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Centers Sponsor Media Conference on Iraq War Coverage

Evan Thomas '77
Evan Thomas '77, assistant managing editor of Newsweek, said eben with reporters embedded in military unitesm we'll see the "same old skits" between military briefers and reporters at press conferences.

The Iraq War now has reporters living with armed forces units as the military returns to a media policy it felt burned by in Vietnam. Reporters, editors, commanders, and lawyers hashed out the ramifications of having "embedded" reporters on the front lines as well as "pooled" at headquarters, along with other longstanding tensions between the press and the Pentagon at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., during a January 16 conference jointly sponsored by the Law School's Center for National Security Law and the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. Professors John Norton Moore and Robert O'Neil moderated panels that examined "The Media and the War for the 'Fourth Freedom:' Covering the War on Terror."

The Pentagon is "planning to provide the media the greatest possible access to our troops," said Bryan Whitman, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs for the Department of Defense. "This is the way the media tell us it wants to cover war."
"It's going to be quite different," acknowledged Evan Thomas '77, assistant managing editor of Newsweek. "The general perception in the Gulf War was that the press was kept away from the front line. The third largest tank battle in history took place and there are no images of it. The press wants people in the tanks. The military has now heard the clamor and whining of journalists. The perception in Vietnam was that the press got too close. The military felt stabbed in the back by the coverage, which they saw as sensationalistic. Now the pendulum is swinging the other way."

"The military has done a better job of training reporters to go along with the troops," added Doyle MacManus, Washington bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times. "But one concern I have is that we have not had a long enough dialogue on what the rules will be on the ground. I think we will have more collisions than we need to have."

Tom Bowman, Pentagon correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, also approved of the embedding policy. "Reporters shouldn't just be hanging out at headquarters. The book on the media in the Gulf War was called Hotel Warriors. That says it all. The tragedy of the first four days of the Gulf War was that no reporters were with the troops. Those events are lost to history. It's important for the American people to know what their soldiers are doing in their name." He faulted media organizations for assigning too many reporters who normally cover non-military beats to war coverage, saying they "clogged up" the Pentagon's media services with ignorant questions and needs.
Whitman said special training for reporters last month at Quantico marine base in Virginia was designed to give them survival skills so they would not endanger themselves or their [host] units. Media organizations have given him positive responses to the programs and two more sessions are planned that will train a total of 240 reporters. Embedded reporters would not be given weapons training and will dress differently than soldiers so that they can be distinguished in case they are captured. Questions were raised about the likely impartiality of reporters covering men they are living with who are, in fact, protecting them.

"We worry about reporter casualties. Battlefields are very dangerous places," said Whitman, "even more so if you're out there looking for engagements." Embedding is an attempt to stop reporters from freelancing and becoming potential targets because they can't be properly identified soon enough. In Afghanistan, Whitman noted, American soldiers couldn't be sure if four-wheel-drive vehicles with armed men inside were al Qaeda or western news crews with local drivers and bodyguards.

Responding to Thomas' comment fearing delays in getting dispatches out from reporter pools, Whitman said the Pentagon knows that technology allows news organizations to transmit their "products" without assistance from the military. "The Pentagon will allow reporters to use the equipment they are used to. Some information can't be released until later because of it is potential value to the enemy. But I have never met a reporter who would jeopardize a mission."

"Especially if he is with the unit," chimed in Bowman, "I don't want to get killed."

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