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[infowar.de] Newsweek 10.03.03: In Bed With The Pentagon
Newsweek March 10, 2003 Pg. 45
In Bed With The Pentagon
By Jonathan Alter
I spent a few days in December on an aircraft carrier in the Gulf. My
bunkmates were Palestinian journalists from the Mideast Broadcasting Co.
(MBC), all of whom acknowledged that they refer to suicide bombers in their
reports from the occupied territories as "freedom fighters." Hmmm ... It
turns out these guys (or their colleagues) are going to be hanging with
U.S. forces again when the shooting in Iraq starts. But that's a smart
thing for the military to allow.
Under its new policy, the Pentagon will "embed" 500 correspondents for up
to two months with American combat units, 20 percent of whom come from the
foreign press. Will some media "embeds" end up "in bed" with their military
protectors? Will others be so hostile they are forced to leave? Not clear,
but one thing we know: for now, anyway, the anger that military officers
felt toward the news media during the Vietnam War has subsided. They need
every reporter in the regionno matter how skepticalto help fight Saddam
Hussein in what may be the mother of all propaganda wars.
Everyone agrees: the 1991 gulf war was a disaster for military-media
relations. Reporters were mostly cooped up at an air base in Saudi Arabia
with little to do but complain about censorship. Access to the battlefield
was extremely limited, and the Pentagon lied about the success of the
Patriot missiles. When it was over, reporters weren't the only ones who
were sore. The U.S. Army smashed Saddam's Republican Guard in a great tank
battle, and no press was present to report its success story. "What's the
government afraid of?" John Chancellor, the late NBC News anchor, told me
at the time. "They should trust us."
This time they do, up to a point. The military embedded correspondents on a
limited basis in Afghanistan and is now ready to give the press more access
than in any conflict since Vietnam. "It's the Powell Doctrine of
coverageoverwhelming force," says Andy Rosenthal, assistant managing editor
of The New York Times. "When you're offered all of this access, you have to
take it." Because it's hard to keep soldiers (or anyone else) from
eventually talking, the press should get a much fuller picture of what it's
like to fight. The Pentagon, especially Assistant Secretary Victoria
Clarke, deserves credit for devising about as good a solution to the
logistics of combat coverage as the press could ask for.
Most of the ground rules that embedded reporters must sign seem reasonable,
like not carrying a sidearm, not using flash photography at night and not
reporting the unit's exact position. This time, there will be no censorship
of stories and TV scripts. The truth is, it's just not practical anymore.
Wireless communications has killed military censorship for good. Embedded
reporters don't tend to be troublemakers in the field, anyway. If they
endanger the unit, they know they're endangering themselves. Even live
satellite coverage will be allowed (with a public-affairs officer present),
making it quite possible that viewers will see people killed in real time.
That should give the media ethicists something to chew on.
Yet there's still something subtly coercive about the new policy: if you
travel with a group over a period of weeks, especially one that is
providing you protection from chemical or biological attack, you're more
likely to stay loyal to the people you're with. (This will be tested, of
course, if things go badly wrong.) And then there's the question of just
how much actual fighting most will witness. The Pentagon says it wants
reporters in tanks and planes (though obviously not in the one- and
two-seat fighters that will handle most of the action). But it'll be the
luck of the draw. Some correspondents and crews will see lots of bang-bang;
others may wonder why they went to the trouble of playing half soldiertold
to carry everything from a sleeping bag to two boxes of baby wipes for
battlefield "showers"only to be marooned away from the action or under a
squadron commander who overprotects them.
All of which explains why NEWSWEEK and most other major news organizations
have correspondents roaming the region freely as well as embedded with
troops. It's like campaign coverage; you need some reporters on the plane
with the candidates and others out talking to voters. One big question is
how the military will treat reporters who aren't embedded. When Doug Struck
of The Washington Post tried to investigate civilian casualties in
Afghanistan, he was forced by U.S. soldiers to lie down with a gun pointed
at his head.
That could happen again. Truth will forever be the first casualty of war.
But maybe this time the military can stay focused on its larger aimmaking
sure that Saddam doesn't get away with lies about the effects of U.S.
bombing. "What better way to combat those lies than having impartial
observers right there?" Lt. Col. Mike Halbig told me. Even the Arab crews
from places like MBC and Al-Jazeera will at least broadcast the good
pictures they get with the Americans. They'll toss in their spin, but TV
picturesas the U.S. military has finally learnedspeak louder than the words
of some official behind a podium.
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