Military, media have often-rocky relationship

TV/RADIO COLUMN

December 24, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

According to a transcript, a news conference held earlier this month unfolded in the following manner.

U.S. military official: "This is Saddam as he was being given his medical examination today."

Audience consisting of reporters: CHEERS AND APPLAUSE

U.S. military official: "Saddam's medical examination proved that he had no injuries and he is in good health."

Audience: SHOUTS, translated as "DEATH TO SADDAM!"

Those cheering were members of the Iraqi press - not U.S. reporters. Nonetheless the event provided U.S. military officials the rare experience of being bravo-ed in a news conference.

That sort of rapport generally doesn't exist between the U.S. military and the U.S. press. The relationship between the two long has been adversarial, with the military withholding information while citing national security interests (understandably so) and the media trying to uncover information while citing First Amendment principles (often rightly so).

In the past year, the "embed" system, which integrated reporters into military combat units, allowed for an unusual degree of immediate and uncensored coverage. Journalists understood that those who imperiled the security of troops with their reports would be expelled. A modicum of trust grew on both sides.

But as combat gave way to enforcing a dangerous peace, relations between the U.S. military and the media became increasingly sticky.

In November, Stuart Wilk, vice president and managing editor of the Dallas Morning News, wrote a letter of protest to chief Pentagon public affairs official Lawrence Di Rita.

Reporters have been threatened by troops, wrote Wilk, who also is president of the Associated Press Managing Editors, a professional organization that represents editors at 1,700 newspapers. Digital camera disks and videotape have been confiscated from photojournalists. Some reporters have been shot at by U.S.-led troops.

Sandy Johnson, Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press, also wrote a letter of protest to the Pentagon that was signed by executives from 30 media companies. The AP reported that some U.S. journalists in Iraq were detained by troops when trying to tape the aftermath of various guerrilla attacks. The episodes raise questions about intimidation, she wrote.

The Defense Department last month refused reporters entry to the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba unless they agreed not to ask questions about on-site investigations or operations. Still another professional group, Military Reporters and Editors, objected to the rule, saying it was unconstitutional. That ban appears to have been eased. But reporters (and cameras) continue to be turned away from the Dover, Del., Air Force base where the coffins of service members killed in Iraq pass on their way to burial at U.S. cemeteries.

In each instance, the Pentagon says, senior military commanders are attempting to balance the media's need for access with security concerns, including ensuring that sensitive information does not get passed to accused enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay.

At Dover, says Bryan Whitman, a senior Pentagon spokesman under Di Rita, a decision was made not to make grieving families travel simply to satisfy the media's desire to observe the transfer of the coffins.

But Whitman said those troops who confiscated journalistic materials in Iraq acted improperly. "We readily acknowledge there have been some isolated incidents out there," he says. And top Pentagon brass have reiterated military guidelines that ban confiscations, an action that underscores their commitment to allowing the media to report the news, he says.

In separate interviews, Johnson and Wilk largely praise Pentagon officials for their recent responsiveness to complaints. Those incidents seem to have subsided, Johnson says. Tensions "are not at a fever pitch," says Kathryn Kross, Washington bureau chief for CNN. "In each case, we're dealing with a jillion different moving parts." Still, she added, "Journalists believe we should be able to record events as they transpire."

The "embed" system served to lower barriers between media and military, both sides agree. "Our assessment is that if we get the media to the action [out of the hotels in Baghdad and away from the press conferences] that you will generally report accurately and will not significantly hinder mission accomplishment," Lt. Col. George Krivo, a U.S. military spokesman who has just returned from Baghdad, writes in an e-mail interview. But some specific media reports of the success or extent of guerrilla attacks, he writes, were exaggerated or unfounded, driven by agendas from editors in London, Paris, Qatar or New York City.

"The accuracy of the coverage improved greatly as the number of embeds increased," Krivo writes. "Even then, some in the [Coalition Provisional Authority] argued the coverage was overly `negative' and out of context." The Coalition Provisional Authority is the occupying government set up by the U.S. and allies to run Iraq.

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