Bush Administration Agenda: Greater Media Access

Feb 17, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Amid rumblings of an impending war, Pentagon officials are putting the finishing touches on a precedent-blasting plan to let more than 500 journalists join U.S. troops involved in a widely anticipated military intervention in Iraq.
This front-line access to combat troops, along with new mobile broadcast technology, promises to bring the battle directly into American living rooms in a way not seen since the war in Vietnam nearly 30 years ago. “They can see for themselves what’s taking place and be able to, the Good Lord willing, report the truth,” said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The plan to “embed” journalists within ground units is in sharp contrast to the role of the press during conflicts in Grenada, the Gulf War and Afghanistan, where access was nonexistent or so limited that it drew long and frequent complaints from numerous media organizations.
The initiative is intended to document the effectiveness of the U.S. military and make sure the Bush administration gets credit for what is expected to be a successful operation. Sources say the White House feels that by keeping journalists at a distance in recent years, the military prevented the public from seeing how much it had accomplished. During the Gulf War, most of the footage supplied by the military was shot from aircraft, or came from pool reporters whose material was only available long after the battle had ended.
Government officials say the new policy is intended to take the agenda-setting function for media coverage away from Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and other critics of the United States.
“We are dealing with a person in the case of Saddam Hussein and his regime that are accomplished liars,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “They are consistently, day after day, saying things that aren’t true. And it strikes me that having people who are willing to report the truth-the free press from around the world-is probably a good thing.”
“The relationship between the media and the military doesn’t have to be adversarial,” added Lt. Col. Dan Stoneking, one of the Pentagon public affairs officers working on the plan’s details. “In this case, it can be mutually beneficial. They want to tell a story; we want the story to be told.”
Under the unusual partnership concept, journalists won’t have to pay a dime for room or board while in the theater of operations-sleeping, eating and traveling with their military hosts-as long as they stick with their assigned units.
As part of their indoctrination, 232 journalists participated in Pentagon-sponsored boot camps over the past several months, learning a variety of military maneuvers, from jumping out of helicopters to donning gas masks.
“It was a confidence-builder that this stuff actually works,” said Bret Baier, a correspondent for Fox News Channel.
“It promises to be a lot of access that has never been given before,” Mr. Baier added. “I truly believe it’s going to happen.”
Other industry representatives were skeptical about the plan’s prospects, in part because the embedded journalists will be under the ultimate control of their unit’s military commander. In addition, the journalists are supposed to agree not to report things the military commander deems off-limits in the name of operational security.
“Access doesn’t mean just being able to stay with the troops but being able to file your stories, because otherwise access is meaningless,” said David Martin, Pentagon correspondent for CBS News.
“The military will have the final say,” Mr. Martin added. “When war starts, everything goes to hell, and the commander at that point cares about one thing and one thing only-achieving his objective without losing troops-and all of a sudden media access is not one his priorities.”
Even with the new access, journalists will not be as free as they were during Vietnam, when they would hitch rides on jeeps and helicopters to report directly from the front lines. It was the first such conflict in history to be televised from such a close perspective, and the resulting images helped fuel the national debate over the war and the role of the media in wartime. The plan is closer to World War II, when individual journalists were assigned to units as they went about their duties. Their reports, however, were heavily censored.
Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, said that among the unanswered questions is whether military commanders will insist on reviewing reports before they go out. Still another puzzler: What happens when a reporter files an unflattering story the military doesn’t like?
“It’s certainly a step in the right direction,” Ms. Cochran said of the initiative. “But we won’t have a chance to judge how it works until we see how it works in the field.”
Several news organizations have said that the “embedded” journalists will be only one part of their overall coverage. There will also be reports flowing from numerous non-American sources, including the Al-Jazeera news service, which is based in the Middle East.
There is always the risk that things could go badly for the American military, either individually or overall, as happened in Somalia in the incident recounted in the book and the movie “Black Hawk Down.” That could put the media in position to tell a story that might not reflect well on the administration. It could also put journalists in harm’s way to a degree not seen in many years.
Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke, who is credited for spearheading the initiative, told Electronic Media that the unit military commanders involved are generally supposed to set coverage ground rules in advance of a mission, explaining what’s out of bounds for security reasons.
In addition, she said, reporters are to agree not to report anything that could put the mission or life at risk. What that means in a particular situation may be open to discussion.
Of course, how the system works in the field could depend on the personalities of the unit commanders and journalists involved. “There are obviously disadvantages” from the military’s perspective, Mr. Rumsfeld said. “It’s a burden on the troops to have people who are non-combatants connected with them.”
“I’m sure there will be problems with this just because of the size of what we’re trying to do,” added Major Tim Blair, a Pentagon public affairs officer who has been working on the plan.
Said CBS’s Mr. Martin: “I don’t doubt their sincerity. But their ability to deliver is still up in the air.”