that it is. 
These days, when the cause is compelling, the American public's tolerance 
for body bags is probably higher than its tolerance for secrecy or deception.

American military commanders in the region say that independent journalism 
will serve them well when it comes to two crucial issues that are likely to 
arise from a war. The first involves the sensitive site explorations that 
the special forces will undertake. The world needs to be assured, through 
honest and reliable reporting, of the veracity of any discoveries of banned 
chemical and biological weapons. Secondly, the U.S. military feels that 
there is a possibility, perhaps even a probability, that Saddam Hussein 
will perpetrate atrocities against Shiite civilians and try to make it look 
as if they were committed by coalition forces. The American commanders thus 
want to ensure that the world sees first hand the professionalism and honor 
that they know they can expect from their troops.

In Kuwait, during a raucous parliamentary debate last month over the 
alleged malfeasance of a minister, one committee chairman told us, "We have 
learned from you that openness strengthens rather than weakens us, even as 
we prepare for a possible war." The U.S., likewise, could learn from 
itself. If journalists had not been allowed to cover the frontlines during 
World War II, there would have been no Ernie Pyle dispatches about the 
exploits of GIs that touched a chord in their hometowns and provided a 
sustaining link to America's heartland. Nor would there have been the 
picture of Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima that has provided a 
sustaining icon for future generations of American fighters.

Mr. Isaacson is the chairman and chief executive of CNN. Mr. Jordan is 
CNN's president of newsgathering.

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