During the first Gulf War, most New York editors could sleep soundly at night in their 400-count sheets, knowing that their employees overseas were kept men and women. The vast majority of Gulf War correspondents were relatively safe, stationed in well-stocked briefing rooms in Saudi Arabia or marooned on aircraft carriers, watching the reddish afterburn of F-16’s and little else.
The first Gulf War was the U.S. military’s first successful no-look conflict. Under Pentagon decree, reporters were kept far from the cacophony of the front, and only a handful of journalists on the ground-like that CNN gang “lucky” enough to be stranded in a Baghdad hotel with a live line when the bombs dropped-saw much action. Many disconnected reporters wound up producing what Atlantic Monthly editor Michael Kelly (who covered the war with distinction for The New Republic ) called “really awful coverage-coverage that was limited to the worst sort.”
This time around, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon have pledged that it’ll be different. After some vigorous lobbying by news organizations, the Defense Department has concluded that a beefier media presence at the war’s front will be good for business. The Gulf War sequel, if it happens, will be seen up-close. Reporters will be given access not only to battlefields but, as “embeds,” they’ll be placed (“embedded”) in individual military units engaged in the action.
For those assigned to the story, this new Pentagon reality means a new kind of preparation-and new dangers. Exposure to bullets, munitions and chemicals is a real possibility. So, too, is the threat of being kidnapped and held up as a human shield. And compared to the relatively quick and clean first Gulf War, this battle could wind up being longer and more dangerous than its predecessor. Unlike in 1991, ground forces will most certainly move into Baghdad engaging in treacherous urban warfare as they try and topple Saddam Hussein.
So for all the excitement within media circles about the Pentagon’s newfound openness, there is equal caution. “Everyone I talk to seems to think it’s going to be a fairly dangerous place,” said Dave Moniz, the Pentagon correspondent for USA Today . “And not just on the chemical and biological front. War is chaos, and this has the potential for urban warfare, which is the most difficult, violent, grinding warfare there is. Here, you’re going to have reporters all over the place in Baghdad, and if it devolves into that, you can imagine what the potential is.”
Because of this, news organizations have created their own war rooms to assess coverage and potential dangers, especially in Baghdad. Tom Ricks, the longtime defense correspondent for The Washington Post , said his paper had already started mapping out strategies should a second Gulf War reach Baghdad. “There are more ways to be safe in Baghdad than one might possibly expect,” Mr. Ricks said. “One thing about print media is that you’re able to keep your head down, then get up and ask, ‘What happened?’-which I would strongly advise people to do.”
Many reporters have also been in training since the fall. After the Pentagon announced that it would allow reporters to follow individual units, it seems that everyone short of Jimmy Breslin has thrown on some camouflage and headed to a government-sponsored “media boot camp” to prepare for life in the trenches.
In the meantime, the Pentagon has been playing media matchmaker. While some news organizations initially believed they would win their access through the local level by cutting deals with individual commanders, the big decisions as to what correspondents go where will be made by Washington. Army Major Timothy Blair, in the Department of Defense’s Office of Public Affairs, said that the key access decisions would come down from the Pentagon itself, where matches would be made based on a news organization’s circulation and reach.
The Pentagon takes these decisions very seriously, Major Blair said, and “it’s a difficult job.” He added that in making their decisions, Pentagon officials try to “look at all the different markets, look at the different organizations, look at what their reach is, look at what they cover, balance the local media versus the media that have a national or international effect.”
Major Blair said it was harder to make decisions about what print outlets come along with troops than it was deciding what television news organizations would.
“It’s easier when you get to the networks, because you only have a handful to deal with and everybody else is an affiliate,” he said. “So you say, ‘NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, CNN-you each get X number of spots.’ Everybody gets X number of slots. You divvy them out as you see appropriate.
“It’s a little different when it comes to the print market. Do you give two or three to the second-largest newspaper in the world-or do you spread them across the board?”
Given the opportunity, news organizations have been trying to make those decisions for the military. Since Afghanistan, the Pentagon has conducted group meetings with Washington bureau chiefs to address their concerns. In addition, the Pentagon has met with various Washington bureau chiefs individually, giving the papers the chance to make their case about why they should get prime slots with troops.
“It’s a competitive process,” said New York Times Washington bureau chief Jill Abramson, who said she hadn’t met with officials individually, but had spoken with Victoria Clarke, the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, a couple of times on the phone. “There was intense arguing and jockeying for something as simple as the number of seats on Donald Rumsfeld’s plane. When it’s a question of not enough space for everybody, it becomes very competitive and media organizations are pitted against one another. And I’m always ready to make a vigorous case for The New York Times .
“I’m well aware that other bureau chiefs have gone in and met with the Pentagon for one-on-one meetings,” Ms. Abramson said. “I’m sure the Pentagon understands The Times would like the most, the maximum number of these embeds and reporting we could get.”
One bureau chief who pleaded her case in person, Associated Press Washington bureau chief Sandy Johnson, said that in her sit-down, she “talked about A.P.’s role in the media world.” She spoke about how the A.P. supplied news to 1,500 American papers and 5,000 television and radio outlets. She said she tried “to impress upon them the globalness of the A.P.’s reach and our desire to have a solid participation in whatever the embeds end up being.
“I believe the Pentagon understands the reach of the A.P.,” Ms. Johnson said, “and the fact that we have a heavy commitment to domestic and overseas coverage, and that we will have adequate numbers of embeds.”
So far, everyone agrees, the military is saying the right things. Major Blair said the effront was genuine, adding that the measures represent a new spirit of cooperation in a government body that essentially shut down access to the day-to-day lives of men in the field during the first war with Iraq, as well as during the military operations in Afghanistan that followed Sept. 11.
“Our objective here is to not ask the question ‘Why should I support this?’, but to say, ‘Why shouldn’t I support this?'” Major Blair said. It’s asking why I shouldn’t allow this rather than looking at it from the ‘We’re already saying no, tell me why I should say yes’ point of view.”
This isn’t a new view, but rather a return to a very old one. The tradition of an American journalist traveling with an American military unit is as old as the Republic. Novelist Ambrose Bierce witnessed the horrors of the Civil War. A.J. Liebling was with the troops at D-Day. David Halberstam, Ward Just and Michael Herr, among others, sent dispatches from Vietnam.
“If you sit down now and read a history of the Civil War, it matters a great deal to you that there was a reporter covering an actual battle,” said Mr. Kelly. “It doesn’t matter nearly as much to you what the Secretary of War said on a given Tuesday in Washington that was dutifully taken down. What you really care about is what somebody who can really write saw and understood out of Antietam.”
Mr. Just added, “The story of the foot soldier ought to be told. Period. And you can’t tell that sitting in a briefer’s tent.
Still, some friction will be inevitable. Said another Defense Department press officer, Navy Lieutenant Dan Hetlage: “You’re telling a commander, ‘You’re going to take one trigger-puller off a helicopter and put on one media guy.’ It’ll be a real fine balance, but we’re going to try and push that balance as far as we can.”
And indeed, in the midst of battle-particularly in urban warfare on the streets of Baghdad-how long can that balance last? Since Vietnam, when reporters brought the horrors of combat to the breakfast tables of millions of Americans, the Pentagon has gone out of its way to sanitize the experience of soldiers for the public, to shield it from the horrors of war. Where is the incentive for the Pentagon not to revert back to its previous press-unfriendly mode should things not go according to plan?
“It can’t get any worse than it was in Afghanistan,” said Time Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson. “Those guys at the front end do what they think their bosses want them to do-and obviously it had not been made clear that the job of the press is to give an uncensored, clear picture of what’s going on out there. And guess what, guys? If you cover a war, you might see some blood, and the press has to be able to witness that. And we didn’t get a chance to witness that.”
And while the Pentagon has pledged a new era of media cooperation on the front lines, Mr. Thompson said he expected very little to change when it came to covering the planning inside the corridors of power.
“The sort of reporting that bothers the Pentagon comes from the Pentagon,” Mr. Thompson said. “Not from the front lines. Everybody loves to read those stories about G.I. Joe and G.I. Jane out there taking the desert sand out of their cheese tortellini. They’re into that. The problem comes back to issues of strategy and whatnot-and that tends to come from Washington more than the tip of the spear.”