Public Would Get a Closer Look at War

Times Staff Writer

Hours after American and coalition forces launched the ground war in the 1991 Persian Gulf conflict, they routed Iraqi troops and brought the fighting to a rapid conclusion. But few Americans learned about this campaign as it unfolded, because most journalists were kept miles away from the front lines.

As U.S. forces gear up for another conflict in Iraq, Pentagon officials promise that coverage will be different this time: More than 500 reporters from America and around the world will be stationed with combat units, shoulder to shoulder with U.S. soldiers, and the public is likely to get a grittier, grunt's-eye view of modern war than the remote, video-game clash that was beamed into living rooms 12 years ago.

"There may be a more human face to this conflict than the last one," said Eason Jordan, CNN's chief news executive. "Many correspondents will be reporting about people literally fighting on the front lines. They won't be covering briefings."

The sheer number of reporters assigned to combat will be unprecedented for the opening stages of a conflict involving the U.S. But as journalists report to their new units, a process the Pentagon has dubbed "embedding," a debate has erupted over the reasons for this new battlefield access and its likely effect on the media.

Military officials believe embedding will serve the interests of Pentagon policymakers and reporters alike. Yet many news executives -- while cautiously optimistic the plan will work -- are doubtful that embedding will reduce the tensions that have marked media-military relations since the Vietnam War. And some believe the Pentagon did an about-face on access because its policies of exclusion no longer work in a world where the media landscape has changed so dramatically.

"So much of this new policy coming from the military is driven by the realities of new technology and the growth of 24-hour news channels, not just in America but in many other countries," said Sandra Mims Rowe, editor of the (Portland) Oregonian.

U.S. media coverage of war in Iraq, no matter how voluminous and state-of-the-art, will be competing with Al Jazeera, the widely watched 24-hour news station in the Arab world, and a profusion of other news outlets, she said. Amid this explosion of new voices, Rowe noted, "the Pentagon can't keep information from people, like it did so well in the first Persian Gulf War. That's clearly going to be a losing game now."

To win the battle for public opinion in an age of never-ending news cycles, experts say, the Pentagon had no choice but to give reporters a front-row seat. Beyond the battlefield, there will be an entirely different war fought over TV images and newspaper coverage, and the side that tells its story best can gain a crucial advantage. This is particularly important given the global reach of the Internet, which was in its infancy during the 1991 war and now speeds breaking news, rumors, propaganda, data and a wellspring of alternative opinions to millions.

Yet the U.S. military has been slow to learn these lessons. As recently as the Afghanistan war, few reporters were allowed to cover the conflict in any depth from the scene, until most of the fighting was over. There was a period when the only battle images seen on American televisions came from Al Jazeera, and they were of civilian casualties from U.S. bombing raids, Jordan said.

This time, the military believes there will be a dramatically new dynamic.

"The idea is to get as much coverage of our service members' efforts in any hostilities that may develop, yet it's definitely a two-way street," said Army Maj. Timothy Blair, a Pentagon spokesman. "We are allowing the press to get the coverage it's asking for, and this also permits us to provide the public with a firsthand knowledge of events on the ground and in the region -- an untainted view of what's happening."

But how much has the media given up in return for battlefield access? Few observers doubt that experiencing war firsthand beats the tedium of waiting for military briefings every day, hundreds of miles from the action. Yet some wonder whether a variation of the "Stockholm syndrome" may develop, in which journalists become enamored of the soldiers they're covering and lose perspective.

"The virtue of embedding is that it allows reporters to eat, breathe, sleep and experience war firsthand with soldiers," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Project for Excellence in Journalism. "But the danger is that you're liable to start reporting from the point of the view of the troops who are protecting you. In a way, you owe your life to them, and the Pentagon knows that."

Given the potential for such bonding, many news executives believe the most independent -- and controversial -- stories that Americans are likely to read or see will come from hundreds of additional reporters, the so-called "unilaterals," who will not be assigned to military units and can roam through the region.

The blending of stories from embedded reporters and those on their own is the key to better wartime coverage, said Leonard Downie, executive editor of the Washington Post. And so far, he noted, the granting of battlefield access has been working as planned. But he remains cautious about how this may change during wartime.

"We expect, as always, to have a dialogue with the Pentagon about the way things go during any hostilities," Downie said. "They have indicated they want to let us see what's going on and if it happens, great. We'll certainly try to hold them to that."

Under the new program, Pentagon officials handed out a fixed number of embedded slots to varying news organizations. Military officials offered weeklong "boot camp" training sessions for as many reporters as possible, before they joined specific units. Nearly 100 of the embedded journalists will come from foreign news organizations, including Al Jazeera.

The Los Angeles Times plans to deploy eight journalists with various military units, including six reporters and two photographers. So far, the embedding program has worked smoothly "and we've been getting pretty much everything we asked for," Managing Editor Dean Baquet said. "But we'll have to see how it all plays out."

David Zucchino, a Times correspondent who will be assigned to a military unit, received firsthand exposure to the embedding process when he and other journalists were allowed to travel with U.S. soldiers in the closing phase of the Afghanistan war.

"I was treated well, almost as another grunt basically, and I was amazed at how open and receptive the lower-level people are," he said. "They really wanted some validation of what they were doing and were happy to have reporters along. The resistance comes from the top of the command, that wants to keep a lid on things."

Almost immediately after the guidelines for embedding were distributed last month, news organizations began combing the fine print. There are strict limits on what reporters can cover, when they can cover it, and how they travel to the scene.

Journalists assigned to military units, for example, may not break away from the unit; conduct "off the record" interviews with military personnel; give specific descriptions of completed missions or other military actions; or give details about ongoing or future operations.

And perhaps most important, they must allow for "temporary restrictions" on transmitting stories if commanders in the field say it might endanger the outcome of a mission or the security of the troops. This last condition has many news executives concerned, mainly because they are unclear how it will be applied.

"I'm pleased with what we've heard so far, but the proof will be in how well we can actually cover a story, and whether we can get the information out in a timely manner," said Bill Wheatley, vice president for NBC News.

The decisions about when stories can be transmitted will almost invariably be made by commanders in the field, Wheatley added, and this too has sparked controversy. Some believe that, with so many reporters stationed on the front lines, it will be difficult to hold back coverage, no matter how sensitive.

Yet others say that, even though reporters now carry the means of instant transmission on their backs, there is bound to be friction with military officials who are uncomfortable with the press standing beside them.

"Whether embedding really works or not will depend on relationships between reporters and commanders, and how these officials view reporters," said David Halberstam, an author and Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnam War correspondent. "It's the same in all conflicts: How well does the commander work with reporters assigned to his units? Will there be a nuanced flex that lets reporters be reporters? We'll just have to wait and see."

Journalists in Vietnam had free access to troops on the front lines, and also enjoyed freedom of movement. As the war effort deteriorated, however, government officials blamed the media for undermining America's soldiers with negative stories.

Halberstam and a multitude of observers denied this, saying reporters were simply reporting the facts of a war that had become unwinnable. But the charge stuck in many minds, and in subsequent conflicts military strategists went out of their way to keep reporters away from combat. Some observers suggest that the embedding policy is simply the latest effort by Pentagon officials to shape and control American press coverage.

"The military wants to get positive coverage, that's their job, and they're hardly being altruistic toward the press now," said Phil Bronstein, executive vice president and editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. "They've concluded, probably logically, that they'll get more sympathetic stories by locking reporters in with U.S. troops for the long haul."

Both sides are taking big risks, he added, because "the Pentagon is afraid of losing control of the news, which might well happen. And journalists are afraid of being beholden to the military, which could also be a real possibility in this war."

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