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Pentagon spokesman speaks: Pete Williams, assistant secretary of defense/public affairs, talks about the media, the military and covering wars.

Pentagon spokesman speaks

Pete Williams, assistant secretary of defense/public affairs, talks about the media, the military and covering wars

If the spate of recent forums are any indication, examining the issue of the media and the military in the Persian Gulf is likely to be hotly contested for some time.

One person at the center of much of the debate is Pete Williams, assistant secretary of defense/public affairs.

In the wake of much-publicized media criticism of the military's handling of press pools, Williams is now turning to the media and the military for comments, lessons learned, and suggestions how to do it better next time.

One issue likely to be addressed is the problems some journalists faced with the on-site security review process. Copy was edited by public affairs officers in the field, who delayed stories to change words like "giddy" to "proud," and physical transmission of copy was delayed sometimes for days, especially after the ground fighting began.

"There will be those journalists who argue . . . |Hey, look, we proved to you that . . . you should trust us. That you don't need to have censorship or security review. Give us the ground rules and we will follow them.

"They will argue that every military experience proves that -- World War II proved it, Korea proved it, Vietnam proved it," Williams told E&P during an interview in his Pentagon office.

"Vietnam, of course, is different in the sense . . . [it was] a series of skirmishes," he said. "If you reported on a military operation, a skirmish up here in the north, well that didn't have much effect on, nor did it reveal much about, an operation you might have been planning three days later down here in the south. So somebody reporting about that in a fairly unrestricted way doesn't affect future operations.

"In this operation, we were in a constant dialogue, you might say, about what you could say about units moving out to the west, because there were reporters with those units," Williams said.

"Now the fact that this unit is moving to the west may seem benign to you. Some reporters have more experience covering military operations than others do. Some reporters, especially those who have served in the military before, will understand what the significance of an action is better than others. Not every reporter out with a military unit has that kind of experience.

"In peacetime, one would say, |Hey, we're a public institution, what we do is the public's business and people should have the ability to write that way ....'

"It's a little different in wartime," Williams continued, adding that these restrictions "should only be true during wartime."

Another bone of contention for the press was the lack of access to the troops and the limited number of pool slots that were available.

The Pentagon has maintained that it did the best it could, but there were simply more reporters there than it could accommodate.

At an American Press Institute seminar a few days before his meeting with E&P, Williams' figure of 1,700 journalists covering the troops was challenged by participants, many of whom had been in the Gulf covering the war.

"I take what the people at API said to heart, and I'm doing a very serious check of the numbers, so I can be as accurate as I can about saying how many reporters were there," Williams told E&P. "My sense of it is that we'll refine the number, we'll try to get the best estimate of it we can but, nonetheless, there were more reporters who wanted to go out with units than the military felt could go out with those units.

"It's like a restaurant. If 200 people all show up at once, they can't seat everybody, somebody's going to be mad. So if you have a reservation system, it can manage itself.

"I'm not wedded to this system. There are many things about this system that I think we won't ever repeat, but you have to try to be as fair as you can and that's why we came up with this."

Among the things Williams said might not be repeated would be the strict pool system employed in the Gulf.

"I think there are always going to have to be limitations on the number of reporters that can be in the battlefield. I don't think it's reasonable, it doesn't make sense, to have reporters free roaming the battlefield. So some kind of limitation on numbers, it seems to me, is the key, but not necessarily pools."

One of the biggest lessons learned, however, came as a result of the communications problems. Joe Albright, special projects correspondent for Cox Newspapers in Washington, who served as newspaper pool coordinator for a time in the Gulf, noted at the API seminar that many of the disputes might have been avoided had communications systems worked better.

"I would say the biggest lesson learned is that we need to do much better at getting stories back from the field," Williams said. "It was the part of this that I don't think anybody was particularly satisfied with. Now, some units did better than others -- some units were brilliant at it, some units were not so brilliant at it. We just have to do better.

"Whether that means that there's dedicated stuff for reporters -- dedicated transportation ... helicopters, armored personnel carriers, things like that -- I think that military units are going to have to just do a better job of putting people in the unit who don't do anything but take care of reporters; drivers, logistics people, separate communications links, all that stuff. I think that's the only way to do it ....

"There has to be more of a ... commitment in individual military units to making sure that stuff gets back," Williams said. "Whether that means the Washington Post brings its own satellite phone or whether we provide that, I don't know.

"We're also going to have to think about the policy of television reports from the field. We have to give that some thought. It's new to us and we're going to have to think about that."

Broadcasts from the battlefield, especially as technology improves, will pose more questions for future coverage.

Williams said he believes "the fact that units handled it so differently tells you ... there was no conspiracy in the Pentagon to deprive the American people of news from the front, but until we do a better job, there will always be those folks who think that."

Williams said the media and the military "need to get together again" to discuss its cooperative efforts in covering a war.

"When you're in the middle of a war you have one kind of a relationship, when you get back out of it, then you have another kind of a relationship," he added.

"But guess what? It's always going to be the military that runs the wars and it's always going to be the media that cover them, so we need to get together and continue to discuss these things all the time."

Williams, a former news director and radio and television reporter in Wyoming, says he sees himself as sort of a middle man between the press and the military, although he points out he is nevertheless a government employee.

"I'm a spokesman for my government, I'm a spokesman for the secretary of defense, that's part of my job," he said. "I think part of my job is to be an advocate for the press as well. I am an advocate of the military to the press. I am the one expected to answer questions about why certain things happen.

"I'm a former reporter myself, I hope a future reporter again, so I take my responsibilities to both of those parts of the equation very seriously.

"I can't discuss the internal deliberations that went on and why things came out the way they did, but I hope people understand that our office does care about both sides of the equation. So these re-examination things, they're not a lot of fun, but they're important."

In Williams' view, his participation in various forums and discussions about what happened with the media in the Gulf is important for a number of reasons.

"Number one, I want to hear from folks. I want to hear what they thought," he said. "The second thing is, I think I have an obligation to go subject myself to these occasional outbursts of wrath that come out. I think that's an important part of the process. People need to be able to vent their anger. They need to be able to confront the policymakers who came up with these policies."

Williams said the argument is no longer whether reporters should be present when the military undertakes a mission.

"We're not rearguing Grenada here. We're not having the Panama argument anymore. I think we were justifiably criticized about not getting people down there early enough . . . . We're talking about how to do what we did better.

"We're never going to be terribly comfortable, press with military. Military will always push its case, the press will always push its case, but I think the venue in which we're having this discussion now is basically about how to do the fundamental part of it better."

One goal, Williams said, is to leave behind for his successor some sort of guidebook for future press operations in wartime.

"One thing I found in trying to make the arrangements for all of this is there isn't a ready thing I can turn to help plan. There isn't a book on how to run this kind of an operation during wartime," he said. "There isn't such a book anywhere, so I want my successors to have something like that they can turn to."

Part of the analysis of military-press relations during the war will likely come from meetings Williams is planning with Washington media bureau chiefs, as well as seminars for the military and letters he has sent to both sides asking for comments.
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Author:Gersh, Debra
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Article Type:Interview
Date:Apr 6, 1991
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