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Media in bed pentagon { March 17 2003 }

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In Bed With the Pentagon

[from the March 17, 2003 issue]

It's a fascinating scheme, "this very ambitious and aggressive embed plan," as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Bryan Whitman calls it. But "embedding" journalists in selected military units is only part of the Pentagon's program for handling news organizations in the event of war in Iraq. More significant is the extraordinary reach of Pentagon planning. For months officials have been scanning the media--electronic and print, domestic and international--calculating markets and circulations and blending news shows with entertainment divisions to cover all fronts in a wartime media campaign as audacious as any ever attempted.

Not just the American press but global media will be shaped by the Pentagon's deployment of reporters, photographers and TV crews in and out of the war zone. Of more than 500 journalists in the program, around 100 are from foreign news organizations, including Al Jazeera. Only Americans, 238 of them, have trained at media boot camps for slots inside military units (although such training is not a prerequisite). Other journalists will transmit their "products" from the Pentagon or foreign capitals, or "in theater" via mobile press pools and CPICs (combined press information centers).

Instead of shutting the press out of the battle over public opinion, as the military did in the Gulf War and Afghanistan, the Pentagon has decided to enlist the media's vast resources. Some of its reasons are innocent enough, like CNN military analyst Gen. Wesley Clark's regret that censorship during the Gulf War kept the press from documenting "a First Armored Division tank battle that was just incredible, perhaps the biggest armored battle ever." Other motives are murkier. According to potential "embed" Dave Moniz of USA Today, "What is driving this [plan] is the fear that Iraq will win the propaganda war if reporters are not on the ground with troops." The Pentagon may hope to muffle the impact of substantial civilian casualties from the "shock and awe" attacks of US bombers, or from infantry assaults on Baghdad itself with the nightly adventures on ABC or CBS of your favorite platoon at war.

"On the ground with troops" would be far from the scene of carnage--on the deck of an aircraft carrier maybe, or at Camp Doha in Kuwait. Reporters won't be free to follow the action on their own but must travel whenever and wherever the Pentagon directs them. Even Whitman admits a "cost" to embedding, which is "that you get a very narrow view of what's going on." The advantage, he told Washington bureau chiefs at a recent meeting, is "you get extremely deep, rich coverage of what's going on in a particular unit." But he reminded them that "you will not have an embed opportunity with every ground unit [or] at every airfield location [or] on every major carrier battle group." Reporting from CPICs or the Pentagon may fill the gaps. And news groups can pool their "feeds" to make a story, but the whole is drawn from parts the military has preselected for coverage.

The Pentagon proposes, the press disposes--albeit within softer confines than prevailed in the Gulf War. Under then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Army Gen. Colin Powell, media were confined to a national press pool and ordered to submit all copy, photographs and film to military censors. Most TV footage was supplied by military crews. High-level briefings were orchestrated by Cheney and Powell themselves because, as Cheney later told an interviewer from the Freedom Forum, "The information function was extraordinarily important. I did not have a lot of confidence I could leave that to the press."

As a result, according to Patrick Sloyan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his war coverage for Newsday, pool reporters didn't produce a single eyewitness account of the clash between allied and Iraqi troops. Nor did images of dead bodies find their way into US media. By the time the press was taken to a battle scene, the Iraqi bodies were gone; buried in one case by giant plows mounted on Abrams battle tanks, followed by armored combat earth-movers that leveled the ground. "I don't mean to be flippant," said Whitman's Pentagon predecessor, Pete Williams, of that event, "but there's no nice way to kill somebody in war." (Williams is now a Washington correspondent for NBC.)

In this war, journalists will carry their own transmission devices, but their use will depend on field commanders' approval. Pentagon rules of engagement dictate strict prohibitions on reporting live or continuing actions, as well as future or postponed operations. Dates, times and places can be described only in general terms.

Not the facts, ma'am, but the feel--which is likely to be warm, a bit fuzzy, funny too, befitting the chronicles of a unit scribe. But any story or photograph can be squashed on the same grounds used in that other war: for operational security, success of the mission and the safety of the people involved. Plus ša change...

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