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Trailing the council not glamorous, but it'll do

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By GREG HAMILTON, Citrus Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 23, 2003

While watching the war on TV last week, a strange feeling came over me. I was jealous.

Not of the men and women in uniform, yanking on gas masks every few minutes when a stray Scud missile flew by. Those young warriors, who volunteered to risk their lives for those of us comfortably watching in our living rooms, deserve nothing but our heartfelt praise and gratitude.

The green wave of envy arose when every channel carried a report from yet another journalist attached to a military outfit. These breathless broadcasts typically showed massive amounts of armor at rest next to some huge sand pile or gas-mask-clad service personnel resembling alien creatures stomping here and there on a dust-blown moonscape. Don't get me wrong, I'm well aware that there is nothing funny about war and that those reporters are potential targets just as much as the soldiers they accompany. Poisonous gas doesn't distinguish among combatants and correspondents.

But when one of those talking heads wrapped up in an ill-fitting camo outfit turned out to be none other than Ted Koppel, it hit me. I could be doing that.

Listen, I have all the respect in the world for ol' Ted, and I certainly was impressed that not one hair on his aging dome was being blown out of place by the desert sandstorm swirling around him (unlike the cutie correspondent somewhere in Jordan who couldn't keep her amber tresses from covering her face during her report. She ended up apologizing for the wind, as if she somehow controlled it).

But as the evening wore on and I surfed the channels, it seemed as if the reporters and camera crews nearly outnumbered the soldiers and Marines. Certainly, there were more of them than there were Iraqis willing to eat lead for their leader.

I wanted to be there with them, bouncing over what passes for roads in perhaps the only region of the world not covered by Bob's Barricades and his ubiquitous blinking yellow lights.

I wanted the chance to be a Scud stud, the next Arthur Kent, who parlayed rugged good looks and a choice assignment during the last Gulf War into international fame.

Besides, if Ted Koppel can handle the rigors of desert reporting, I know I can as well. The soldiers wouldn't have to worry about keeping me safe, either, distracting themselves from their own duties in the process. The military, wisely, wouldn't issue me an automatic rifle, but I'm not entirely helpless.

I have a Leatherman multitool. And I know how to use it.

The St. Petersburg Times, in fact, does have reporters and photographers romping through the desert with the troops. The problem is, I'm not one of them. I must have missed the memo that went out looking for volunteers for this duty.

Obviously, I have missed out on the opportunity to be, in military parlance, embedded with the troops (though I have some trouble with that term. "Embedded with the airborne" sounds vaguely like a violation of the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy.)

So, I've decided to do the next best thing. I want to be embedded with the Citrus County Commission. Or the School Board. Even the Sheriff's Office or the Inverness City Council, though I'd draw the line at the Crystal River City Council -- that would require advanced psych-ops training.

If the Pentagon trusts reporters enough to allow them to be side by side with the greatest and most lethal military machine the world has ever seen, I'm sure our local leaders could open their ranks a bit and let in a hometown scribe.

The military hopes that by giving such unprecedented access, the press will deliver better, more complete -- even favorable -- coverage of its activities. Who needs that more than our local leadership boards?

Being embedded with the commissioners might help me understand the often bizarre and contradictory decision-making processes they employ. At least I would be in on the private meetings where these important decisions are made, as opposed to the situation now where the press can only cover the public forums where these conclusions are rubber-stamped.

Imagine being able to spend time, day and night, with the School Board members as they grapple with important education issues. I'm certain that, over the course of 24 or so hours, I would be able at some point to get a word in edgewise.

The toughest nut to crack, of course, would be the Sheriff's Office, where secrecy is strapped on like Kevlar body armor. On Thursday, for instance, the sheriff held a meeting with a host of public safety officials to sort out emergency plans for the county. Naturally, the public -- and their representatives, the press -- was not welcome.

The official explanation was that this was serious stuff (no argument there) and that a briefing would be held later to tell the media what was decided upon. That, of course, leaves out the details of issues raised by the various agencies and other essential information.

By that logic, there is no reason for the press to ever cover a trial or a commission meeting or even a football game. Just report the verdict, the vote tally or the final score. Who needs to know the other details?

So, that's my offer to the various public representatives in Citrus County. Embed me, baby. I'll make you proud.

If the thought of having me under your feet makes you woozy, consider the alternative. It could be Geraldo.

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