The Fight to get in the Fight
The media wants far more access to the battlefield (and information) than the government is willing to give
By Dan Trigoboff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/8/2002 8:00:00 PM
The events of September 11 unfolded in real time and were witnessed via television by hundreds of millions well beyond the view of the familiar skyline of New York City or the vast grounds of the Pentagon.
With the action spread over two of the nation's great cities, media access on the home front that day was not an issue. Reporters and their cameras went wherever they were brave enough to go.
But only a few weeks later, as the U.S. launched its counterattack in Afghanistan, the cameras—and their images—were nowhere to be seen in major battle areas. For the sake of operational secrecy, reporters say the U.S. military tightly controlled where the news media could go, denying them the opportunity to accompany elite military forces in early going as they attempted to destroy the Taliban regime and root out Al Qaeda terrorists. The key campaigns at Mazar-e Sharif and Tora Bora were "unobserved and off-stage," in the words of Washington Post Pentagon correspondent Tom Ricks.
Journalists and their advocates say their efforts to continue the story of 9/11 over the past 12 months have been frustrated by a federal government that was devoted to secrecy even before the attacks.
For months, concern over terrorism kept news choppers grounded by the Federal Aviation Administration, hampering even mundane traffic reporting. Access to immigration and deportation hearings and to prisoners of war was closed, materials from several federal agencies were taken from public view, and the government wants to keep the trials of suspected terrorists secret. Proposed Homeland Security legislation would expand exemptions from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which last week released a 60-page report on press restrictions, says the post-attack mode represents "an unprecedented closure of information we had always assumed would be public.
"This is an administration that, more than any since Nixon, values secrecy," she continues. "It's trying to reclaim every privilege that had been taken from the presidency since 1973. Does a national emergency trump the Freedom of Information Act? Yes, it does. But even without 9/11, this was a policy they were going to pursue."
The government, says Radio-Television News Directors Association President Barbara Cochran, is determined to manage its message, and a public more concerned currently with safety than with information is not likely to support efforts to expand information access.
But, she says, "this is too important a story to wait for the handout. We can't have this story told without an independent perspective."
Battlefield access seems to be the chief concern of the media, especially with the prospect of another war with Iraq dominating the national debate these days.
"I sympathize with their concern for operational security," says Fox News Washington Bureau Chief Kim Hume, who has attended numerous meetings between Pentagon officials and Washington bureau chiefs. But she says the Pentagon uses the security issue as an excuse to "overstep, whether they mean to or not.
"They were very good about putting people on ships. But we felt stymied in our ability to tell the American people what was going on with Special Forces on the ground. The meetings with the Pentagon were designed as a give-and-take. But in the end, we never got into Uzbekistan."
After Sept. 11, says Freedom Forum First Amendment Ombudsman Paul McMasters, the administration and the public sent "stern messages that not just America but reporting had entered a new era. That new era meant new rules on how far the press should go and how aggressive it should be in covering the war on terrorism." McMasters includes in his analysis the October phone call from National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to network heads advising them on their use of videotapes from Osama bin Laden.
Old rules apparently no longer apply for front-line reporting. In Vietnam, individual correspondents routinely accompanied soldiers in the field—a practice that has been hotly debated and that many military experts believe contributed to the U.S.'s ultimate failure to sustain the South Vietnamese government.
Following what Time magazine military-affairs writer Mark Thompson calls "the military's ham-fisted handling of reporters during its 1983 invasion of Grenada," the Pentagon and media came up with a new system for covering battles that relied on pools in highly sensitive actions. But during the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the media found the pools and briefings inadequate and complained continually about their lack of access to the fighting.
In 1992, the Pentagon and media worked out new guidelines that seemed to promise media open coverage whenever possible. But when the troops went forward in Afghanistan last year, the media were left behind. No open coverage. No pools.
The pool is at best a second choice, says Thompson, "but if it's between second choice and zero, second choice wins. We thought the pool would be used extensively in this conflict."
The powers that be thought otherwise. "If we had a war that was traditional," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explained, "if we were engaging a country directly across a front of some kind, we would do what you said, and we would just take out the old rubber stamp and say okay, cool, all the rules apply, everything's the same, go."
Adds Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Bryan Whitman, a spokesman for the Pentagon, "It is very much a clandestine war. It's not a typical battlefield, as many reporters are accustomed to. It takes a lot of innovative approaches. We took some unprecedented steps in embedding news media on actual operations," although, he acknowledges, not as early or as often as many in the media would have liked.
In special operations, Whitman says, "the element of surprise is probably more critical than in previous times."
Frank Sesno, a professor of public policy and communications at George Mason University in Virginia and CNN's Washington bureau chief in the early days of the conflict, concedes that the Pentagon has a point. "This is not the kind of war where there are divisions moving slowly and methodically across a battlefield, [and reporters are] filing dispatches from the front.
"Technology enables us to embed or incorporate reporting on the ground or as close to the action as possible," he explains. "This will be an ongoing dispute and an ongoing problem," he says. Television now has the technology (and the channels) to cover wars instantaneously. "That's the conflict."
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Victoria Clarke contends that the Pentagon follows a presumption of inclusion when it comes to combat and still supports the guidelines agreed to during the Gulf War. There are, she says, exceptions, like Special Forces operations, which require extreme secrecy for security.
War coverage will not be the same as it was 10 or 20 years ago, just as "the coverage of a football game is not going to be the same as the coverage of a baseball game," she says. "It's a different game."
Clarke, who gets good grades from Washington bureau chiefs for promoting a dialogue on access, adds that the press has been given "unprecedented access to senior leadership in this Department of Defense."
The Pentagon has numbers at the ready. Between Sept. 11 and early August, it says, it responded to 42,000 media inquiries, allowed more than 5,000 visits to military facilities, gave 1,500 interviews and held more than 225 press briefings—including more than 100 with Rumsfeld.
"We've had teleconferences with leaders in the field, with soldiers on military operations from Afghanistan," says Whitman. "During the first night strikes, we had 39 journalists from 26 news organizations on ships. There were 100 reporters on the flight lines when the first C-17s returned from dropping humanitarian rations in Afghanistan. And we've had journalists accompany troops in the field. We've done a lot."
John McWethy, national security correspondent for ABC News, has heard it all before. "They will tell you they provide broad and important access. They will trot out statistics—that this Secretary spent more time in front of the press corps than any secretary in history, that American reporters were on the ships that were launching strikes. But because the Secretary of Defense frequently comes before reporters doesn't mean he's providing answers to our questions. Because reporters were out on ships doesn't mean reporters had access to what was a historic or precedent-setting ground campaign using American Special Forces."
Rumsfeld's briefings, New York Daily News Washington Bureau Chief Tom deFrank agrees, "are wonderful bits of theater, but they don't give you much information."
Part of the problem is trust or lack of it, says one Pentagon source. The military may be willing to grant more access to a reporter who's known and trusted. But, the source says, "a situation like 9/11 brings out a proliferation of reporters who are not as knowledgeable on military affairs."
Journalists say they have a good track record when it comes to protecting the safety of operations, and they point out that allowing them to go out with the troops raises the ante. "One of the best ways to keep operations secure," suggests CNN's Washington Bureau Chief Kathryn Kross, "is to invite the reporters along."
And, CBS's military correspondent David Martin points out, experienced reporters know how to handle themselves even on tricky operations and are responsible for their own safety. Reporters can agree to keep their satellite phones at home while they travel with troops and delay stories release until forces are out of danger.
"After Vietnam, they decided there would be no more unfettered access," Martin says. "That's the bad news. "The good news is that they decided they were not going to lie anymore.
"And I don't think they deliberately lie," he adds. "They may spin it, but they won't lie."
RCFP's Dalglish would like to see networks protesting more loudy about their lack of access and the government's stinginess with information.
But CNN's Kathryn Cross, who replaced Sesno as Washington bureau chief, says the media has to pick its fights, "given the amount of territory we cover every day and the number of things competing for our attention. Did we get used to a lower level of access in the Gulf War? I don't think you'd get much disagreement that that war represented a very changed playing field."
Given the apprehension that has taken hold of the nation since 9/11, journalists and their advocates seem painfully aware that the public will side with the government's security forces should they clash over access or other issues.
A survey by the Freedom Forum released only last week showed that nearly half of respondents felt that the media had been too aggressive in seeking information from the government.
"The public is willing to put up with almost anything in order to feel safer," says Fox News' Carl Cameron.
Time correspondent Thompson says that the post-Vietnam shift in public opinion became clear to him back in 1991 during the Gulf War, when Saturday Night Live chose the media over the military to satirize, lampooning a perceived insatiable desire for information, whether classified or dangerous to that war effort.
Nonetheless, it's vital, says Janet Leissner, CBS News Washington bureau chief, "to give the public accurate information, especially when it has come to depend on us more than ever before."
And should issues of access arise again —say, in Iraq—Leissnet adds: "I would hope there's been some trust developed over this year. I would hope that, as opposed to starting all over again, we would build on what we've already done together."
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