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U.S. Military Plans the War of Words

Carol Brightman is the author of the biography "Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World." E-mail: cdmbrightman@hotmail.com.

The Defense Department recently fleshed out its plan for “embedding” members of the press with military units during the impending invasion of Iraq. But the plan still doesn’t address a crucial question: Will the technique really bring journalists any closer to the facts of war?

As envisioned by the military, chosen reporters and photographers will be positioned inside military units -- not for a few days or a week but for the duration of the conflict. “Embedding for life” is how Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Bryan Whitman portrayed it. At a recent orientation meeting with Washington bureau chiefs, Whitman described the ideal “embed” as one who follows a unit (ground, air or sea) from load-out to deployment through combat (subject to field approval) to the “march on whatever capital we happen to march on” to the return trip home and the “victory parade.” This could take “two weeks, two months, two years,” he warned, and if reporters leave a unit there is no guarantee they can return or even join another unit.

Nearly 300 potential “embeds” have already received training at a half-dozen media boot camps along the East Coast. Participants are briefed on U.S. military policy and weapons capabilities and taught rudimentary survival skills, including how to suit up in the event of chemical or biological weapons exposure. Lt. Col. Gary Keck, who devised the training program, stressed in a telephone interview that enrollment doesn’t guarantee an embed opportunity, nor must embeds take the course, although commanders are reassured when they have.

The media boot camps are overtures to a larger strategy in which the Pentagon, for the first time in half a century, has actively integrated reporters and photographers into its war machine. The significance of this audacious decision, whose sponsors are Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard B. Myers, becomes clearer when it’s set beside the media policy that governed Gulf War I.

Under then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Army Gen. Colin L. Powell, the press was allowed only to do pool coverage in which a few reporters provided dispatches to the rest. All copy, photographs and film had to be submitted to military censors. Most TV footage, usually bombers streaking across desert skies, was supplied by military crews. High-level briefings were orchestrated by Cheney and Powell because, as Cheney later told interviewers from Freedom Forum, “the information function was extraordinarily important. I did not have a lot of confidence I could leave that to the press.”

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As a result, according to Patrick J. Sloyan, who won a Pulitzer for his coverage of Desert Storm in Newsday, not a single pool reporter produced an eyewitness account of the clash between allied and Iraqi troops. Nor did many images of dead bodies find their way into the American media. By the time the press was taken to the scene of a battle, the Iraqi bodies were gone; buried, on one occasion, by giant plows mounted on tanks, followed by armored earth movers that leveled the ground.

Still, Cheney asserted to the Freedom Forum, it was “the best-covered war ever” because “the American people saw up close with their own eyes through the magic of television what the U.S. military was capable of doing.” The media couldn’t have disagreed more sharply. As John R. MacArthur wrote in his account of the censorship in the Gulf War, “Second Front,” “it was difficult to find anyone [in the media] who didn’t ... count Desert Storm as a devastating and immoral victory for military censorship and a crushing defeat for the press and the 1st Amendment.”

In Afghanistan, the reliance on special operations units and air power made war coverage difficult, and military media policies made it no easier. In one instance, journalists stationed at a U.S. Marine base were locked in a warehouse after U.S. forces were hit by friendly fire a hundred yards away. Later, briefing officers in the field distributed press releases from the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla.

It was in everyone’s interest to get something better into place. But a gap between the goals of journalists and those of the Defense Department is already becoming apparent in the new plan. The Pentagon’s goal is clear: Embedding will focus public attention on the troops, on ordinary Americans just trying to stay alive. CNN Chief Executive Walter Isaacson, writing in the Wall Street Journal, said he was told by field commanders during a recent tour of the Persian Gulf that the military believes “the best representatives to convey America’s intentions and capabilities are the sailors and soldiers in the field.”

The Pentagon expects that embedded reporters will develop relationships with the units they are assigned to, and that they will therefore be more likely to play up heroic acts and human interest stories rather than dwell on negative stories that could prove embarrassing. This is not to suggest, Keck insists, that journalists will compromise their objectivity. “It’s the reporter’s job to report objectively,” he says. “If we took some casualties, he’d report it.” But that’s not the whole story. “An embed is more sensitive to things that can’t be said,” he adds.

Will reporters even be allowed to be fully objective? Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Victoria Clarke acknowledges that some censorship will take place, but she believes that most embedded journalists will want to do the “right” thing. “The fundamental principles on which we will say no, you can’t transmit

But the guidelines that Clarke suggests for suppressing news are quite similar to those utilized during the first Gulf War, when journalists complained that their stories were heavily censored or held up. Some pool reporters were based in forward units during that war too but their dispatches and film often took so long to get back to the hotel in Saudi Arabia that they were too dated to use. “Censorship by delay,” the problem came to be called. Today’s journalists will carry their own transmission devices, and this alone marks a significant departure from the pool system. But will reporters actually be allowed to use their electronic devices?

When the question was asked by Cissy Baker, Washington bureau chief for Tribune Broadcasting, at the Pentagon meeting, Rear Adm. Steve Pietropaoli described the occasions and circumstances when satellite or cell phones would be restricted. “You guys would like to be able to go live 24/7,” he said, “and we would like to be able to control your timing.” Clarke, who wants “to raise the comfort level” for reporters, added: “We’re not going to go to all that trouble [with embeds] and not try to make every effort to help you get your product back.”

Many members of the media are hopeful that this time out will be significantly better, but their optimism may be misplaced. “There’s a kind of strange naivete on the part of journalists, especially in a war situation when it comes to accepting official explanations,” Richard Rubenstein, professor of Conflict management at George Mason University, said in a telephone interview. “One gets the feeling that the press is being played.”

Indeed, it’s a sure bet that the military is not simply trying to rectify past wrongs: It sees missed opportunities for publicizing its successes in the last war. As CNN’s military analyst, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, told Isaacson: “We made a huge mistake trying to restrict press coverage in the first Gulf War because of our Vietnam mentality. We had a 1st Armored Division tank battle that was just incredible, perhaps the biggest armored battle ever, but not a single image was reported or documented for history by the press.”

This time around, instead of trying to shut the press out, the military has decided to enlist the media’s vast resources. Pentagon planners are carefully studying all media markets, trying, in the case of television, to reach out to the right mix of 24-hour news channels, nightly news and news magazine shows and even entertainment divisions that have an interest in embedding.

But none of this suggests a return to the free-for-all days of Vietnam, during which journalists had unprecedented access to the war theater. In Vietnam, journalists disdained the “5 o’clock follies” (official briefings) and shunned military escorts. Many instead found their own units to ride with, or they attached themselves to officers, as author David Halberstam -- no enemy of the Army -- did with John Paul Vann for his book “The Making of a Quagmire.” The access may have been good for journalists, but for the military it meant little control of the news streaming home. And the news was bad: Images of body bags and napalmed children were beamed back nightly to suburban television sets, and over time public opinion turned against the war.

Nothing like this kind of independent reporting is likely to happen again, but just to make sure the Pentagon has insisted that the media centralize the process of selection so that a single person in each news organization, preferably a bureau chief, works with a contact at the Pentagon. This is to avoid “people cutting deals,” which reporters have already attempted, Clarke complains; and adds: “The only deals that will be made on the embeds ... will be the deals that are made here.”


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