The Pentagon, in a departure from recent policy, is planning to deploy hundreds of print reporters, photographers and television journalists with front-line U.S. units if there is a war with Iraq.
Faced with the churn of 24/7 news and the prospect that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will mount an effective media campaign of his own, Pentagon officials have concluded that reporters “embedded” with units will be more credible witnesses to history than military briefers.
Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke won’t say yet how often, for how long and with what units reporters might be deployed -- although she says the Pentagon is contemplating attaching them to air as well as ground troops, and in the “first wave” of any attack.
“We are absolutely convinced the more news and information that comes out of Iraq -- if there’s military action -- the better off we’ll all be,” Clarke said. “It’s fine for Torie Clarke to stand up there and say we went to extraordinary lengths to avoid hitting civilians. It is a far better thing for a bona fide, credible source of information -- the news media -- to be saying that based on experience.”
The new media strategy is an acknowledgment by the Pentagon that winning the war of words and images is crucial to the mission in Iraq. But it is also a concession that the post-Vietnam arrangement for war coverage -- which relied largely on tightly controlled pools of reporters sending back copy for their briefing-bound colleagues -- hasn’t worked for either journalists or, in some sense, the military.
“This represents a shift away from what we saw following Vietnam -- that whole philosophy of keeping the press away from the battlefield except in the most highly controlled manner,” said Clarence R. Wyatt, a history professor at Centre College in Kentucky and author of “Paper Soldiers,” a book about Vietnam War coverage. “We had examples of pool coverage in Grenada and Panama, and then that philosophy came to full flower in the Gulf War. Absolutely, this is an improvement.”
It isn’t unprecedented for the Pentagon to plant journalists among combat troops. And these reporters wouldn’t be the only source of news -- media outlets still plan to send journalists to cover an Iraq war independent of the military, and to cover the briefings expected out of Qatar. But the new policy may put more reporters with troops in battle than in any war since World War II, when reporters wore the uniforms of the units they covered and wrote stories, a la Ernie Pyle, glorifying the heroism of individual soldiers.
“Certainly this is a step beyond anything in recent memory,” said Kenneth Bacon, a spokesman at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration. “The key will be how well it works -- whether reporters get cleared to file.”
Some reporters remain skeptical that the Pentagon will actually deliver the kind of access that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Clarke have been discussing with Washington bureau chiefs.
In part, that is because of the experience in the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, where access to American forces was limited for weeks. And the media are still smarting over coverage restrictions during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when journalists saw very little action and some information -- such as the number of Iraqi civilian casualties -- wasn’t reported until after the war.
Access Is Key
“There’s an expression in the military that no plan survives the first contact with the enemy,” CNN reporter Jamie McIntyre said of the Pentagon’s new media strategy. “We didn’t get much access in Afghanistan, and it doesn’t look like we’re going to get much in Iraq.”
Even when journalists agree to ground rules designed to protect operational security, he argued, the speed of modern technology frightens commanders in combat. “The more we have capability to go live, the more nervous they are,” he said.
Some in the media worry that the new strategy will skewer coverage, tilting it toward individual valor instead of providing a comprehensive picture of war.
“It’s a terrible conflict for reporters,” said John Fialka, a Wall Street Journal reporter who wrote a book, “Hotel Warriors,” on Gulf War coverage. “It does not give you good history, which journalism should be.”
But other reporters argue that large-scale access will benefit both the press and the military. “The promise of such widespread access is an enormously positive change from where we were at the start of the Persian Gulf War,” said Clark Hoyt, Washington editor for Knight-Ridder newspapers. “If they follow through and it turns out the way it appears to be heading, it will give the American people a chance to learn about war as it unfolds, assuming there is a war, in a way that was simply not possible during the Persian Gulf War.”
Capt. T. McCreary, public affairs advisor to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard B. Myers, said that Afghanistan changed many military minds about media coverage.
“Afghanistan was the watershed event,” he said. “We had an enemy with a strategy designed to put out false stories in the Arab media. We were always fighting to keep up. If we don’t do this, we will always be losing the information game. Reacting from Washington to the enemy in theater is painful.”
Jon B. Alterman, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, agrees, arguing that the information war is the only real weapon available to the Iraqi president.
“He can’t win militarily, although he can try to make it painful for us, and he can’t win diplomatically, because even his friends distrust him,” Alterman said. “What he has done reasonably well for 12 years is to create images -- images of starving children.”
To prepare for the invasion of journalists, the Pentagon recently conducted a “boot camp” for reporters and plans another this month -- a two-week drill session instructing them on such issues as how to use a camera without giving away troop locations to the enemy and how to survive a chemical weapons attack.
Ever since Vietnam, the media and the Pentagon have fought over access.
In the Gulf War, the two sides agreed to a pool system. Robbed of access to important battles, reporters chafed at the restrictions. In the opening days of the Gulf War, CBS’ Bob Simon and his crew ventured near the Saudi-Iraqi border on their own and were captured by the Iraqis.
After the Gulf War, reporters expressed anger at the Pentagon for restricting access to the battlefield. But polls -- to say nothing of a “Saturday Night Live” skit that belittled reporters for asking stupid questions -- found that most Americans supported the military.
Mission the Priority
“The bottom line is, you’ve got to accomplish your mission,” then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said just after the war. “You’ve got to do it at the lowest possible cost in terms of American lives. And that takes precedence over how you deal with the press.”
Now, senior Pentagon officials have calculated that saturating the media with access to U.S. forces will serve as a buffer against the latest “weapon” in enemy hands: access to Qatari-based Al Jazeera television and other Arab news outlets.
“In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, there was a great degree of skill in news management,” Rumsfeld told bureau chiefs recently. The Taliban and Al Qaeda put their military facilities “in close proximity to hospitals and nursing homes and schools and sympathy-engendering locations.”
The Pentagon may also have realized that placing reporters with U.S. troops will serve to tell the story of personal heroics that is largely missing from the files of the Gulf War.
As Knight-Ridder’s Hoyt said, “A lot of the military were disappointed at the lack of coverage and opportunity for people back home -- families, colleagues -- to know in some firsthand eyewitness way what they had achieved.”