DASD Whitman Interview with Dick Gordon of NPR
NEWS TRANSCRIPT from the United States Department of Defense
DoD News Briefing Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Bryan Whitman Tuesday, March 04, 2003
(Interview with Dick Gordon of The Connection, NPR. Also participating: Charles Lewis, Washington Bureau Chief for the Hearst Newspaper Chain; Eric Westervelt, correspondent for National Public Radio; and Chris Hedges, reporter for the New York Times.)
Introduction: I'm Dick Gordon, and this is The Connection. Ever since the days when reporters wore a soldier's uniform and reported on our brave boys in battle, relations between journalists and the military have been strained. After Vietnam, the Pentagon brass decided they needed to do things differently or risk more news like this:
(Reporter in the field in Vietnam, interviewing Gen. William Westmoreland regarding the TET truce.)
Well, by the time the soldiers suited up for Desert Storm in 1991, relations were at an all time low. Reporters were asked to make do with Pentagon pool pictures and interminable briefings by another general: Norman Schwarzkopf.
(Airing of statement by Gen. Schwarzkopf regarding Desert Storm strategy and color coding.)
And in preparation for what increasingly seems like the next Gulf War the Pentagon and news editors have come up with a new plan. They're placing reporters and photographers with the troops. "Embedding" them is the word they use, embedding them with various units. Connectionless news reporters are always looking for better access to news stories.
Q: Do you think having journalists travel with the troops will bring you better coverage? Or when it comes to war reporting, can familiarity compromise objectivity? Our number's 1-800-423-8255. That's 1-800-423-TALK. With us this hour is Charles Lewis. He is the Washington Bureau Chief for the Hearst newspaper chain. That includes daily newspapers in places like Seattle and Houston, Albany and San Francisco, and we'll be talking with some other reporters later in the program. We're also joined today by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Media Operations. Bryan Whitman is joining us from the Pentagon. Both of you, thanks for being with us.
Lewis: Thank you.
Whitman: Thank you.
Q: I wonder, Charles, if I can start with you, because you were a part of the coverage team in 1991. In fact, I read something that you wrote shortly afterwards, in which you described it as one of the most bizarre episodes in the history of the press and the military. How bad was it?
Lewis: Well, you know, Dick, I think that we start with Grenada in 1983 as sort of the low, low point of media-military relations because there, the media was not even allowed on the island. And then you go forward through different military operations to Desert Storm, and Desert Storm was a little bit better than Grenada. At least we were on the island, if you want to call Saudi Arabia an island, but restrictions in Desert Storm were very severe.
First of all, the military retained the power of assigning stories to be covered, and if you wanted to cover a story in the pool system, an Army colonel had the authority to say, "Well, no, we don't want to do that story," or "Yes, we'll do that story. We'll give it to the pool tomorrow." And the pool would go out and cover the story, and it was your idea to begin with, but you didn't get to go out. And instead, you got to copy the pool report, or raid the pool report when it was finally written by the pool that was assigned to cover the particular idea that you came up with. Then the military also had blue-pencil editing power, which is to say, they would exercise censorship over the copy before it was transmitted, or over the photos or the videotape, before it was transmitted. And, because it was transmitted over military lines, they controlled when it was going to be transmitted. So, we've got a long way to go to improve on that, but it should be pretty easy to improve on because that was pretty bad.
Q: You were -- it was made worse, was it not, by a chain of command where you, as journalists in Dhahran, would say to someone who was supposed to help you, "Can we do this?" And the officer would say, "Well, I think it's a really good idea, Charles, but you know, the folks in Washington aren't going to let you do that." So, nobody was really taking responsibility at that time, were they?
Lewis: Dick, you know, you put your finger on a very subtle, but very crucial power that was exercised by the military over the media in Desert Storm, and that was the power to decide what got covered. And you know, people think of censorship as blue-pencil editing; yes, no, yes, no, or "You can't say it this way," or whatever. In Desert Storm, the mere issue of what was going to be covered was a decision that the military made, and that's a very subtle, but crucial power that the military had. And I think that we're past that now, I hope, and I think we're looking forward -- looking ahead anyway -- to a new and better relationship. You know, there's a built-in tension, though, between the media and the military. There always will be. The question is, will intelligent, reasonable people be able to work out that tension on a day-to-day basis? And right now, I think people -- the media in Washington who have been working with the Pentagon on the new plans -- we're hopeful that the picture's going to be better if there is a military action in Iraq.
Q: Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon, you inherited this legacy of frustration from 1991. This policy of embedding that you've come up with, and agreed on with news editors, do you see it as something that's designed to answer those frustrations?
Whitman: Well, I guess I'd have a couple of comments on that. First of all, I don't think that probably any system that we might come up with will completely satisfy everyone. There is a tension, and I would tell you, it's probably a healthy tension between the military and the media at times. And it stems out of our need to balance the access and the information that we provide to the media with protecting that type of information that's going to make sure that our operations are successful, and that those that are carrying out those operations aren't put in harm's way by the type of information that we provide.
Having said that, I do believe that the Pentagon is a growing, learning institution, and we are always looking for better ways in which to work with the media, so that they can accomplish their goal and their mission of providing information to the American public, as well as allowing the military to accomplish their mission, their very important mission, too. So, I think that embedding offers a lot of opportunities to close that gap, and we here in Washington have been working very closely with the editors and bureau chiefs and individual reporters, and I think that this is something that they see as a positive development, as well as we do.
Q: Bryan, tell me how it would work if I was embedded with a unit in southern Iraq, for example, and the unit was moving forward and making certain plans, or engaging combatants somewhere. Who makes the rules? Who makes the decisions about what I get to file as a reporter?
Whitman: Sure. We have established over-arching guidelines -- ground rules, if you will -- on what can be covered and what can't be covered, or when something can be covered, but these are broad general guidelines. The fact of the matter is, these things are going to have to be decided between experienced, mature reporters and commanders on the ground. And I don't think that -- you know, I have never met a reporter -- and there may be one out there and I just haven't met him -- but I've never met a reporter that intentionally wanted to compromise a U.S. military mission. I just haven't met that person yet, and I think it's hard to believe that there would be a reporter that would be with a unit that would want to compromise the success of that unit that he's traveling with.
Q: Charles Lewis, I'm -- when I read about this, I'm hearing from television correspondents speculating about doing live coverage of battles, and at the other end of the extreme, a near total blackout, for reasons that Bryan's explained, about wanting to control access and information. How do you think it's going to work?
Lewis: Well, Dick, first of all, I want to compliment Bryan Whitman and his colleagues at the Pentagon on working with us to try to make this a better relationship. And the test, though, is going to be in the future, how it works and how it's applied in the field, and I think that's what you're leading into, Dick, and that is, where do we go from here? And I think that we can spend a lot of time in Washington designing the perfect theory of news media coverage of a military operation. We can spend hours across the table from each other designing the language, but unless and until it's implemented in the field by commanders in the field who are sensitive to the very values that we're talking about today, until that happens, all this planning in Washington doesn't amount to a hoot. And I think the test will be how it's put into effect.
You know, I was embedded -- if you want to use that word -- with the 2nd Infantry -- 2nd Armored Division in Desert Storm, and I was part of the left hook that moved through Iraq into northern Kuwait over to the Highway of Death, and I traveled with the 2nd Armored Division. It was a Germany-based division, and I had really crummy access. I had no access to the brigade commander. I was -- my handler at the time was Army Major Roger King, who is now the chief spokesman for the United States military in Bagram, Afghanistan -- now a full colonel. I was kept back from the action. There was a terrible friendly-fire episode in the course of that hundred-hour ground war that affected my unit, and they --
Q: Charles, what will be different this time around? If we look ahead to the type of embedding that we're talking about, why might it be different? How could it be different?
Lewis: You know, Dick, we don't know if it's going to be different. We hope it's going to be different. And the values that Bryan Whitman and his colleagues have conveyed to us are much more open and much more -- have indicated much greater access to the forces that we will be embedded with. It is still possible for me to imagine that that same kind of restrictive confinement that I incurred during Desert Storm could also apply in any future operation in Iraq. I think it goes to the point that I'm making, and that is how these principles, how these policies and values are applied on the ground in the future. That is the big question, and I think we'll just have to wait and see how it goes.
Lewis: But we are hopeful -- we are hopeful at what we see and what we hear from Bryan Whitman and his colleagues.
Q: Bryan, just briefly, what is it that the commanders on the ground have been told about working with the reporters? I gather that some 500 reporters and crews will be embedded. What have the commanding officers on the ground been told?
Whitman: Sure. I think there's a couple of things I'd like to say. I think Charles is absolutely right. At the end of the day, we will be evaluated in terms of how well this embedding is actually executed, and I do believe, though, that we have enlightened commanders out there. I think that today's military understands the role and the importance of the press, and I have to tell you that their instructions have come from the highest levels of this department. This aggressive embed plan would not be possible without the strong support of Secretary Rumsfeld and Chairman Myers and Tommy Franks, the Central Commander.
Q: Connection listeners, our telephone number is 1-800-423-8255. When we come back after the break, a chance to talk with a couple of experienced war correspondents who've been listening in so far, their thoughts on embedding. We'd also like to hear from you as to whether or not you think this type of coverage is going to make the news that you get from a war any better than what you've got in years past. Is this something that just reporters whine about, or does it matter a lot to the people who are listening to the radio as well? I'm Dick Gordon. This is the Connection from NPR.
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Q: You're listening to the Connection from NPR. I'm Dick Gordon. Our number is 1-800-423-8255 for you to join us. We're now joined by two reporters in our conversation about the changes in the Pentagon policy for war coverage that could make a dramatic difference, or only a small difference in the type of news that we see from a war in Iraq, assuming that war takes place. We're joined by Eric Westervelt. He's a correspondent for National Public Radio. He's covered a range of defense and foreign policy issues abroad and at home. Eric is currently in Kuwait, and later this week will be embedded with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. Chris Hedges is a "New York Times" reporter. He has covered the -- rather, he covered the Persian Gulf war with the "New York Times" as a non-pooled reporter. He's the author of a book called "War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning," and Connection listeners may remember that conversation we had with Chris about the book. Eric and Chris, welcome to the program.
Westervelt: Thank you.
Hedges: Glad to be here.
Q: Eric, let me start with you. You asked to be embedded with the Army's 3rd Infantry, or you asked to be embedded. What was your thinking there? What are you looking for?
Westervelt: Well, I cover military affairs and work on the Pentagon, cover military issues. And I wanted to get a chance to talk to the grunts and the soldiers in the front lines as best I could, and my experience in Afghanistan and elsewhere was that the access to those front line troops was extremely limited. And when I heard that the Pentagon was going to experiment with this embedding system, I wanted to try that. I will say that, you know, we're going to have a veteran correspondent, Mike Schuster, who will be -- who will not be embedded, and will be on the ground here in Kuwait doing what he can, the best he can, to follow the troops and do stories out of Iraq if there is a war. But myself and John Burnett will be embedded. I'll be with the Army's 3rd Infantry, and John Burnett is with the Marines. I just thought it was an opportunity -- and we'll see how it plays out -- to see the soldiers in action and be close to them.
Q: Now, you've been in the Gulf over two months now. Have you had a chance to spend some time with the people that you'll be embedded with?
Westervelt: Yeah. I've been in the Gulf most of the last three months covering the buildup and the reaction of the Gulf region, and I've done several short-term embeds, as they're calling them, with U.S. forces that are gathering here. Some were five-day, two-day, one-day trips out with the Army and Marines. And I have to say, it's been pretty refreshing to have largely unrestricted access to the soldiers, to be able to talk one-on-one with them, you know, without a military escort hovering over my shoulder like there was, I'm told, during the pool system of the Gulf War. In both (inaudible), you know, a public affairs officer would drop me off with a specific unit, and then, you're with them for the duration. You sleep on the ground, or back at the HUMVs, the soldiers and Marines do. You're traveling, eating, living with these service members, and as a journalist, I found it pretty positive because you got a one-on-one chance with these soldiers. Clearly, during combat operations, there will be more control over the embedded journalists, and you know, I think it's a tradeoff for giving up some of our independence in order to get greater access to the battlefield and to the troops. But I'm cautiously optimistic that, you know, those restrictions will be reasonable and we'll be allowed to do our jobs.
Q: Stay with me, Eric. I want to bring Chris Hedges in. Chris has over 20 years work as a foreign correspondent, Central America, Middle East, Asia and Africa. And Chris, like Charles, you went to the first Gulf War in 1991, and decided at that point to avoid the pool system. In fact, you've been avoiding pool systems most of your reporting life. What's your problem with them?
Hedges: Well, they -- I mean, the big problem is, they control where you go and what you cover. If you depend on the Army for transportation and logistics, you're captive. Now, I'm not opposed to embedding. I mean, I think that journalists should be embedded, but as we saw in Afghanistan, those reporters that get out and report stories that the Pentagon do not want reported -- and I'm thinking of Doug Struck, the "Washington Post" reporter, when he tried to visit the site of a U.S. special forces raid in Kandahar that took place on January 24th of last year -- soldiers not only turned him away at gunpoint, but warned him that if he went any further, he would be shot. Of course, back in the Pentagon, they -- Rear Admiral Craig Quigley, you know, said that Struck's version was completely inaccurate and this kind of stuff, but that's common.
I mean, anything they -- I think in the first Persian Gulf war when the Iraqis invaded the border town of Hafji and they were giving press conferences in Dhahran and Riyadh talking about the Saudis defending their homeland, in fact, the Saudis fled the moment the Iraqis massed at the edge of town, and they were pushed back by the Marines. Or I think of the images that were fed to the broadcast media of Sidewinder missiles, you know, Patriots knocking down Scuds, precision-guided missiles going down chimneys, that was all, in essence, not a lie. It was the lie of omission, which is usually the lie of wartime because 90-something percent of the ordinance dropped on southern Iraq were dropped from Vietnam-war era B-52 bombers. And it was, you know, indiscriminate iron fragmentation bombs that blew away southern Iraq. I was in southern Iraq after the war with the Shiites, and eventually was captured by the Iraqi Republican Guard. I guess I was embedded in an Iraqi Republican Guard unit. So, I got a good view of what we did to the south, and that, juxtaposed with the image that was presented by the Pentagon and disseminated by the media, was completely false. And that will be no different in this war.
It is those independent journalists like Doug, who try and get out there and try and get a story, who are going to be ruthlessly stomped upon. You can be damn sure that anytime things go wrong and, you know, we spoke earlier about the friendly fire, that kind of stuff, you're not going to be driven up to see that. You're not going to be driven anywhere near it. The -- you know, in fact, the great quote from Senator Hiram Walker, 1917, "In war, the first casualty is truth." They have a battle to win, and they will use the press as part of that battle. Look back at Rumsfeld and others, and these are not people who have, in the past, expressed a particularly high opinion of the mainstream media. So, I'm very pessimistic. I think --
Q: But just to be clear, you're saying that embedding is something that can be a useful part of the coverage?
Hedges: Oh, I think you have to be embedded, but you also have to -- news organizations also have to have reporters and camera crews that are not embedded that are outside the system --
Hedges: -- and that try, for instance, to go back, as reporters did in Afghanistan, to look at the bombing of Afghanistan and assess the civilian casualties. What I see -- and that's usually only about 10 percent of the press that wants to do that. Most of the press doesn't have the stomach for it. And the reporters that be embedded are not going to be in the first wave, and I think as we saw from the first Persian Gulf war, may be kept pretty far back until the military cooks up whatever version they want, and then disseminates it. And what I worry is that this administration has shown a deep reluctance to permit the kind of independent reporting that is absolutely essential in wartime if we're going to be told the truth, and look at the images the way they disseminate, the way they work with the press. You know, there's no more candor now than there was in Vietnam.
Q: All right.
Hedges: What they've perfected is the appearance of candor.
Q: Let's hear from Charles Lewis here because, Charles, you've got a great number of reporters on various different strings, and you're listening to Chris' description of the situation. Do you disagree with him?
Lewis: No. I agree totally with him. I think embedding is the start of the process. It's certainly not the end of the process, and people who are in the theatre, in the region, who are not embedded will have a crucial role also in covering any conflict. They'll also serve as a true audit of just how honest the embedding process is. If what we called "unilaterals" -- Chris was a unilateral in Desert Storm, and Chris, those of us who are captive of the pool system applauded you for your independence -- that the unilaterals will serve as a kind of an audit to just see how honest the embedded journalism is, and what kind of access is being granted to the embedded correspondents and camera crews.
Q: Bryan Whitman, let me hear from you because, you know, we're hearing from Chris a deep skepticism about a change in heart here.
Whitman: Oh, sure. And like I said, anybody is entitled to be skeptical, I suppose, but you know, we're often accused in the military of fighting the last conflict, or preparing for the last conflict, and I see a lot of that in the way Chris is trying to describe what we're doing. The fact of the matter is that reporters will be in what he calls the first wave. Reporters are currently embedding in front line units at the company, platoon, battalion level. So, an embedded reporter is going to see both the good, the bad, and the ugly. What a veteran reporter is going to see from what I would call the good is, he's going to see the professionalism and the dedication, the -- how well trained, equipped and led our forces are, how careful they are as they prosecute war. They're going to see the bad because soldiers, sailors, Marines are human and they make mistakes, and they're going to see those mistakes, and I don't believe that they will not report on those mistakes, as Chris might have suggested. And they're going to see the ugly. They're going to see that war is ugly, and they're going to see it from right up front how ugly war is, and it's important, I think, that they do.
Q: Eric Westervelt with NPR, you've had some experience working with your people in the 3rd Infantry. I'm just wondering whether or not you can tell us what's sort of struck you as something that you might have not have known, might not have expected, that you think will change, or color your reporting to add to NPR's picture?
Westervelt: Well, I'd say during the training sessions, and obviously, the training's going -- the combat's going to be a lot different, I was turned loose and given free reins there to meet and talk with soldiers. I was able to ride in the Exo's HUMV and listen to the radio cross-talk to hear the commander when he got pissed off because someone wasn't doing something right; to see when, you know, young soldiers in bulldozers were practicing going over a burm, and they weren't doing it right and it was holding everyone up and messing things up. And it wasn't hid from me and I'm hoping, and I'm cautiously optimistic, that during combat -- and I will say, you know, from what I've been told by commanders on the ground here that I'll be embedding with -- we will not be kept in the back in some supply line. Some of us will be up front, and I'm hoping that that kind of access will continue. There hasn't been an effort so far in training short-term embeds to hide things from them.
Q: My only question about that, Eric, is once the war begins, assuming it does, will you be able to file those stories? I mean, it's one thing to see what you see. Are you going to be able to tell those stories?
Westervelt: You mean, given the restrictions or what?
Q: Yeah. Will you be able to do daily news filings saying, "This is what I saw yesterday. This is what we're doing today"?
Westervelt: Yeah. I mean, I'm hoping that I will be able to do those stories. There are some restrictions. We haven't been given the final version of any ground rules. There will be some restrictions, I'm told, about going live in terms of us telling specific locations and exact troop strength, and I think, you know, in some cases, that's a legitimate concern. That information, if broadcast live, could endanger soldiers' and journalists' lives, but my sense otherwise is, we will be able to tell those stories, hopefully freely.
Q: And Chris Hedges, just a final comment from you. Are you going to be covering this particular war?
Hedges: No. After 9-11, I switched. I was covering al Qaeda cells in Europe and doing intelligence coverage. I'm not going back into a war. I've done it for 20 years and it's dangerous work. I just want to say, Bryan, that you know, I mean, I think the points raised ignore the fact that once you get into a battlefield situation, you can't really see anything. If you were stuck in the back of an Amtrak, you know, you'll hear a lot of noise and feel a lot of jostling, but you know, if you're in a corner of a battlefield, even as a soldier, you just don't -- you barely know what's going on around, just around you. And the notion that reporters will somehow get some kind of bird's eye view, especially in the midst of combat, which is -- or even near the front lines -- I think is dubious. I mean, I still think the military, as it does in every war, is going to cook up their version of events, and use the press to disseminate it. And remember, that when they did the studies -- the Army did their own studies after the war -- they concluded that the restrictions were just so severe that they failed to get their own message out.
Q: Chris, I'm going to --
Hedges: And that's really what this is about.
Q: I'm going to move on. I want to thank you for being with us.
Hedges: Thank you.
Q: Chris Hedges, "New York Times" reporter and Eric Westervelt, thanks for taking the time to join us.
Westervelt: You're welcome.
Q: Eric is a correspondent with National Public Radio, and you're listening to the Connection on NPR. Our number's 1-800-423-8255. To Woburn, Massachusetts, now and Paul's on the line. Hi, Paul.
Q: Thanks for waiting.
Paul: Thanks for taking my call. I just had a comment and that was that I think it's a no-brainer to embed journalists in this war. My most memorable reading on the Vietnam war and how it played out was from a book called "Dispatches" by Michael Kerr (sic), where he was embedded --
Q: Michael Herr, I think it is. I know the book well.
Paul: Okay. And he was embedded with a long-range reconnaissance patrol, and I just seem -- it really conveyed the essence of what was happening on the ground with that reporter's book.
Q: And based on the description of what you're hearing, Paul, do you think that we will be closer to that type of reportage with reporters embedded with the various units in Iraq?
Paul: Yeah, I would hope so. I'm less concerned about the live daily reporting more than the archives with which some of these reporters can pull off to create books like Michael Herr's later on.
Q: Right. And Charles Lewis, I mean, that's actually one of the things that I was wondering as well, whether or not the embedding that we're talking about isn't something that's better tailored towards a magazine reporter who gets to gather all her material over a period of time, and then tell the story, rather than the frustration of saying, as a daily news reporter might have to do with the commanding officer, "Can I say this? Can I say this? Can I file this?"
Lewis: Dick, I think you're exactly right. The embedded reporter is going to be the feature writer, is going to be the long-term writer, is going to capture the particular profile, or whatever; is not going to give a bird's eye view, to use Chris Hedge's concept. The bird's eye view will come from a higher level of command. It may come from the Pentagon; it may come from a briefing center in Qatar, but the people who are embedded will be doing features stories. They will be doing what it is like to be a soldier, what the 3rd Infantry Division moving into Iraq, what it's like to live in the desert, what it's like to sustain yourself in this hostile environment, that kind of stuff. And you're not going to get big-picture battle stories from embedded reporters. It's just not going to happen.
Q: Bryan, Eric just said before he left that there were still some bits of information or details about the whole system's going to work, yet to come out. What's missing? What's yet to be worked out?
Whitman: Well, right now, you have reporters that are just beginning their embeds in theatre, and they will be given a full list of guidelines, and they'll be tailored off of the broad ones that we've provided to the field. But every unit may have a unique situation, given where it may be located, or given what its mission may be, and some of those pieces of information are going to have to be protected, or protected until a point in time when it won't compromise the success of that operation.
Q: Connection listeners, our telephone number is 1-800-423-8255. Charles Lewis is with us. He's Washington Bureau Chief for the Hearst newspaper chains. Bryan Whitman is Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Media Operations. And we're taking your calls on plans for a change in war coverage when we come back after the break. Our number is 1-800-423-TALK. I'm Dick Gordon. This is the Connection from NPR.
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Q: You're listening to the Connection from NPR. I'm Dick Gordon. Our number is 1-800-423-8255. Talking about press coverage of a war anticipated for Iraq. With us, Bryan Whitman, deputy spokesman for the Department of Defense and Charles Lewis, Washington Bureau Chief for the Hearst newspapers. And we'll go straight to Tewksbury, Massachusetts, and Kristin's joining us. Hi, Kristin.
Kristin: Hi. Good morning.
Q: Thanks for calling.
Kristin: Thanks. Great program. I think while we all agree that embedding is critical, it seems that we're also overlooking the fact that this is war. I mean, I know that one journalist -- I think his name was Chris -- has mentioned the independent journalist, but doesn't there have to be some sort of guardedness against that which is secure and confidential? I mean, there's got to be an element of protectionism on the state of the government. I guess I can't help but understand that aspect of it.
Q: Well, Charles, I remember during the last Gulf War that reporters like Chris who avoided the pool system were criticized; in some cases, I think, what, removed from the battlefield if they were caught there? I don't remember quite how it worked. Do you?
Lewis: Well, I think that the lady from Tewksbury raises a really interesting question that I think we should ask Bryan Whitman to address. And that is, what happens when the reporter with the unit, embedded with the unit, is given confidential information about a future military operation? That person -- what happens to that person and that correspondent's ability to function at that point? I think that's the question that would be a good one for Bryan to look at.
Q: Before we go to Bryan, Kristin, I guess what you're saying is, if the reporter gets that information, he or she better sit on it, right?
Kristin: Well, yes, and -- well, I guess that is the question -- is, how do we handle that portion of it, and is it wrong for an independent reporter -- I mean, I know we shouldn't be, you know, waving guns around, but if something is considered off-limits, I think that should be respected, you know? It's war.
Whitman: Sure. Kristin, we share that concern with you, and that's why we developed guidelines. And I don't know if you heard earlier in the show, though, I think that most reporters also understand the need to protect certain information.
Kristin: Umm hmm.
Whitman: We acknowledged the fact that putting the reporter in a unit for an extended period of time, that there will be a relationship that develops, and we hope that that professional relationship brings together both the reporter and the commander to a common understanding about what can be reported and when it can be reported, and what can't be reported.
Kristin: Umm hmm.
Whitman: And we do have techniques available to us when reporters are exposed to sensitive information. We may prebrief them ahead of time. We may say, "Look, you're about to hear an operations order for a mission that's going to occur tomorrow. What's important that we protect is A, B and C here." And so, they'll be prebriefed. And then there may be the occasion where a reporter is inadvertently exposed to sensitive information that if reported in real time -- I mean, we have to acknowledge that we live in an information age where communications is nearly instantaneous -- then we would debrief the reporter, and say, "Look, what you heard, the information E, F and G, we would like you to hold until this period of time because we believe that that would put in risk our operation or the people that are doing it."
Q: Bryan, my understanding is that the principal conflicts that we're talking about here don't actually come when a reporter has access to battle plans or information which, as you said earlier in the program, might put some soldiers' lives at risk, but the disagreement between journalists and the military comes over those in the vast gray areas where, you know, if there are some casualties, or if there is some friendly fire, or if there are some civilians killed, then the reporters are saying, "You know, this is important. I need to get this out." And the commanding officer is saying, "We don't want to let people know that their bombs are reaching our unit," and that seems to me where most of the conflicts will come, no?
Whitman: Well, I suppose that could be where some of them come from. The items that you mentioned, like casualties or friendly-fire casualties, all those things are reportable items of information. What we want to make sure that --
Q: But within certain time frames, limits, that are laid out by the military. It's not sort of, "Yeah. You can go ahead and file on that stuff."
Whitman: Well, we want to make sure of two things. First of all, we've asked news organizations, as well as reporters, to have some respect for our next-of-kin notification.
Q: Of course.
Whitman: And I don't think that there's any real disagreement there, as long as we conduct it in a timely fashion. Nobody wants to learn that their loved one has been killed or injured by a news report or by a television picture. But what we want to make sure that we protect is that type of operational information, not information that necessarily is embarrassing, or may not be particularly flattering for the unit that the reporter may be with. The only information that we're interested in protecting is that information that goes to the direct success of the mission, or to the safety of those individuals that are conducting the mission.
Q: All right. Kristin, thanks for your call. We're going to go to Raleigh, North Carolina, now. Jim's on the line. Hello, Jim.
Q: Thanks for calling.
Jim: My brother-in-law is a photojournalist, and he's one of the embedded that's in Kuwait right now, and he's up close to a front line.
Jim: One of your guests had talked about -- he was a little defensive before about the amount of access that they've got.
Jim: And although he won't be up front with somebody with a gun, he's in the range of retaliatory fire. So, we're really worried about him when the first wave goes into Kuwait -- I mean, excuse me, into Iraq.
Q: Umm hmm.
Jim: You know, he's out there with everybody. And the second thing is, he's not from a national newspaper. He's from a local newspaper, and he's with a unit that he's traveled to Afghanistan and Bosnia with before, too. So, he's got a hometown perspective that I think is really important. I think most of us want to know what's going on and how it affects us, not necessarily how it affects people, you know, everywhere. And this -- I think it's important to hear from somebody who's local.
Q: You're talking about stories about the soldiers. You're not talking about somebody in the battlefield trying to create this great big geopolitical picture, but somebody who's actually reporting on the soldiers.
Jim: Yeah. When it comes to war, I think they're most concerned about their family, not about politics.
Lewis: That's exactly the kind of journalism that I was talking about earlier that embedded correspondents will be able to produce better than anybody else. They'll know the dynamics of the unit they're with. They'll know the people, and the people will know them. You know, in Desert Storm, the traveling press, the embedded press, was almost a morale factor for the troops. The troops saw our presence as a validation of the importance of their mission. They saw us as evidence that the outside world was interested in what they were doing. And I think a lot of commanders used the press as sort of a morale factor for their units because we were there, and it made people feel good about what they were doing.
You know, I'd like to just add a little historical perspective to the lady from Tewksbury. This goes back to the Vietnam era, if I could mention a historical reference. And in Vietnam, a correspondent or cameraperson was given a credential. It was called the MAC-V credential, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. And you signed a statement in return for that credential that said you would not report or broadcast future military operations. You would phrase losses, casualties, in certain ways, this sort of thing. And then you were given your free rein. With that credential, you could embed with a unit. You could jump on a helicopter if there was space; ride in a jeep with a unit if the commander was agreeable. And as long as you didn't violate those rules, you were given absolutely free access. And I think that we would like to see that kind of pattern, that kind of model, emerge from the current embedding program where free access, as long as you keep in mind the ground rules. During Vietnam, there were very, very few violations of these ground rules. Most of the violations were by freelancers, who did not have a full grasp of what the ground rules required or whatever. And it worked very well from the media's perspective in terms of access, and at the same time, not betraying future operations and working within the limitations that the ground rules imposed.
Q: All right. Jim, thanks for that call. You're listening to the Connection from NPR. Our number's 1-800-423-8255. Next to Boston. Marie is joining us. Hi, Marie.
Marie: Hi, there.
Q: Thanks for calling.
Marie: Thank you. My feeling is it's absolutely essential to have journalists at the site of war. I mean, atrocities occurred in the Kuwaiti war -- Gulf War, I guess it's called. And if it weren't -- and Geneva Conventions were broken, and I think that it's terribly important to have the -- we have to sort of keep a certain morality, if there is a morality in this war. We have to know what's going on there on the ground or in the air. Otherwise, we're as a -- you know, as a public, we don't know what's going on.
Q: Marie, let me ask you a question about it in television terms, though, because I suspect in the last 10 years, we have become so used to watching live news unfolding on television. I wonder if our expectation of live war on television isn't something that is drawing people towards what they think is going to happen. Do you draw a line there in terms of what should be shown, what should be broadcast, and what should not?
Marie: Well, I think a lot is hidden by television. I mean, we saw in the Gulf War bombing from -- we didn't see what was going on on the ground. We didn't see people being covered up. We didn't see by -- oh, I can't remember the name -- tanks and so forth being run over. We didn't see -- what else didn't we see? We didn't see the -- I think that the bombing of troops when they're withdrawing was absolutely appalling. Did we see much of that? No. We didn't really see what was going on, and what was going on with the -- you know, I just don't think that -- I'm not sure what your question is, but do we see truth by television? No, I don't think we do. I think we --
Q: We seem to have lost -- oh, no.
Marie: No. Here we are, yeah.
Q: Okay. Marie, let me actually take that if I can, and turn to Charles, because -- Charles, do you have a sense of how the coverage of a war in Iraq, assuming it happens, will look in a way that's different from the Gulf War?
Lewis: Yes. Dick, there's been a communications revolution since Desert Storm, and it's in favor of the media. In Desert Storm, we were captives. At least in the pool system, we were captives of the military's communication system. Now, as you know, a satellite phone is easy to use. It's cheap to buy. It's easy to carry around, and you can use that to uplink video, still photos, stories, this sort of thing. And I think that that's a huge difference between the 1991 war and any war that may ensue in Iraq in 2003. And I think that that may have led somewhat to the rethinking in the Pentagon of how to deal with the media in this new, liberal environment. And I think that the Pentagon is trying to make the best of a situation that has moved in favor of the media in the last 12 years, and at the same time, you know, have the military get some policy requirements set down so that their interests are protected and their goals are not jeopardized by this unlimited communications potential. I think the communications --
Q: Let me see if I can get the last word from Bryan Whitman on this --
Q: -- because, Bryan, I'm interested from your perspective as well on how you think the coverage of a war in Iraq in 2003 will differ from earlier war coverage that we've seen and read and heard and listened to.
Whitman: Yes. You know, there were probably a few dozen reporters that were embedded with U.S. forces on D-Day. If there is a war in Iraq, there will be hundreds of reporters that are embedded with U.S. units. There will be a face to this battle, if there is one. And one thing that we haven't talked about that I think is also important, though, is recognition of what Charles said, and that is, we live in a global information age where communications is instantaneous. And our potential adversary in this conflict is a master of disinformation. He's a practiced liar, Saddam Hussein is. And what better way to counter some of that disinformation than to have a large contingent of reporters that are out there alongside our troops reporting what actually occurs in near real time to the extent that we can, without compromising the missions, or the safety of the people that are doing them.
Q: Well, as everybody seems to be saying on the program, Bryan, we'll wait and see, won't we? Thanks for being with us. Bryan Whitman is deputy spokesman for the Department of Defense. Charles Lewis, thanks for your time.
Lewis: Thank you, Dick.
Q: Charles is Washington Bureau Chief for the Hearst newspapers. Earlier in the program, we talked with NPR's Eric Westervelt, who's currently in Kuwait, and Chris Hedges of the "New York Times." Connection listeners, you can continue this conversation online. We're at the Connection.org. We have forum pages there if you'd like to take advantage of those. Tara Murphy is our senior producer. I'm Dick Gordon. This is the Connection.
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