Military censorship, delays frustrate reporters in gulf WAR IN THE GULF

January 26, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- The admiral's voice blared over the public address system on the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy at precisely 2:57 p.m. on Jan. 16.

The war, he announced, would begin in 10 hours.

Pandemonium broke out from stem to stern, an explosion of tension and excitement the seven journalists stationed aboard the ship should have been perfectly positioned to report.

But they missed the chance to record history. They had been corralled below decks by the ship's public affairs officer.

That same day, at a desert air base in Saudi Arabia, two reporters who were part of a military-escorted journalists' pool saw the first videotapes taken by Stealth bombers over Baghdad -- just minutes after the warplanes returned from their attack on ,, the Iraqi capital.

They promptly wrote and turned their stories in to military censors, elated in the belief they were providing America with an eyewitness report on the opening day of war.

But after review by military censors, the stories were sent on to the base where the Stealth planes are headquartered. They were released in time to appear in Sunday's newspapers -- four days after the outbreak of the war.

The request another reporter made in Dhahran on Wednesday seemed simple enough. He asked the Pentagon's Joint Information Bureau whether he could interview the disc jockey who spins records on the U.S. military's radio station here.

First, the public affairs officer said, you must submit a written request and explain the purpose of the interview. Then it must be reviewed by the military command. If they approve the request, the interview will be delayed until a pool of other journalists can be gathered to join the interview.

The news emerging from the Persian Gulf war is being managed and controlled by the U.S. military to a degree unprecedented in modern warfare. The hundreds of reporters here say they routinely are denied access to information except that which is ,, available at briefings and through severely restricted pools.

Those pools are escorted to bases, encampments and ships at sea by

military handlers who generally select all soldiers and sailors who may be interviewed, brief those people before an interview is permitted and then listen in while the interview takes place.

Reports compiled by pool reporters must be submitted for review by military public information officers, who are supposed to protect against release of sensitive information that might be helpful to the enemy. They have edited stories to protect the image of the military as well.

In one case, military censors changed a reporter's description of pilots returning from a mission. Frank Bruni of the Detroit Free Press described them as "giddy," but the censor changed the word to "proud."

Lt. Col. Larry Icenogle, head of the Joint Information Bureau, said VTC that public affairs check only for content.

The concept of tightly controlled pool reporting is popular among many top-level U.S. commanders who served in the Vietnam War, when reporters were allowed to roam freely and interview anyone.

Many of those commanders, who were lieutenants and captains in Vietnam, publicly subscribe to the belief that "negative" press coverage eroded support for the war.

In the Persian Gulf, the lag time between submission of a report and its release by censors is the most frustrating of the hurdles facing reporters, according to several journalists who have participated in pools.

Peter M. Copeland, a Pentagon correspondent for Scripps-Howard Newspapers, was a member of a pool whose interviews with fighter pilots were held up for 53 hours.

Colonel Icenogle said the delays were unavoidable: "I think that there's no way you're going to have instantaneous, real-time reporting."

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