Media finds war access denied


Coverage: Journalists are bristling at the Pentagon's tightening control on what they're allowed to see

October 17, 2001|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

For days, newspaper front pages have been full of diplomatic intrigue in Pakistan, U.S. planes roaring off on bombing missions from aircraft carriers and the plight of desperate Afghan refugees.

But, considering the country is at war, there has been a notable omission: Aside from Pentagon briefings and the few accounts of planes taking off and landing, there has been almost no firsthand coverage of the American military.

Hundreds of reporters are gathered, cut off from the action, in a sliver of Afghanistan controlled by the Northern Alliance. And a handful of journalists have been aboard two U.S. ships, providing accounts of pumped-up pilots and dedicated crew.

But the media have been unable to report virtually anything except information the military has chosen to release. The Taliban has allowed western media into the country only once since the conflict, and then only for a quick tour of a bombing site.

And the Pentagon has left the media at home. Its mantra to an increasingly frustrated press: Be patient, you'll get there eventually; this is a different kind of war.

And it is. There is no real battlefield, not in the historical sense. The enemy is only vaguely defined. Nobody has even been able to say, in any clear way, how it will be known when the war has been won.

But what is not different in this war is Pentagon efforts to manage the media. Rarely has it been so successful in that regard.

"There has not been a war in my 30-year career that has been more hidden, and I'm outraged by it," says Loren Jenkins, a former war correspondent now senior foreign editor for National Public Radio. "The reality is there are men at war, and in a democracy you inform people about that, and you do that with an independent press, not by the Pentagon showing you how perfect their bombing raids have been."

Reporters are clamoring for the access to aircraft and staging bases they have had during most military actions. But the Pentagon has said no.

Not even the Pentagon "press pool" - a dozen or so journalists designated to accompany the military in the first, secretive hours of deployment - has been activated.

The Pentagon says the media is being accommodated as much as possible without compromising the troops' safety. The media, for the most part, sees the restrictions as more of a political and public relations policy to control news so it is dominated by success stories.

"The media have never pushed to be allowed to print information that would endanger operations or troops," says Jacqueline Sharkey, a former foreign correspondent and now the head of the University of Arizona journalism department. "But the media have been pushing, and should push, to be allowed to witness military operations because one of our functions is to provide the public with a long-term view of what has happened on the battlefield."

Representatives of various media in Washington have held a couple of meetings with Victoria "Torie" Clarke, the Pentagon's chief spokeswoman. They are to meet again today in an effort to reach a compromise on coverage. But she has told them not to be optimistic.

Col. Frederick C. Peck, a retired Marine who was in charge of media relations during the mission in Somalia, says there does not appear to be much to cover.

"What I foresee for the near future at least is Special Operations guys doing the work," he says. "There's not much hope of reporters parachuting in or riding in an F-16."

Peck says a good compromise would involve strict deals not just on what could be made public but when. If naming a staging area for troops is deemed too sensitive, for example, a compromise might be reached on when the media could disclose the location.

None of that is particularly new, says Gene Roberts, a former New York Times managing editor who covered the Vietnam War. The media have to travel with the military to cover wars adequately, he says. And, if a reporter is with the military, he's not about to report sensitive information.

"Look, there's no bus service to battle zones," says Roberts, now a journalism professor at the University of Maryland. "In Vietnam, you got your reporter's credentials, and when you got them you could move on military transport, and if you violated the agreements -which were not reporting plans or troop movements - then your credentials would be suspended. The rules were simple and, I might add, they worked well."

During Vietnam the media's access to the battlefield allowed newspaper and television reporters to dispatch graphic stories of death on the battlefield. Some in the military then attributed the corresponding drop in public support for the war to their inability to win it. Now the consensus is that media contributed little if anything to losing the war, but the Pentagon continues to place a premium on public relations.

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