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End of Cold War decreased defense coverage

By Natalie Cortes


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ARLINGTON, Va. — The end of the Cold War led to fewer stories on defense issues, according to Bill Gertz, defense and national security reporter for The Washington Times.

"There's been less of a focus among most media in looking at these defense and world affairs issues. There seems to have been kind of a focus more on domestic issues," he said. Gertz spoke at a Newseum Inside Media program on Aug. 5.

Although a nuclear war between the East and the West is no longer an immediate threat, he said, other security concerns have come to dominate headlines, such as the threat of long-range missiles and the potential for nuclear, chemical or biological terrorism. "We also focus on the big picture issues, like what's going on with Russia's strategic nuclear weapons and, especially, the emergence of China," Gertz said.

Many of the stories Gertz reports are based on classified information, so cultivating sources is a big part of his job. "We try to develop people in government, people who can give us more of the official information, behind the official line and that's become very difficult."

Developing relationships with government officials has become especially important in the last decade, Gertz said, given the sophistication of public affairs offices. "Getting to know people and getting them to give you things that maybe they shouldn't give you [is] a challenge," he said. "I played tennis this morning with one Pentagon official and one official from the National Security Agency."

His contacts have allowed him to break stories such as the release of a top-secret report warning of a terrorist attack in Yemen, hours after the U.S.S. Cole was attacked. "What I really found is that the U.S. intelligence community is like a giant spider web. There are scores of intelligence agencies and they don't often communicate (with one another)," Gertz said.

But while his stories occasionally have angered many U.S. and foreign officials, Gertz said he's never really worried about his safety. "I know a lot of reporters in a lot of other places in the world that really work under very dangerous conditions. (In) China, for example, which has totally state-run media, anyone [who] strays even slightly from the official line is either fired or worse — could be imprisoned. I don't really worry about that. That said, I do keep an eye on the rear-view mirror once in a while."

More than personal danger, Gertz faces the constant quandary of whether to report a story that might damage U.S. national security. "We don't want to report anything that's going to get someone killed, and we can't always know that (it will)," he said. "The bottom line is we try to be responsible — but to be honest, we're not always responsible."

Gertz called his job a lot of fun, much more exciting than anything he's ever read about in a spy novel. "I really have a great job. I've met with Chinese generals. I've been to state banquets in Kazakhstan. I've gotten to ask embarrassing questions of the president of Uzbekistan and almost get thrown out of the country, and I couldn't have done that if I wasn't a reporter."

The discussion was one of a series of programs in conjunction with the Newseum's War Stories exhibit, on display through Nov. 11.


War Stories events coverage
Coverage of discussions relating to Newseum's War Stories exhibit.  07.31.01