Magazine article Nieman Reports

The Pentagon and the Press: Several `Principles' of Coverage Became Victims of the War against Terrorism. (Coverage of Terrorism)

Magazine article Nieman Reports

The Pentagon and the Press: Several `Principles' of Coverage Became Victims of the War against Terrorism. (Coverage of Terrorism)

Article excerpt

Since the end of the Vietnam War, whenever the U.S. military has swung into action, American war correspondents, with few exceptions, have found themselves hog-tied and blindfolded, utterly unable to provide their readers, viewers and listeners with adequate coverage of actual combat. As the "war on terrorism" unfolded following the attacks of September 11, the pattern seemed to be repeating.

Vast journalistic resources were committed to covering the war from a distance, often with impressive results. But in the early stages, at least, much of the fighting took place in secret, far beyond journalists' eyes and ears. Once again, reporters from the freest country on earth were begging the Defense Department for permission to cover a war firsthand. Again, to a large extent they had to rely on "pools" and briefings for details, such as they were.

Military commanders, of course, have never been very enthusiastic about having journalists around during combat. (It's a different matter afterward, when heroics and medals are under discussion.) The main objections haven't really been that journalists are anti-military, or ignorant of military matters, or can't be trusted to abide by reasonable ground rules that protect secrets and lives. Those are the arguments of spin-doctors and right-wing commentators. The military's objections have been more basic: Reporters and photographers can get in the way, and when things don't go well, they have a tendency to tell the whole world.

In Vietnam, the first and only modern U.S. war that was completely free of press censorship, the problem between journalists and the military had little or nothing to do with the accuracy of the reporting, let alone the military's desire to maintain operational security. Mostly, it had to do with reporting that cast doubt on all the "light at the end of the tunnel" rhetoric emanating from the Pentagon and the White House. (On the question of who was right, by the way, most historians seem to be siding with the press.) Nevertheless, in certain military and civilian circles today, the myth prevails that an irresponsible press somehow "caused" a U.S. "defeat" in Vietnam. As a result, when fighting has broken out since then, a firewall has been built between the military and the journalists trying to cover it.

The wall first went up when the United States invaded Grenada in 1983. Before that, I doubt that anyone in the Pentagon or the press ever contemplated that the United States might invade another country and permit no press coverage of any kind. But that is exactly what happened in the bizarre Grenada episode. (A small group of enterprising journalists hired a boat to go to Grenada on their own, but the military promptly arrested them and held them incommunicado until the fighting, such as it was, ended.) The post-Grenada outcry from journalists led to an internal Defense Department "study" and to negotiations between an ad hoc group of Washington bureau chiefs and the Pentagon--negotiations that ended with the creation of what was officially dubbed "The Department of Defense National Media Pool."

As originally envisioned, this ungainly, unnatural creature was intended to facilitate coverage of the initial stage of a military action. A representative pool of reporters and photographers would be permitted to accompany U.S. troops into battle in return for their agreement to play by whatever rules the Pentagon chose to set. At the time, there was a great deal of self-congratulatory enthusiasm among many Washington journalists that the so-called Pentagon Pool would go a long way toward preventing a repetition of the Grenada unpleasantness. Few voices were raised in opposition to the whole idea of institutionalized pool coverage. Indeed, at regular quarterly meetings in the Pentagon, the journalists and the brass would amiably discuss the kinds of restrictions to be imposed on the pool members.

As it turned out, the Pentagon Pool was a disaster not just for journalists but for anyone who believes that in a democracy the people should know what the military is doing in their name and with the lives of their sons and daughters. …

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