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Media, military in war over rules

Oct 1, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The media and the Pentagon are sharply at odds over what rules should govern news coverage of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism.
Pentagon bureau chiefs for the major broadcast networks, cable news channels and print media met with military officials Friday afternoon to discuss the issue but reached no conclusions, according to a source who was there and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Journalists are growing increasingly concerned that the Pentagon will adopt onerous restrictions, much as they say it did during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
The source said the Pentagon does not plan to divulge any information about covert operations, which will be a mainstay of the anti-terrorist campaign, and wants to severly restrict journalists’ access to military troops.
If the Pentagon has its way, reporters would be limited mostly to pools and would have to apply to the military for permission to travel with units.
The Defense Department also wants the media to only divulge the first names of soldiers and not say where they’re from, the source said.
Another source cautioned that negotiations could go on for weeks.
“It’s not going to be a battle like it was during the Gulf War,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “It is going to be a nightmare to cover. It’s going to be different than anything we’ve ever seen.”
But not all reporters are worried.
“We go through this same war dance between the military and the media before every armed conflict,” said Jim Miklaszewski, Pentagon correspondent for NBC and MSNBC. “The good reporters get information. The bad reporters complain about access.”
Meanwhile, a broad-based coalition of groups representing TV, newspapers and magazines plans to issue a statement this week asking the Bush administration to preserve press freedoms during the anti-terror campaign. But a source said the scope and timing of the statement could be affected by Friday’s meeting.
The starting point for negotiations between the press and Pentagon is a set of nine principles that both sides adopted in 1992, after the Gulf War. Reporters complained during that conflict that the Pentagon tightly restricted their movements and sometimes fed them misleading or inaccurate information.
The 1992 principles were intended to assuage those concerns. They call for dismantling pools as early as possible, usually within 24 to 36 hours after a conflict begins; letting journalists ride on military vehicles and aircraft whenever possible; granting reporters access to all military units and so on.
But there’s no guarantee the Pentagon will continue to adhere to the rules.
In addition, the two sides failed to agree in 1992 on whether to permit security reviews of stories. The Pentagon said then that it wanted to review each news story twice: once before it’s filed and again before it’s published or televised. But journalists balked, saying that amounts to censorship.
“They thought they would get two bites at the apple,” said Bruce Brown, an attorney representing the Society of Professional Journalists.
The military also said it would revoke the credentials of any journalists who failed to correct inaccuracies in their reports after they had been reviewed. In addition, language stating that journalists in combat zones “will be required to abide by a clear set of military security ground rules” is viewed by media groups to be ill-defined and open to varying interpretation.
The Pentagon’s point person on combat press coverage is Torie Clarke, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, who participated in the Friday meeting. Last week she forwarded a draft set of principles to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Ms. Clarke did not return repeated phone calls.
Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, sent a letter to Mr. Rumsfeld on Sept. 24 urging him to “grant access as broadly as possible to the news media.”
A statement is expected this week from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and newspaper and magazine industry groups. The RTNDA and the Society of Professional Journalists, which are part of the coalition, will decide whether to endorse it after reviewing it.
Among the proposals: that Freedom of Information Act requests receive expedited review; the identities of Muslim and Arab detainees be disclosed to the public; and the media be granted access to information about military operations.