WASHINGTON – When Army Times writer Sean Naylor linked up with the 101st Airborne Division in Kandahar to cover the Afghanistan fighting, he found that instead of the traditional practice of being housed with the troops, reporters were ”quarantined” in media tents.
During USA Today reporter Andrea Stone’s visits to Guantanamo, Cuba, she was never even allowed within shouting distance of the US-held detainees. And although he was traveling with US forces, San Diego Union-Tribune reporter James Crawley had to scan transcripts of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s Washington briefings to glean any hint of information about the Afghan war-related mission he was covering.
”People on the ship wanted to talk about it,” he said. But ”everything was directed from the Pentagon. What do we need to do about it next time?”
That question was a rallying cry for the more than 100 journalists – many of them veterans of conflicts from Kosovo to Afghanistan – who gathered here last week for a conference sponsored by the two-month-old organization Military Reporters & Editors.
With a potential war in Iraq on the horizon, the answer they heard was not reassuring. Given Afghanistan as an object lesson, the consensus was that Rumsfeld’s Pentagon has taken the art of information control to new heights. And that isn’t likely to change in any battle for Baghdad. (Although keynote speaker Bob Woodward of the Washington Post offered the distinctly dissenting view that there was no more than a 50-50 chance of conflict.)
”This Pentagon practices, regularly, lack-of-information warfare against the press,” said Mark Thompson, Time magazine’s national-security correspondent. ”Longtime sources in the building that you could call up and visit, they don’t want to be called. … This is a much different place.” History Channel host Arthur Kent – best known as NBC’s ”Scud Stud” during the 1991 Gulf War – predicted that in the event of another war with Iraq, ”attempts to muzzle us … are going to be unprecedented.”
The media and military’s competing – if not clashing – agendas were highlighted in the remarks of Air Force Colonel Jay DeFrank, a Defense Department representative. Even as news outlets make plans to cover another war against Saddam Hussein, DeFrank declined to discuss such a contingency, saying that ”the president has made no decision about what we’re going to do.”
”We’re committed to access,” he told the MRE gathering. ”But it’s probably not going to be the access you want.”
Problems with access to battlefields is a major reason why the MRE was conceived during a journalism confererence at the University of Maryland last spring. Actually, as MRE president and Seattle Post-Intelligencer staffer James Wright acknowledges, the organization’s origins can be traced to a slightly lubricated bull session in a lounge ”where everyone was griping like you couldn’t believe.”
But MRE is about more than lobbying the Pentagon for a better view. It plans to offer training for journalists, providing them with practical advice on how to travel with troops, helping them understand the military culture, and advising them on how to win the trust of the men and women in uniform. Veteran Scripps Howard reporter Peter Copeland recalled how his editor once told him the way to achieve that last goal was to ”act like you’re on your first date.”
If many of the speakers spoke warmly of the relationship between journalists and rank-and-file troops, there was concern about the Pentagon’s top-down strategy of news management.
”There is a general sense that [information control] is just a higher priority with this administration,” said USA Today military writer and MRE vice-president Dave Moniz. ”Even a lot of uniformed military officers are blanching at these restrictions.”
Compound that with all the lethal uncertainties of a new war in Iraq, and the outlook isn’t good for reporters. Retired Army Major General John Meyer Jr. said that if the war plans he had read about were accurate, ”inherently, you have chemical, biological, and nuclear potential on the battlefield. … I would think your access will be harder to get.”
Wall Street Journal staffer John Fialka told his colleagues that such a war holds out the possibility that ”we’re going to have some dead bodies among us.”
Perhaps nothing reflected the uneasy relationship between the military and the media more clearly than a discussion of the Pentagon ”boot camp” training for journalists that began last weekend.
The physically rigorous program has been lauded by some media outlets as a positive step in improving the relationship between the Defense Department and reporters.
But juxtaposing the harsh physical demands of the boot camp with predictions of minimal access to any war, USA Today’s Stone mused aloud, ”Maybe they’re just trying to scare people off.”