Media fights for coverage

Sep 24, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Radio-Television News Directors Association President Barbara Cochran plans to send a letter on Monday to Defense Department officials urging them to grant the press as much access as possible to any impending wartime activities.
As the United States prepares to respond to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, journalists are growing increasingly concerned that the Bush administration will place onerous curbs on press freedoms that could severely restrict access to information and the front lines.
One need look no further than the restrictions placed on the media during the Gulf War in 1991 for examples of tight controls on news coverage, journalist advocates said last week.
And some of the leaders preparing the nation for this latest military effort-such as Secretary of State Colin Powell and Vice President Dick Cheney-were part of former President George H.W. Bush’s administration during the Gulf conflict.
“If the past is any indicator, we will be back to the same situation where the press is Charlie Brown and the Pentagon is Lucy with the football,” said Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum, a nonprofit group based near Washington that promotes free speech.
During briefings at the Pentagon last week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said he’s asked Torie Clarke, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, and other staffers to explore which restrictions should be imposed. Ms. Clarke is a former spokeswoman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.
Mr. Rumsfeld scoffed at the notion that the controls will be overly restrictive, cautioning reporters last Thursday not to believe all the rumors swirling around the Pentagon. “I hope you’ll not chase too many wrong rabbits,” he said.
But he also said of the restrictions, “I suspect it will be different [from previous conflicts] because this is a different set of problems.”
Journalist groups are worried and will appeal directly to the administration to maintain press freedoms during this and other crises.
In her letter, the RTNDA’s Ms. Cochran, the Washington bureau chief of CBS during the Gulf War, will endorse a set of nine principles governing war coverage that the Pentagon and journalists agreed to after the Gulf conflict.
Among the agreements: Pools are to be abandoned, when possible, 24 to 36 hours after a war begins; journalists should have access to all major military units; and newspeople should be allowed to ride on military vehicles.
But the principles are not binding, meaning the Pentagon can override them with other rules.
On Friday, the RTNDA asked the Federal Aviation Administration to lift a Sept. 20 directive that indefinitely grounds all aircraft used by news organizations. Immediately after the terrorist attacks, the FAA halted flights by news outlets but said the move was temporary.
“The restriction is constitutionally suspect,” the letter says, saying the ban should be limited to sensitive areas only.
At the upcoming national convention of the Society of Professional Journalists, scheduled for Oct. 4 to 6 in Bellevue, Wash., near Seattle, the group will urge the administration to protect the rights of journalists during wartime.
One challenge for journalists and the Pentagon is the reportage of covert operations, which will be a hallmark of the campaign against terrorism.
Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information chairman and special projects editor at KPAX-TV in Missoula, Mont., said journalists would never do anything to compromise the safety of the military if they caught wind of a secret operation or battle plan before it is carried out.
Once a covert operation is complete, however, there needs to be a full accounting by the military, he said. “There was a real concern in the Gulf War that we were used and kept on a very short leash,” he said.
For example, the military was quick to release video of missiles that appeared to strike their targets but withheld most footage of bombs that missed. As a result, the media did not have the proper context for its reporting.
Some of those direct hits were later deemed to be off target-but the revelations came well after the hits were reported as successes.
In addition, journalists complained that the military restricted their access to the war zone and kept them in pools longer than necessary. Also, the Pentagon’s public affairs officers sometimes interrupted military personnel during interviews with journalists and told them not to speak to the press.
When the United States invaded the tiny island nation of Grenada in the early ’80s, the Reagan administration didn’t notify the press or allow any news teams to travel with the troops, Ms. Cochran said.
Those circumstances gave rise to the Department of Defense media pool, the brunt of much criticism when the United States drove Iraq from Kuwait.
Another concern of press advocates is the possible re-emergence of so-called anti-leaks legislation that makes it a felony for any present or past government employee to make unauthorized disclosures of classified documents.
Journalists receiving such data could also face felony charges. Violators could be subpoenaed and face jail time.
Just recently, the Bush administration backed away from an anti-leaks bill sponsored by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and lawmakers canceled a planned hearing on the measure. As an alternative, the Justice Department will create an interagency task force to address the issue.
However, the tragic events of Sept. 11 could trigger renewed interest in the bill.
“In times of heightened national distress such as we’re in right now, the prospects for such legislation are brightened,” Mr. McMasters said.