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[] NYT 23.03.03: Reporters Respond Eagerly to Pentagon Welcome Mat,

March 23, 2003
Reporters Respond Eagerly to Pentagon Welcome Mat

WASHINGTON, March 22 ? Last fall, the White House chief of staff, Andrew H. 
Card Jr., likened the Bush administration's drive to build support for the 
possible war with Iraq to a product-marketing campaign. That effort 
produced mixed results, but so far the war itself is selling like beer on a 
troopship, thanks in part to compelling news accounts from reporters 
bunking with frontline units.

Carefully devised by the Pentagon to counter years of complaints by news 
organizations about restrictions on combat coverage, the new policy of 
"embedding" more than 500 reporters with invading troops has produced 
riveting images of fighter jets on carriers and tanks plowing across the 
Iraqi desert, accompanied by household faces like Ted Koppel of ABC's 
"Nightline," and of surrendering Iraqi soldiers with their hands held high.

Like the most sophisticated Madison Avenue marketers, Pentagon planners 
have also reached out to diverse outlets where public opinion is shaped, by 
including reporters from MTV, Rolling Stone, People magazine and Men's 
Health, and foreign journalists running the gamut from Al Jazeera, the 
Arabic-language television channel, to Russia's Itar-Tass news agency.

But for all the military's orchestration, news organizations have so far 
expressed satisfaction with the arrangements, which offer much greater 
access in exchange for relatively few restrictions. And the bulk of the 
coverage has been so positive as to verge on celebratory.

Dave Sirulnick, the executive in charge of MTV News, whose correspondent 
Gideon Yago recently asked a young marine, "Dude, how was it to tell your 
wife that you were going off to the Iraqi border?" said he was not sure of 
the Pentagon's motivation. "But I do know that by allowing their soldiers 
to speak openly and freely to us, they are coming off a lot more credibly," 
Mr. Sirulnick said. "Instead of thinking of these guys as G.I. Joes and 
Robocops, you get to meet them and see they are young guys and girls just 
like the folks who are watching."

Some reporters have been given extraordinary access, allowed to sit in on 
secret briefings, watching computerized maps of the battlefield with the 
latest satellite photos, in the middle of the Kuwait desert, for example. 
The cardinal rule: No reporting, not even any phone calls to their editors, 
that might divulge details of future operations, and no private satellite 
telephones, cellphones or sidearms. Showers are scarce, hot meals spotty, 
but reporters assigned to military units recount friendly, open 
conversations with G.I.'s, surgeons, drivers, dentists and communications 
experts, described by one correspondent as "quite talkative" and "extremely 
interested in what I do."

The new policy has only begun to be tested in battle, and Gen. Tommy R. 
Franks, the allied commander in the Persian Gulf, was said by associates to 
have been upset to read too many details about planes and missiles in the 
war's opening-night raids in his morning newspaper.

The Pentagon's chief spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke, warned editors in a 
conference call on Wednesday that some reports had already provided too 
much specific information about troop locations and movements, and that 
even if commanders on the scene divulged such information, it was up to 
news organizations to withhold it under detailed guidelines to which each 
agreed in exchange for the reporting berths.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld delivered his first briefing on the 
war on Thursday in front of an image of a little girl in pigtails and the 
warning: "Don't kill her Daddy with careless words."

But there have been no reports of serious disputes on the scene, and by the 
end of the week Mr. Rumsfeld went so far as to praise the robust reporting 
as "historic" and said, "I doubt that in a conflict of this type, there's 
ever been the degree of free press coverage as you are witnessing in this 

The CNN anchor Aaron Brown made a similar point on the air as tanks sped 
across the desert late Thursday. "No matter how you slice this thing, this 
is an extraordinary picture of a moment in a war," Mr. Brown said. "This is 
not the kind of thing that has ever happened before. The last time American 
reporters had really good access to American troops was Vietnam, and by and 
large it would be two days before stories got back to the United States and 
got on the air."

Then Mr. Brown read an e-mail message from the mother of a tank commander 
in the Seventh Cavalry, who wrote, "Thank you for allowing me to sit with 
my son as he crossed the desert in Iraq." Mr. Brown replied, "Rosemary, I'm 
glad we could show you your guy out there tonight."

Mr. Rumsfeld approved the policy, devised last year by Ms. Clarke and 
others, in a sharp about-face from the system that prevailed in the first 
Persian Gulf war, when only about 180 reporters at a time had limited 
access to the front in a rotating system. That system was much criticized 
by most news media organizations and some military experts, as were 
comparable limitations during the Afghan campaign in 2001.

The new policy "kind of evolved," through discussions between Pentagon 
officials and news organizations, said Bryan G. Whitman, deputy assistant 
secretary of defense for media operations, who coordinated the system.

"We recognized early on that we needed to make truth an issue should there 
be a military campaign, because Saddam Hussein was a practiced liar, a 
master of deception, and the way you mitigate that is to have objective 
third-party accounts from professional observers," he said. "We also 
believed Americans deserved to see exactly how well trained their military 
forces were, how dedicated and professional."

The Pentagon's guidelines, signed by each attached journalist, allow 
reporting of general troop strength and casualty figures, confirmed figures 
of enemy soldiers captured and broad information about previous combat 
actions. Reporters are barred from divulging specifics about troop 
movements and locations, unless authorized. The identities of wounded or 
killed Americans may not be reported for 72 hours, or until next of kin can 
be notified, and local commanders may impose embargoes to protect operations.

Evan Wright, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, joined troops in the 
Persian Gulf about three weeks ago. Stu Zakim, a spokesman for the 
magazine, said Pentagon planners were aware not only of the magazine's long 
history of liberalism but also of its young readership.

"They recognize the interesting logic of giving Rolling Stone access, 
considering that we're not exactly supportive of President Bush in anything 
he does," Mr. Zakim said.

Steve Rubenstein, president of Rubenstein Communications, which has advised 
various foreign governments on how to deal with the American news media, 
called the policy "a brilliant idea."

"It helps create empathy between the reporters and their subjects," he 
said, "and I think that in the end that will make it easier for the 
Pentagon to communicate what it is trying to do."

Marvin Kalb, the veteran CBS News correspondent who is now a senior fellow 
at the Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard, 
said: "I think the embedding strategy is a gutsy, risky call for Rumsfeld, 
and his fingerprints are all over it. He believes that one must enlist the 
support of the American people, and the way you get that is to get the media."

The early reports have been unusually frank. Jason Bellini of CNN filed a 
painfully raw report at midweek about a young private named Polanco with 
the 15th Marine Expeditionary Force in Kuwait who complained of feeling 
faint, unable to carry his pack, and of missing his family. "He's just kind 
of having a hard time right now," a fellow marine explained.

Not all the coverage has been glowing. As American networks showed the 
march of tanks Friday morning, a BBC correspondent was broadcasting an 
interview with a man in Jordan who is opposed to the war. The man described 
the solidarity that nearby protesters felt with their "brothers in Iraq" 
who they felt were being tortured.

Robert J. Thompson, a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse 
University, said, "When all is said and done, what the military has done 
with embedding has essentially cast the journalist into the drama of this 
war they are producing.

"Just like you would pick people to be on your reality TV show. This is 
like `Real World Iraq.' "

But Kenneth Bacon, the Pentagon spokesman in the Clinton administration, 
said: "How the public perceives the war can't really be affected by 
governmental spin. It's affected by results. If we do well, people will 
understand that, and if we do badly, people will understand that, too."

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