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Panel: Media-military tension intensifying during war on terrorism

By Natalie Cortes
freedomforum.org staff

04.10.02

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WASHINGTON — The longstanding conflict between the news media's need for access and the military's need for secrecy has continued during the war on terrorism, journalists agree. If anything, the tension between the two groups has gotten worse.

"If the best information about what's happening on the battlefield is coming from the Pentagon, then you know something is out of whack, and for a long time, the best information we could get was what we were getting from the Pentagon," said CNN military affairs correspondent Jamie McIntyre. Without direct access to military operations, accuracy in war coverage suffers, he said.

McIntyre spoke at a March 26 panel discussion at the National Press Club. The program, "The Military and the Media," was sponsored by the Newseum, the National Press Club and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. The Newseum has continued to host and sponsor discussions on media issues since closing its Arlington facility on March 3. The new Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue is expected to open in 2006.

Despite the continuing conflict between the two groups, McIntyre did give the military good marks for the access given to reporters during the 17-day offensive against the Taliban and al-Qaida fighters known as Operation Anaconda.

Associated Press Pentagon correspondent Susanne Schafer, who has reported on the U.S. military for the last 10 years, agreed that the situation for journalists improved during Anaconda. But she emphasized that media access during the prior five months was limited.

"One thing that the Pentagon has tried to do is to use the idea that this is a different kind of war as an excuse to prevent that open coverage," she said.

Pentagon senior spokesman Bryan Whitman said the military understands reporters' concerns but that the top priority must be troop safety. "Ensuring that what we do with the news media in the Pentagon or in the field doesn't do anything to jeopardize the success of the operation or endanger the personnel that are participating in the military operation has to be balanced all the time with how much reporting can be taking place at any given moment," he said. He noted that journalists were aboard the ships that launched the first missiles in the war in Afghanistan.

Brig. Gen. Andrew Davis, director of the U.S. Marine Corps' public affairs division, said the Corps "believes that the best coverage comes from embedding journalists with our combatant troops," making it one of the most accessible military branches to journalists.

Davis gave the example of the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the Iwo Jima flag-raising, which would not have been captured had photographer Joe Rosenthal not accompanied that Marine platoon.

But author and former war correspondent Joe Galloway, whose book We Were Soldiers Once and Young documents the first major U.S. ground battle of the Vietnam War, said that Vietnam changed the mindset of the military because of the open and unrestricted reporting done by journalists.

"Now there were some who said that we, by our reporting from the battlefield, turned the American people against the military and against the war, [but] I think that none of us ever had that power."

Galloway added that, while Vietnam remains a model for him in terms of military-media relations, U.S.-led military operations in Grenada and Panama were "disastrous" in terms of the media's ability to cover those conflicts because of military restrictions.

Galloway said limiting journalists' access to a war also can work against the military. He pointed to the Persian Gulf War as an example. "When the war was over you had no proof of the efficacy of your efforts and your soldiers' efforts to take up on [Capitol] Hill at a very difficult time when troop cuts, budget cuts, drawbacks are all under way," he said.

But he added, "The military is willing to learn, the journalists are not," as evidenced by the numerous invitations he has received from the military to speak about the subject. Galloway said he has not received any invitations to speak to news organizations or journalism schools.

Davis said that despite the constant tension and sometimes opposing goals of the military and the media, the military's primary role is "to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, the First Amendment of which is freedom of speech and of the press. Those of us who think about that realize that we and our brothers and sisters are willing to lay their lives on the line to protect those freedoms."

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