The Care and Feeding of the Gulf War MediaI take exception...


September 05, 1992

The Care and Feeding of the Gulf War Media

I take exception to Michael Hill's assessment of the gulf war coverage (Perspective, The Sunday Sun, Aug. 2).

So many reports, after the fact, have been put forward decrying the coverage of this war that it boggles the mind. Many of these reports are by persons and reporters who never served time in eastern Saudi Arabia or Kuwait.

I did. I also was one of these so- called "military minders" working for the Joint Information Bureau (JIB) in the Dhahran International Hotel.

My job was to help out at the Navy desk in its attempt to assist the many -- at times up to 1,400 -- journalists in their numerous and occasionally impossible requests. We worked everything from "I want to visit a carrier in the Red Sea" to "I want to interview Jay Leno." Mr. Leno visited some of the troops during Desert Shield.

At no time during either Desert Shield or Desert Storm did I or anyone I knew ever lie, attempt to lie or cover up any non-positive stories.

Our instructions from our leaders, a Navy captain during Desert Shield and an Army colonel during Desert Storm, were to allow reporters access to whomsoever they wanted to interview.

The Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, Pete Williams, also visited us in Dhahran and sternly briefed us on the importance of not interfering with the media's right to do its thing -- whether the stories were positive or not.

But I did observe on numerous occasions reporters frustrated in their attempts to elicit controversial and anti-war comments from the common soldiers and airmen that they had sought out to interview.

If the comments were positive, I watched reporters make faces, not take notes and move on in their attempt to get a negative quote. At no time did I, or any other escorts from the JIB, try to stop these reporters, even though I found some of their tactics morally unethical.

We at the JIB also had to endure reporters such as the one from a women's magazine who spent her first two weeks in the country interviewing women about what they did with their tampons in the desert and how many lesbian love affairs were ongoing at the JIB. But we carried on, smiled and said, "What the hey."

We escorted reporters and cameramen to Khafji, Saudi Arabia, during and after Iraq's first and only real incursion onto Saudi soil.

I'll never forget the night I spent on a yellow school bus in the middle of the desert as flares lighted the black midnight sky and tracers crisscrossed in the distant air.

I was escorting a bus-load of smoking and joking press. It was all a walk in the park to them. Then, after noticing that our driver, a Saudi soldier, had locked and loaded his weapon, the other JIB escort and I did the same, our weapons making a distinct "clink, clunk" sound as a round went into the chamber. You could have heard a pin drop as a voice from the back of the bus whispered, "Oh, f---."

I only use this example to highlight how we, as military escorts, at times put our lives on the line to ensure that these same reporters got their stories told, unflattering or not.

Another time I watched as the commanding officer of the USS Fife (DD 991), a Spruance class destroyer operating in the gulf, exactingly maneuvered his ship just so a photojournalist, shooting for Proceedings Magazine, could get a certain sailor silhouetted against the morning sun.

We all did our best, and that is why I get tired of reading about claims questioning the way the gulf war was "packaged and sold through a press that was restricted and censored into submission."

Ask Bob Simon of CBS about the need for a military escort. He went out on his own and look what happened. He spent the rest of the war in not-so-gentle Iraqi hands.

Afterward, Mr. Simon claimed that if he had it to do over again, he would probably do things differently.

The bottom line is that this was a war fought over thousands of square miles, in a trackless desert, lasting only a few days. It was never intended for 1,400 journalists to be running all over the Saudi desert looking for stories.

By war's end, we had at best about 45 military personnel stationed at the JIB to act as escorts, security review, coordinating officers, supply clerks, security guards and media liaison.

Throughout everything, we were constantly being told that our number one priority was to get the media packages (stories and photos) released as soon as possible and with as little red tape as necessary.

So, from my point of view, the military acted in good faith and busted butt, not to mention endangering a few lives, to get the uncensored stories and photos to the public in a timely manner.

But then I was just one of the little guys, a patriotic American doing his job and who resents being told he was all screwed up.

John Johnson


The writer is a Navy chief journalist.

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