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Contention sure to persist between Pentagon, news people: Gulf War II brought a new relationship between military and the press.

"Open and independent reporting will be the principal means of coverage of U.S. military operations."

That's the first of nine principles for future war coverage hammered out by a group of journalists and the Pentagon in early 1992. The idea was to improve the dismal media/military relationship that was so evident during the Persian Gulf War, known as Operation Desert Storm, or Gulf War I.

One of the negotiators, Stanley Cloud, then Washington Bureau chief of Time magazine, challenged a Pentagon claim that the Persian Gulf War had prompted "the best war coverage" in U.S. history. Writing in The New York Times, Cloud took the position that "Desert Storm was certainly the worst-covered major U.S. conflict in this century."

Well, maybe.

In a Columbia Journalism Review piece, Neil Hickey, a CJR editor, wrote, "Journalists have been denied access to American troops in the field in Afghanistan to a greater degree than in any previous war involving U.S. military forces."

Well, take your pick.

What's clear is that journalists returning from Gulf War I, and more recently from Afghanistan, were nearly unanimous in thumping government-imposed media restrictions.

The situation needed major surgery. So now we have the Pentagon-inspired concept of "embedding" journalists to travel with and observe combat units.

For Operation Iraqi Freedom, Gulf War II, some 600 reporters signed on. Most went through a "boot camp" run by U.S. and British trainers to help prepare them for what they could expect in the field.

Overall, embedding and the pre-assignment physical and mental training have received enthusiastic media support although some reporters chose not to embed and, rather, roamed on their own, often dangerously, as "unilaterals" (Sixteen journalists, embedded or unilateral, died as a result of war wounds or accidents during Gulf War II.)

There has also been criticism, much from purists who suspect such close linkage as impeding press independence.

Contention between the media and the military has been a constant since the Crimean War (1853-1855), when the first "professional" war correspondents, three British reporters, arrived at the battle scene and infuriated commanders with their vivid, opinionated, and frequently distorted writing. Contention is likely to remain a feature of the relationship, but from now on, one hopes, in a more healthy give-and-take environment.

My view about the permanence of continued conflict stems from a 31-year career in the active and reserve Army as an infantry and special forces officer and as a journalist. This view was reinforced from developing and teaching a course last fall I called "The Media and the Military: Communication in Conflict."

In American journalism, writing about military affairs got off to a shaky start during the Revolutionary War, sputtered during the War of 1812, and made slow progress during the Mexican War. It was the Civil War that spurred professional war coverage here.

The Spanish-American War coincided with the outrageously flamboyant "yellow journalism" era, when journalistic excesses of publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst drove military and civilian officials to ban reporters from the combat zones.

World War I brought severe censorship, which was reinstated at the outset of World War II. Most correspondents displayed a patriotic kinship with the war effort and largely accepted the restrictions.

The Korean War saw a replacement of government-imposed censorship with a media-created form of self-censorship. Guidelines were drafted by news organizations. Later, media representatives, surprisingly, urged the military to reimpose precise censorship rules along the lines of those used in World War II. The media guidelines, they indicated, were confusing.

The Pentagon smiled on print and broadcast media during the Vietnam War, at least for a while. Most restrictions on reporting were abolished, and reporters were free to travel far and wide in pursuit of the story. No censorship, no security reviews. Just hop on a helicopter and fly to the combat zone. But we lost that war. Many military officers blamed the press, with its vivid and graphic reporting, for causing the loss by inflaming often-violent public opinion. Outrage over Vietnam coverage colored the media/military relationship for years.

The lingering negative impact was no more apparent than in the invasions by U.S. forces in 1983 in Grenada and in 1989 in Panama. Commanders largely ignored advice from their public affairs officers and, in their contempt for the media, prevented early reporter access to the field.

Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a 1990 message, ordered his high-ranking regional commanders to cooperate in establishing closer ties with news organizations. But little immediate progress was evident. Restrictive moves during Gulf War I greatly impeded press access to the field.

Eventually, however, the message got through. During the later Somalia and Haiti operations, senior commanders joined with the Pentagon's public affairs apparatus to help plan better press involvement, and the media's reaction was largely favorable.

(For a more thorough discussion, see America's Team, the Odd Couple, a Report on the Relationship Between the Media and the Military, by journalist Frank Aukofer and retired Navy Vice Admiral William P. Lawrence. It was published in 1995 by The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center.)

Embedding reporters with combat units isn't totally a new idea. Some reporters during the Vietnam War traveled and lived with combat units. During World War II, some correspondents, such as the great Ernie Pyle, attached themselves to units for a period of time. Others were embedded during the Bosnia operation in 1996. But there were problems, and the Pentagon clamped down.

Stephen Pietropaoli, a retired Navy rear admiral and the immediate past Navy chief of information, noted that his service "embarked" reporters aboard ships to witness operations during Gulf War I and later conflicts, and embedded some reporters with Marines during the few shore landings.

Pietropaoli said that in the Gulf War II embedding effort, spearheaded by Victoria Clarke, the former assistant secretary of defense of public affairs, commanders were informed in no uncertain terms they had to cooperate. Clarke saw embedding as a means of countering misinformation, Pietropaoli said. Having correspondents share intimately in the discomfort and danger of warfare, he suggested, was thought to be a potential morale booster for troops eager that their sacrifice be recognized. It also was expected to keep America more closely connected to the war effort.

Some journalists have grumbled that the closer bonds were inappropriate and weakened the traditional mission of dealing with sources at arm's length. Overall, though, embedding during the heavy combat phase "worked very well and exceeded expectations," Pietropaoli said. There may be red lights flashed for some operations, particularly secretive special forces missions, but the question of access to the battlefield has largely been solved, he opined.

But the war isn't over yet. Many embeds have returned home, but units are still operating under extremely harsh conditions. Soldiers are still being ambushed, taking deadly fire and facing increasingly hostile crowds. How well the so-called nation-building phase of this shadow war and operations in Afghanistan will be covered is an open question

The press and the military can enjoy a brief pause in reflecting on the success of embedding at the tactical level, which will be a major part of any future combat operation. But you can bet that public affairs officers and media representatives are thinking ahead about other ways to improve the relationship.

Some have urged a close look at ways to make press activities at the operational level, such as making military briefings and processing individual media requests at headquarters and command levels, more responsive to reporter's needs.

One thing is clear. Whatever comes next, media/military relations are at a crossroads. Which direction that relationship takes will depend on the patience and good will both sides bring to reaching accommodation. The American people deserve and expect their best professional effort.

NCEW retiree member Laird Anderson, a retired Army reserve colonel and professor emeritus at American University School of Communications, has taught opinion writing for more than 23 years. E-mail LairdBA@aol.com
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Title Annotation:Symposium: media and the military: a changing relationship
Author:Anderson, Laird B.
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Sep 22, 2003
Words:1331
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