War within a War: The Press and the Pentagon

Article excerpt

If the United States goes to war in Iraq, two major campaigns will be under way.

One is the military air and ground war, designed to topple Saddam Hussein.

The other is the public relations campaign of the military and the Bush administration to win public opinion at home.

The press - print and electronic - is going to play an immensely significant role in all this. Journalists in their hundreds will be clamoring to cover the war. They will come not only from the US and Britain but from dozens of other countries and from news organizations ranging from The New York Times to the Japanese press to Egypt's Al-Ahram and the Arab Al Jazeera TV network.

While the Iraqis may permit a handful of correspondents into Baghdad in the hope of manipulating them, most journalists will be attempting to cover the war from the American side. Thus many news organizations are setting funds aside for war coverage, suiting up their war reporters with flak jackets and chemical warfare outfits, and sending them to media boot camps being run by the Pentagon.

The Pentagon's primary concern is the American press, which will substantially mold US public opinion about the course of the war. But major conflicts lie ahead between military and press because the two have entirely different agendas.

The press wants to get as close to the action as possible, chronicling both victories and setbacks, and painting a picture of war as stark and ugly as it sometimes can be.

The military, for security reasons, seeks to cast a veil over ongoing operations, but also wants to shape press coverage of the war in a favorable light.

Since World War II, which most correspondents on the allied side viewed as a conflict between righteousness and fascism, the relationship between journalists and the military has changed.

In the Vietnam War, reporters enjoyed about as much freedom as possible to link up with front-line units, either South Vietnamese or American. Like many another reporter, I could head out to Saigon's Tan Son Nhut airport any day I wanted, and hitch a helicopter south to the Delta, or a C130 north to Pleiku or Danang, to accompany any unit on almost any kind of operation it was engaged in.

This led to a mass of "rice-roots" reporting, sometimes negative, that the military brass did not welcome. Many high-ranking officers vowed that such freedom would not be allowed in later conflicts. …