"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."
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. …