Affils’ road to War

Jan 27, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The network news organizations want to support any of their affiliates’ news crews that cover any war against Iraq.
But they don’t want to be forced into the role of gatekeepers, deciding which local news crews do or don’t get to eat, sleep and march into war with specific military divisions.
In the Pentagon’s first extensive discussions with Washington bureau chiefs last week about the plan to “embed” journalists into air, sea and land troops, the Pentagon designated bureau chiefs representing TV, radio and print news organizations as the point persons for anyone even loosely connected to their respective organizations who is interested in getting access to the troops.
As it became clear that the Pentagon wanted the network bureau chiefs to make decisions that would affect reporters and crews from local stations not owned by the networks, the Pentagon heard a chorus of “absolutely unworkable,” in the words of one network news executive familiar with the conversations. More than one local news director had characterized that prospect as “way too restrictive.”
By late last week it was still uncertain just how many embedding slots would be allocated to each network, since various military divisions were still deciding how many media units they could accommodate.
However, one thing was certain: For a local station to be considered for an allocation, lobbying with or through its respective network is only one option.
Maj. Tim Blair, a Pentagon spokesman familiar with the embedding operation, said local affiliates also could go to local military units, whose commanders would send requests (and their recommendations) up the pipeline to the Pentagon, which then would let the local commander know whether the request has been “blessed.” Maj. Blair also said it is possible to request what is called an “interim embed” that would allow a journalist to travel with an assigned unit up to the point hostilities begin.
That will come as good news to the Radio-Television News Directors Association, which last week lobbied Department of Defense spokeswoman Torie Clarke to “leave spots open for local journalists when developing a plan.”
The primary goal is access. “You have to be able to see something to report it,” said George Rodrigue, the VP of the Washington bureau for Belo’s 19 TV stations and four daily newspapers.
Mr. Rodrigue noted that the reach of Belo through its stations (13.9 percent of all TV homes in the country) and newspapers (a combined circulation of more than 900,000 daily and 1.3 million on Sundays) rivals and sometimes surpasses the average viewership of the cable news networks.
Thus, the Pentagon says “unequivocally” when asked whether affiliates have a shot at covering the war from the point of view of the men and women in uniform.
Maj. Blair said he has a list of “230-something” news organizations that have expressed interest in being allotted an embedding slot. “There’s no way to make everybody happy,” he said.
The networks’ reluctance to be in any way a gatekeeper stems partly from bureau chiefs’ reluctance to recommend (or not) someone whose work is not well known to them and partly from the natural reluctance of news organizations to give any of their access to another news organization.
That would, said one network news executive, “put us in an impossible situation.”
On the other hand, the networks have begun informing their affiliates of the support they can expect- including reporting by affiliate-focused correspondents, live coverage of briefings at the command centers in Qatar and Kuwait City and at least limited amounts of satellite time for filing reports to viewers at home.
“We’re fighting for as much access as we can get,” said Eason Jordan, the head of news gathering for CNN, which has affiliate relationships with roughly 700 stations, most of which also are affiliated with the major broadcasting networks but which nonetheless might be able to make use of some of CNN’s “unilateral equipment.”
The Pentagon has begun informing the press of a wide range of things that need to be considered along with assignments in the Mideast if it comes to war.
Hostile-environment survival training such as many journalists have taken in recent months is recommended, so is common sense. Maj. Blair said it’s important for each participant to ask himself or herself, “What do I need to bring to transmit my product, to conduct my business, keeping in mind that anything I bring I have to carry myself.”
When asked what journalists should not bring, he joked, “I don’t want them to bring a bright orange tent to sleep in.” He added quite seriously that he doesn’t want to see journalists bringing weapons.
The care and feeding of the embedded journalists boils down to the same “three hots and a cot and medical treatment” given to the troops they are covering, Maj. Blair said.
The military also will supply nuclear-biological-chemical protective gear. Journalists who want flak jackets or flak helmets and other safeguards need to bring their own.
The Pentagon has distributed a list of innoculations suggested for anyone headed to the Mideast. Smallpox and anthrax vaccinations are expected to be made available to credentialed press at several sites in the region, but questions about the cost of such a program have not been answered.
Another major consideration is the possibility that an embedded journalist might be unable to file as regularly as planned, depending on where or how his or her assigned unit is deployed.
“I think there are a number of complications that make this opportunity less than really compelling for a lot of news directors and general managers, because you could have a whole team tied up for a long period of time and have very little compelling information,” said John Frazee, senior VP for news services at CBS News.
Another news executive said there is the real possibility, that `”embedded’ is another word for `stuck.”’
There are still many questions about how much censorship or oversight of reporting the Pentagon might envision, but NBC News VP Bill Wheatley said that not only do journalists understand the need to be sensitive on issues but that checking facts before reporting them is standard procedure.