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Media access an issue in possible war in Iraq

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 24, 2002


WASHINGTON -- As the United States ratchets up plans for war with Iraq, another battle is under way: the tussle between the media and the military over how much access journalists should have to troops, war plans and combat operations.

"The media wants freedom, the military wants control," said retired Army Maj. Gen. John G. Meyer Jr. "It's always been that way and it's not going to change."

Meyer's comments came during a recent conference sponsored by a new journalists' organization, Military Reporters and Editors. Going by the acronym MRE -- the same as for the army's ever-popular "meals ready to eat" -- the group wants to improve access to America's armed forces.

"Denial of access constitutes the most sweeping form of censorship we could face," said Arthur Kent, the former NBC "Scud Stud" who covered the 1991 Persian Gulf War and now has his own film production company in London.

"We've got to get out there" with the troops, Kent told the conference. "We should not allow bureaucrats to throw out the basic right of the American people to have journalists accompany service people into the field."

Under tightly controlled conditions, the Pentagon allows members of the media to travel with U.S. troops, most recently to Kuwait where thousands of American soldiers are training for a possible strike against Iraq. Journalists were "embedded" with troops in Afghanistan, but most were confined to the U.S. base at Bagram and kept away from special operations units hunting down Taliban and al-Qaida members.

"There are only so many stories you can write about guys doing perimeter security," said Sean Naylor, a longtime reporter for Army Times.

This is in sharp contrast to the Vietnam era, when journalists enjoyed such unfettered access to combat zones that televised scenes of carnage ultimately turned Americans against the war and President Lyndon Johnson. Since then, administrations have been more wary about letting journalists into the field.

During the Gulf War, reporters covering U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia complained they were kept under such tight rein that their colleagues in Washington often knew more about what was going on than they did. Many journalists got no closer to the action than interviewing returning pilots -- and even then, their dispatches were subject to sharp restrictions.

Chuck Lewis of Hearst Newspapers recalled strikes on Iraqi targets. Military censors ordered the word stricken and replaced with "spoke pridefully."

"There were no security concerns -- it was P.R." Lewis said.

In its war on terror, the Bush administration has controlled information and access even more tightly than its predecessors, most panelists agreed. "This is the Donald Rumsfeld show," said Time magazine's Mark Thompson, referring to the secretary of defense. "All that we're learning about this conflict comes out of this and not from the theater" of war.

Fueling concern about information control was the recent appointment of a White House communications specialist as chief spokesman for Gen. Tommy Franks and the Tampa-based U.S. Central Command. It is rare for a civilian political appointee to serve in such a role, but it reflects the administration's desire "to speak with a strong and unified voice," the Washington Post reported.

(CentCom, as it is commonly known, is already a difficult place to pry information from, several reporters said.)

While journalists clamor for more access to troops in the field, military officials argue that the presence of media can jeopardize operations, especially when the journalists are physically out of shape. Reporters also have a better chance of being embedded with troops if they're familiar with military affairs.

"It comes down to trust," said Meyer, the retired major general. "If a commander is in a difficult situation on the battlefield and does not know who you are from Adam but there's experienced media that's well-prepared and low maintenance," he'll take the latter.

The tightening of access is not limited to troops overseas. Tanya Biank, a Fayetteville Observer reporter who covers Fort Bragg in North Carolina, said she was even barred from writing about a crafts show put on by military wives.

Restrictions on the media could be having a negative, unintended consequence. Ron Martz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted that U.S. military recruitment remains relatively flat despite the Sept. 11 attacks. One possible reason: The less Americans are able to read about their armed forces, they less interest they have in serving.

"The patriotic fervor so many expected after 9-11 is not there," Martz said, "and it's not there because of the control of information."

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com

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