WASHINGTON — Washington--On the eve of the U.S. invasion of Panama, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney delayed deployment of a press pool of journalists until after the nightly news shows had gone off the air.
By the time the reporters and cameramen got to Panama -- four hours after the U.S. attack -- it was "too late to cover the decisive U.S. assaults in that brief war," according to a Pentagon analysis.
There weren't enough helicopters to ferry reporters to battle, the media were barred from key combat zones and a malfunctioning fax machine caused delays in the transmission of what written news there was.
To prevent another such fiasco, Mr. Cheney's aides are now negotiating with the media over the terms of coverage for war in the Persian Gulf.
If Vietnam was the first war that television brought into American living rooms, a conflict in Iraq could be the first war broadcast live, or virtually live, via minicam.
Should U.S. forces claim quick and easy victory, the resultant reports could be a public relations bonanza for President Bush and the military. But if the armed forces are forced to slog through a bloody war of attrition, such open coverage could lead to widespread revulsion.
With both sides mindful of what is at stake, the negotiations have taken time. Still unanswered are a number of questions that will define the word "access" and determine the quality and immediacy of news reports:
How many journalists will be allowed to travel to the front lines? How soon, after the fighting starts, will they get there? Will they be able to get their stories and pictures through the turmoil of war and back to the United States? What kind of ground rules or self-censorship will exist?
The preliminary ground rules now under discussion call for U.S. government "security review" of written and filmed pool reports of battle, mandatory military escorts for all journalists in the field and a firm restriction against transmission of material that could identify U.S. casualties before the Pentagon has a chance to notify next of kin.
"There have been instances in which next of kin have first learned of the death or wounding of a loved one through news media reports," the prospective ground rules note. "The anguish that sudden recognition at home can cause is out of proportion to the news value of the photograph or video."
Should the rules take effect, and given the technical challenge of lugging heavy equipment through the desert in the wake of speeding tanks, it is highly unlikely that anything but the most distant and featureless aspects of the war could be included in live broadcasts -- at least at the start.
Even print reporters chafe at such restrictions.
"Essentially, it is all designed to block coverage of dead Americans," said Patrick Sloyan, a reporter for Newsday who has recently returned from Saudi Arabia.
"There was not a single photograph of American guys killed in Panama, and that is what they are striving for: no blood. Wars are just terrible, and the reality is ugly, and politicians don't like people seeing that because it costs them votes."
American political and military leaders have tried to manipulate the press since the 19th century, when Gen. Winfield Scott shut down the Associated Press' telegraph report of the Union rout at Bull Run. Strict censorship ruled the work of correspondents in ,, World Wars I and II but was abandoned in Vietnam, resulting in open coverage and what is seen variously as the media's most courageous, timid or treasonous hour.
Since Vietnam taught generals and politicians the enormous influence of the media on wartime public opinion, relations between the U.S. government and the press over military action have not been good.
Post-mortem analyses of the U.S. invasions of both Grenada and Panama concluded that the Reagan and Bush administrations were able to manipulate the news and reap favorable publicity -- in part because reporters were kept from the front lines in the early stages of battle.
As the U.S. armada approached Grenada in 1983, White House spokesmen labeled reports of an imminent invasion as "preposterous," and no reporters were allowed on the island until most of the fighting was over -- leaving the networks with positive images of rescued medical students and little or no footage of the cost: the 18 dead U.S. troops.
Responding to criticism, the Pentagon approved the concept of a standing pool of reporters and cameramen who would be sworn to secrecy and placed on call for U.S. military action.
But then came Panama. "From the outset, the newsmen and women in the pool met one frustration after another," the Pentagon post-mortem concluded.
The pool reporters were especially infuriated when "ABC personality Sam Donaldson . . . arrived with an entourage" and received the red-carpet treatment, apparently because of pressure from Washington, said the Pentagon report.