A Few Good Laughs While Waiting

January 04, 1991|By Ernest B. Furgurson

WASHINGTON. — Washington--HOW MANY situps could Ernie Pyle do? Could Hal Boyle run two miles in 18 minutes, or in any time at all?

Would Mark Watson, Larry Allen, Ira Wolfert, Homer Bigart, Keyes Beech, Maggie Higgins, Pat Morin, Don Whitehead, Mal Browne, Dave Halberstam, Pete Arnett or Bill Tuohy have dropped to the deck and done 40 quick pushups at the request of an Army public-relations officer?

Almost 50 years ago, Ernie Pyle and Hal Boyle were two of the best-known Americans anywhere when they covered GIs fighting World War II. They and the others won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting this country's last three wars.

Pyle was a skinny little runt. Boyle was big and red-faced. Watson was 57 when he won the prize for his reporting in The Sun. Knowing most of them, I would say no more than three of the 14 reporters above could have met the physical tests an Army colonel thinks correspondents should pass to go up front with U.S. troops in their next war, somewhere near Kuwait and Iraq.

When a couple of old heads around the office started trying to imagine the reaction of people like Bigart or Beech, Bill Lawrence or Phil Potter, Mert Perry or Charlie Mohr to such an idea, it took us half an hour to stop giggling.

When I asked information officers at the Pentagon about it, I politely tried to contain myself, and they tried to convince me the test wasn't really a requirement, although that's exactly what reports from Saudi Arabia called it.

When armies sit around too long with nobody to fight, they like to make up rules. In Saudi Arabia, Col. Bill Mulvey, head of the U.S. Joint Information Bureau, got to talking with the correspondents who are obliged to sit around without a war to cover -- and in Arabia, without even a beer to drink. In this dangerous combination of circumstances, somebody ventured that if there is war, reporters would have to be in good condition to keep up with front-line troops.

This lit a bulb in Colonel Mulvey's mind. He had been an infantry lieutenant in Vietnam. Why shouldn't newspapermen be in at least as good shape as infantrymen? He sent back to Washington for the physical requirements all soldiers allegedly are required to meet.

To be a good war correspondent, by these standards, would pTC mean getting a grade of 60 on three tests, determined by age. Reporters from 17 to 21 years old, if any, would have to do 42 pushups, 57 situps and run two miles in 15 minutes and 54 seconds. Those 52 and over would have to do a mere 16 pushups, 26 situps, and two miles in 20 minutes. Women would face modified standards.

(Apparently an I.Q. test is considered irrelevant.)

Bulletin: My Pentagon source advises that six reporters have passed the test -- the best performances were 81 pushups, 96 situps, and 1.5 miles in 12.59. The run was cut from two miles to 1.5 as a special concession to the press. How many other reporters tried and failed, our source could not say.

Some editors have protested the whole exercise as a threat to press freedom, because it sets up the Army as judge of who should and shouldn't cover a war. True, any accredited reporter, no matter how many pushups he can do, would still be free to hang around the hotel and go to briefings. But the military is planning carefully chaperoned pools to cover the fighting, and is using the test as a way of preparing correspondents for this duty.

The pool system, of designating a small, manageable group to witness an event on condition that they make their reports available to all, is a way of avoiding mob scenes and providing logistical help for the press. It also is a form of prior censorship, in which the military does not control what the correspondent writes, but what he is allowed to see. It prevented timely on-scene reporting in Grenada and Panama, and now the services intend to use it on a larger scale in the Gulf showdown.

Since Vietnam, distrust of the press has been a given in U.S. military culture. That is a result of selective memory, which understandably wants someone to blame for what happened. Interestingly, this attitude is stronger among soldiers who were not there than among those who were. Few of today's officers have experience with either combat or the press -- and few of today's young reporters have any military background, either as soldiers or correspondents.

In Vietnam, correspondents moved freely wherever they could hitch a ride, and reported what they saw. More often than not, they emphasized the good over the bad. In proportion to their numbers, they had a high casualty rate. They were quite capable of judging their own fitness to go into the field. I never heard of one getting hurt or interfering with an operation because he couldn't do enough pushups.

Friction between press and military is as old as the nation; at best we can hope that whatever happens in the Gulf will ease it rather than make it worse. If we are lucky, the pushups-situps story will be remembered not as a great First Amendment confrontation, but as a comic routine that helped relieve tension during the days when Bob Hope wasn't around.

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