Pentagon keeps military moves from reporters

TV/radio column

Media: News organizations' efforts to cover the war run afoul of an administration intent on keeping things under wraps.

TV and Radio Column

October 24, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

A decade ago, reporters accepted a flawed system of "pool reports" from a select, chaperoned group of peers accompanying U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf War to ensure a bare minimum of coverage during the conflict.

This month, as they seek to document a new kind of war, some frustrated journalists are so eager for any information they are citing those once-derided "pools" as an ideal they'd like to see realized. It hasn't happened yet.

While the rest of the country is running frantic over anthrax incidents real and imagined, reporters at the Pentagon and abroad are seeking ways to cover the U.S. strikes in Afghanistan. Military officials are carefully parceling out edited clips of video. Reporters have been allowed only on an aircraft carrier where some bombers are based, and allowed to accompany only planes airlifting humanitarian supplies to Afghans.

Still, as during the gulf war, some are finding ways to tell more than what's being handed out by senior military authorities. Last Friday, for example, the Washington Post spelled out the activities of a small cadre of "special forces," trained in stealth operations, who were already in Afghanistan, poised to act.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was none too pleased. On Monday, he materialized at a news briefing to denounce those who had confirmed the military plans. Rumsfeld went out of his way to praise the role of a press in a free society, then made it clear that he wanted to control what information the press could have.

"The fact that some members of the press knew enough about those operations to ask the questions and to print the stories was clearly because someone in the Pentagon had provided them that information," he said. "Clearly, it put at risk the individuals involved in the operation."

Last week, in a meeting with Washington bureau chiefs of major news operations, Rumsfeld agreed that he would look into ways to "embed" reporters in units if there were large-scale deployments of ground troops. He said he'd consider use of the "pools" aboard aircraft carriers. So far, however, nothing has happened.

Media officials say the record shows they can be trusted with sensitive information, and that they have no interest in imperiling U.S. troops. "We're not, as you know, communists," one bureau chief caustically told Rumsfeld.

Jim Miklaszewski, NBC's chief Pentagon correspondent, expresses some sympathy for Pentagon officials in fashioning a new understanding with the press at a time when much current military activity involves special forces.

"We have an insatiable appetite. We want to be everywhere, to see everything, to experience everything," Miklaszewski says. But he says some frustration is misdirected: the United States is often hamstrung by the dictates of allies whose support the Pentagon badly wants. The British, he says, will not allow any media presence on an island in the Indian Ocean from which U.S. warplanes are making bombing runs over Afghanistan.

Ten years ago, aides to President George H.W. Bush took great solace in a Saturday Night Live skit mocking reporters who asked about military activities during the gulf war. The administration knew it had succeeded with its restrictions and rules limiting the press.

After the war, the country learned that some of what it had been told did not hold up to scrutiny. On the whole, the Patriot missile failed to knock the Iraqi "Scuds" out of the sky. The so-called "smart bombs," based on precision, didn't do nearly as much useful damage in Iraq as "dumb" technology involving far more extensive bombing.

Whether those inaccuracies occur through mistakes, fudging or outright lies is a separate issue. But the gulf war experience is instructive in showing how the military has learned to manage the media.

"The Pentagon is always going to have a very powerful case," says Mark Mazzetti, Defense Department correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. "If you present the argument that they're protecting lives and we're endangering lives, which side is the American public going to take?

"As a free press that, in a democracy, has some amount of oversight on what the government does, it's important that the press confirm independently what the government is doing," he says. "That includes the military."

WJHU update

Yesterday marked the end of what is likely to be the last pledge drive for WJHU and what could be considered the first pledge drive for a Hopkins-free 88.1 FM station.

While the Johns Hopkins University still holds the station's license, the station's transfer to a community group looms ahead. The pitch: the money raised during the fund-raising effort will help pay for the station's promised news staff and new programming.

It worked. By 10 a.m. yesterday, more than 2,200 listeners had contributed or pledged more than $207,233, a record amount. More than 760 new members signed up, said Marc Steiner, a guiding force behind the new station.

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