Boot camps give hope that media will be on front lines


Washington politicians have used public relations techniques to try to control what the public sees, hears and thinks about this country’s war efforts ever since President Woodrow Wilson established the Committee for Public Information during World War I.

Based on past performance, both by the current Bush administration and by its immediate Republican predecessors, there’s every reason to think that if we go to war against Iraq, Washington will exert more control over the media than ever before, using every tactic from manipulation to deception to disinformation.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 8, 2002 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 03, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 19 inches; 693 words Type of Material: Correction
Time reporter -- The Media Matters column in Sunday’s Calendar incorrectly identified Mark Thompson as a reporter for Newsweek magazine. Thompson works for Time magazine.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 08, 2002 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Time reporter -- The Media Matters column in last Sunday’s Calendar incorrectly identified Mark Thompson as a reporter for Newsweek magazine. Thompson works for Time magazine.

Military and political leaders, eager to blame the news media for the erosion of public support for the war in Vietnam, have imposed a stranglehold on information and pictures from combat zones ever since. They did it in Grenada in 1983, in Panama in 1989, in the Gulf War in 1991 and in Afghanistan last year.


The rationale that’s almost invariably advanced for keeping journalists far from the battlefront is that journalistic disclosures could compromise the security of military objectives and the lives of U.S. troops. But even Victoria Clarke, the Pentagon’s chief spokeswoman, conceded last year that the overwhelming majority of Pentagon correspondents “support completely our concerns about operational security and troop safety.” Often, she said, reporters checked with her voluntarily before publishing or broadcasting information they thought could put U.S. forces or operations at risk.

Ideally, the Bush administration would like to control the information and pictures coming out of Iraq, though, in an effort to ensure that the American public and the world at large see only what Washington wants them to see -- reports on smart bombs, precise strikes, highly successful missions and minimal civilian casualties.

It would prefer no reports of high American casualty counts, no television footage of U.S. body bags, no eyewitness journalistic accounts of failed missions, civilian casualties, combat atrocities or allies who prove to be reluctant or incompetent. But the only way to avoid such coverage would be to exclude the media from the front lines again, and some reporters think that despite the desire of Bush and Co. to do just that, “they learned some very painful lessons from the way the Afghanistan conflict played out,” says John McWethy, who covers the Pentagon for ABC News.

“They realize now that a huge part of winning any war has to do with the world’s perception of how that war is being fought, and if there are no independent eyes watching what’s happening in a particular village, with a particular unit, the people who don’t agree with what the U.S. is doing can have a tremendous advantage in shaping public opinion.”

Thus, late last month the Navy, Army and Marines treated 58 journalists from 30 news organizations to an eight-day media boot camp. The question now is, was this a new sign of media-military cooperation and cohabitation or a clever exercise in public relations and realpolitik?

‘Embedding’ reporters

The reporters and photographers participated in military briefings, rode small amphibious craft through rough seas, visited the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima, toured three other Navy ships and accompanied Marines on a rigorous training mission at Quantico, Va.

Grunting under the load of full packs, the journalists carried out a live landing drill, alternately crawling and running across an open field while under mock fire. They also participated in other demanding drills and learned how to administer emergency first aid and how to don respiratory masks and avoid the spread of contamination in case of chemical and biological warfare.

Military officials say other media boot camps will follow in an effort to “raise the comfort level” of media and military working together in close quarters, as Clarke puts it. These exercises are intended as a preparatory step toward granting one of the journalists’ major requests should war come -- “embedding” them in front-line combat units.

“Embedding” is crucial to providing good war coverage -- if it’s done right.

“Embedding means being assigned to one squad, in one platoon, in one company,” says Thomas E. Ricks, Pentagon reporter for the Washington Post. “In Somalia, I was assigned to Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines. I went on night patrol with them, and I ate what they ate, slept where they slept. When they didn’t shower, I didn’t shower. That’s embedding -- not taking a bunch of reporters to one camp, marching them around as a group to give the military PR opportunities and then, when wounded troops show up, locking the press up in a warehouse so they can’t see anything, which is what happened in Afghanistan.”

A worthwhile exercise

Ricks and other Pentagon reporters say the media boot camps, as well as continuing discussions with Pentagon brass, give them some hope that the unhappy experiences of Afghanistan won’t be repeated in Iraq.

But other reporters wonder if the training exercises are just a public relations gimmick -- an effort to assuage journalists and, simultaneously, to send a muscle-flexing message to Saddam Hussein, demonstrating anew that President Bush is serious about making war.

“It could all have been a charade,” says Carol Williams, a Times foreign correspondent who participated in the media boot camp. “There were times when the whole thing seemed oriented around showing us that we didn’t belong in the forward lines. We were constantly being told, ‘If this were live fire, you’d be dead now.’

“But even for those of us who’ve covered the military and been in hostile environments before, about 90% of this was very useful,” Williams says.

While the soldiers and Marines conducting the training seemed offended at times by the whole exercise, Williams says she “got the clear sense that word has come down from on high that journalists will be embedded ... They’ve done everything but sign in blood that they’ll take a good number of us with forward units ... and that one point of the boot camp was to get the message to commanders that it was up to them to make it work.”

What if media boot camp “has nothing whatsoever to do with access,” as Mark Thompson, Newsweek’s Pentagon reporter, puts it? Virtually everyone agrees that it’s still a worthwhile exercise.

“The military often complains that reporters show up on the battlefield wearing tennis shoes and not knowing a lieutenant from a colonel or one weapon from another,” says ABC’s McWethy. “Not only does everything have to be explained to them, but they can become a real danger to the [military] unit they’re with.”

A generation of relative peace and the end of the military draft have contributed to a press corps woefully short on military experience and understanding, and that’s been a long-standing source of tension and estrangement between the media and the military.

A 1995 report by the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center found that 70% of the military and 74% of the media agreed with the statement that “few members of the news media are knowledgeable about national defense matters.”

But after Afghanistan, an increasing number of journalists have learned at least a little something about combat operations, and the Pentagon’s various training exercises are increasing those numbers even as the buildup toward war continues.

The question now is whether Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their various field commanders will allow the journalists enough access to implement what they’ve learned -- or if the promises of greater access to front-line troops will be broken as readily in Iraq as they were in Afghanistan.


David Shaw can be reached at