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Journalists Are Assigned to Accompany U.S. Troops

by Ralph Blumenthal and Jim Rutenberg, New York Times, 18 February 2003


For the first time since World War II and on a scale never before seen in the American military, journalists covering any United States attack on Iraq will have assigned slots with combat and support units and accompany them throughout the conflict.

The media mobilization, requiring vast logistical planning of its own, involves at least 500 reporters, photographers and television crew members - about 100 of them from foreign and international news organizations, including the Arab network Al Jazeera.

It promises to offer the American public and the world at large a front row seat to a war that could begin within weeks. It also raises complex new questions about journalistic rules of engagement, like how to make sure a family back home does not get the first notification that a relative has been wounded or killed by seeing it on television.

How to maintain military secrecy with an army of electronics-packing journalists is another issue. "They don't want to have live television coverage of a convoy of tanks moving up the Basra-to-Baghdad highway that would tell the Iraqis where those tanks are," said Eason Jordan, chief news executive of CNN.

According to a Pentagon document outlining some of the rules of journalistic engagement, reports of live, continuing action cannot be released without the permission of the commanding officer.

There will be strict prohibitions on any reporting of future operations or postponed or canceled operations, the document further states. The date, time and place of military action, as well as the outcomes of mission results, can be described only in general terms. Other ground rules remain to be spelled out.

Yet both the Pentagon and news executives welcomed the initiative. It is a sharp about-face from the restrictive news policies the Pentagon has maintained since the Vietnam War, which to many commanders showed the psychological perils of broadcasting a war into the nation's living rooms. In the Persian Gulf war, for example, only pool reporters were given regular front-line access.

"In many ways this is going to be historic," said Brian Whitman, the deputy Defense Department spokesman and a former special forces major who is directing the effort to place reporters in the individual units. Even on D-Day in World War II, he said, no more than 30 or 40 journalists went in with invading American forces, although many others later ended up traveling with United States units. In Vietnam, reporters visited forward bases and went out on operations but were not assigned to particular outfits.

Whether the Pentagon's policy change was in any part an effort to counter anticipated Iraqi claims of American atrocities or self-sabotage attributed to the invaders was not clear. But Mr. Whitman said it had the full support of Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Some television news executives said they knew access could come with a price. Dan Rather, the CBS news anchor, voiced concern that the Pentagon could make it hard to get certain images out if they tell a story other than the one the Pentagon wanted told.

"A lot of people said the right things," Mr. Rather said during a recent presentation on network war coverage plans. "In the fog of war, these things have a way of changing."

Last week, the Pentagon allocated the slots to newspapers, news agencies and television networks. This week the organizations are to report the names of correspondents selected to fill the assignments so they can be offered the same inoculations against smallpox and anthrax already given to fighting forces. The Pentagon has already trained 232 of the journalists for combat conditions in four separate weeklong boot camps on domestic military bases and, conveying the Bush administration's sense of urgency, has "run out of time" to train more, Mr. Whitman said.

The journalists will not be allowed to carry or fire weapons. Unlike many World War II and Vietnam correspondents, they will not wear military-issue uniforms, although they can buy their own fatigues. They are to provide their own helmets and flak jackets but will be given so-called NBC gear to protect against nuclear, biological and chemical attacks. They will also share their units' transport, food and accommodations, such as they are.

"There's no cost for the six feet of ground they'll lay on and the rations, although they may not like them," Mr. Whitman said. The journalists are forbidden to have their own vehicles.

Iraq may be preparing its own media offensive, said Peter Arnett, the television reporter, who a dozen years ago was a last lonely Western voice broadcasting on the only satellite phone from Baghdad for CNN during the 1991 war. Now, he said, as he goes back for National Geographic Explorer and MSNBC, there are 200 to 300 satellite phones in Baghdad, and a dozen video uplinks and video phones. "I've got far more competition," he said.

The logistics of arranging the media deployments were every bit as daunting as some of the military planning, Mr. Whitman said. Slots were awarded based on circulations and markets served. Major papers in Boston, San Francisco, Atlanta and Houston, for example, received four to six slots each, which could be filled in part with freelancers.

No slot was awarded specifically to anyone writing a book, although some journalists, as in the past, would probably also write books. The assignments were as open to women as to men.

Reaction to the new policy among journalists was clearly positive, if cautious.

David Halberstam, who was stationed in South Vietnam for The New York Times starting in 1962 and who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964, called the new arrangement a welcome change since 1991, "given the controls last time, which were excessive." But the crucial issue, he said, was access: "Can you get where you want?"

He said reporters would benefit from close proximity to the troops. "Soldiers will always talk to reporters with them in the field," he said. "The grunt has an inalienable right to tell the truth."

Donatella Lorch, a correspondent for Newsweek who covered wars in Africa, the Balkans and Afghanistan, where she spent a week in a Special Forces unit, said the new policy "brings up a lot of issues for reporters." She said they would be under considerable pressure to remain critical and independent in the face of troops they were living with every day.

Mr. Arnett said it remained to be seen how quickly reporters in the field, even with the new access, would be allowed to put out their reports. If they were held up for clearance, he said, the reporters could end up being scooped by their colleagues at a Pentagon briefing. But nothing, he said, could equal the opportunity to be close to combat.

Copyright © 2003 The New York Times Company
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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