How will the next war be covered? The press, the military have failed to say who'll call the shots

March 22, 1998|By LAIRD ANDERSON

The best kept secret during the threatened air attack on Iraq had nothing to do with military operations or last-minute political maneuvering. Rather, it had to do with how and to what extent the public would be informed once the launch button was pushed and the bombs rained down on Baghdad.

Some of you may yawn and say, "Ho-hum. Things settled down. We're in a peace mode. Kofi Annan and Saddam Hussein settled things and the United Nations Security Council signed off. These guys said there will be 'severe consequences' if Saddam doesn't comply with the inspection rules. He gets the message. He'll comply."

I wouldn't bet the farm on this one.

In my view, we'll be revisiting the possibility of "severe consequences" within the next six months. And unlike over the past four or five months, the public should be demanding answers from the media on how they will cover the next war, whether it is with Iraq or whatever military situation that arises.

How about the former Yugoslavia, where Serbs are knocking off some ethnic Albanians and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright has called for "decisive and firm action"? Will the United States be involved? How about the media and how, if we commit beyond rhetoric?

Remember the Persian Gulf war of 1990-1991? More than 400,000 troops were dispatched to defend Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and quickly the media were raising Cain about being stiffed by the Pentagon. Nervous military public affairs officials overreacted and insisted on trying to control the coverage by hundreds of journalists who had flocked to the battle zone.

Many reporters thought they would be free to roam with infantry and armored troops and cover hometown warriors among the thousands of reserve soldiers who had been mobilized. Instead, they wound up writing about how the military stifled freedom of the press. A few journalists displayed bravado by defying the military and heading into harm's way on their own.

The flash point of the most recent crisis, Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, is just as important as the events that led to the first war. But there was hardly a peep out of the media and the academic think tanks about what the media's role would be in a new conflict. There were a few modest articles. News executives had held a meeting with Defense Department public affairs officials, Hussein invited correspondents to his decaying capital city to witness the destruction, and the military's public affairs apparatus was gearing up for Kuwait, the only Arab nation out of the coalition eight years ago that offered us haven.

To be sure, there were stories about ground forces being dispatched to the region and preparations for a massive air strike by planes and cruise missiles. But what was the media's preparation for this war? Because this was to be an air war - well telegraphed in advance - it would be up to correspondents in Baghdad, no doubt guided by Iraqi publicists, to tell us about death and destruction.

Meanwhile, back in Kuwait and on aircraft carriers at sea, reporters would have to be content with interviews with returning pilots - if they could get to them. Otherwise, they would have to be satisfied with the well-prepared and visually stunning official briefings by military officers (remember those bravo performances by Gens. Colin L. Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf). In short, they'd be getting packaged, censored and no doubt favorable news spun by the military.

Eight years ago, at the end of round one of the gulf war, the unhappy media, represented by five correspondents, hashed out with the military a new set of nine principles for news coverage of battlefield operations. One of their number, Stanley Cloud, then Washington bureau chief of Time magazine, wrote about the deal:

"Does any of this assure the Pentagon's good behavior toward the press in future conflicts? Of course not. Do the nine principles completely neutralize the systematic attempt by the Reagan and Bush administrations to prevent the kind of largely unfettered news coverage that was seen in Vietnam? Unfortunately, no. Should journalists - indeed all Americans - continue to press for that kind of coverage? Absolutely."

Unfortunately, those principles haven't really been put to the test. We'll have no way of knowing if they would have been applied rigorously if gulf war round two was launched. And the media so far haven't filled us in on their perceptions.

Over the past few years, tomes have been written about the relationship between the media and the military, which is often the subject of panel discussions I have participated in at service schools. One of the latest books, titled "America's Team: The Odd Couple," explores how journalists and military personnel can work together to build respect and trust.

Right now, both groups will have to wait a while longer.

Journalists need to cover the story of how America's front-line warriors are coping with the debilitating boredom that came with the de-escalation of the crisis. Can they maintain a fine edge of readiness if the United Nations agreement with Iraq fails in a few months and they are suddenly pushed into combat?

Let's also hope the media are going to tell us how they will cover the war if the bombs and missiles begin to fall. And, oh, let's start with The Sun's plan.

Laird B. Anderson is a retired Army colonel and professor emeritus of Communication at the American University in Washington.

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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