In World War II, network radio correspondents could report live from the Normandy beachhead just after the D-Day invasion. Their reports, first cleared by Army censors, were sent via military facilities to the BBC in London for relay by shortwave radio to New York.
In 1983, just after the surprise U.S. military operation in Grenada, ABC and CBS proposed a high-tech version of what radio did at Normandy. They asked to fly in their own portable satellite facilities to send televised reports from Grenada to New York.
The Pentagon denied permission, primarily citing military security--the same reason it gave when it kept reporters out of Grenada for 2 1/2 days, having first barred them from accompanying U.S. troops when the island was invaded.
But the networks' requests to bring their satellite gear to Grenada signaled something generally overlooked in the furor that arose between the press and the Pentagon after the government's news blackout in the early stages of the military action there.
Modern technology may soon make possible what was only theoretically feasible during the Vietnam War--live telecasts of battles in which conventional weapons are used.
"We're not too far from that now," says retired Maj. Gen. Winant Sidle, Gen. William C. Westmoreland's public affairs chief when Westmoreland commanded U.S. troops in Vietnam.
It's why, he says, a recommendation that the matter be studied was made to the Pentagon last year by a group he headed, a Pentagon-appointed panel of Department of Defense officials and retired journalists who studied modern problems of war coverage.
The panel, created after news executives protested the initial censorship of the Grenada operation, urged that reporters be allowed to cover future U.S. operations "to the maximum degree possible consistent with mission security and the safety of U.S. forces."
In looking to the future, the panel urged that the secretary of defense and broadcast officials soon meet and explore "the special problems of ensuring military security when and if there is real-time"--i.e., live--"news media audio-visual coverage of a battlefield. . . ."
Last month, the Pentagon tested the concept of a news "pool," as recommended by Sidle's panel, for coverage of short-notice military operations. A spokesman says that TV's part of the pool, Cable News Network, didn't ask to bring along portable satellite gear for the test, which was conducted during U.S-Honduran military exercises.
But the technology is there. It was shown when NBC News, to cover the 10th anniversary of the fall of South Vietnam this week, flew a 1,000-pound portable satellite ground station to Ho Chi Minh City for live telecasts back to the U.S. The network soon will make a domestic test of the prototype of a smaller unit.
That British-made facility, including its generator, will weigh about 650 pounds, will fit into a Lear jet and can be assembled by one man, says Art Kent, a former NBC correspondent in Vietnam and now vice president of NBC News operations and satellites.
The smaller unit still is bulky for the battlefield. A small truck still would be needed to move it around, just as trucks were needed for the military-operated broadcast facilities used by radio correspondents in World War II.
It also would need the military's protection on the battlefield, Kent notes, not to mention military cooperation in getting it there. And even if all that happens and transmissions begin, the U.S. military always "can shut you down" for security reasons.
"They own the battlefield and what are you going to do?" he asks.
All true, Sidle says. But his big worry is about what will happen when engineers develop a TV camera backpack with the capability to transmit live pictures from the battlefield directly to a satellite, without having to be relayed through a nearby ground facility.
The battle per se wouldn't be the problem, he says. The problem would be shots of military field communications centers, command posts, artillery emplacements and new types of equipment, all of which might be an immediate bonanza for enemy intelligence officers.
They could easily intercept, tape and analyze the pictures, he says. Sidle doesn't think that TV crews would deliberately violate military security. His fear is that they might be in a situation where they might unwittingly violate security, or that a publicity-seeking commander would give them carte blanche to televise any scene they desired.
Michael I. Burch, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, says the potential problem of live TV coverage from a battle zone has been discussed with network executives, but that nothing's been resolved.
They're aware, he says, that a TV transmission to a satellite "could be intercepted by somebody else. They know that; they're having difficulties dealing with that, and they haven't come to any conclusions yet. They're hesitant to give any ground to us, to accept any kind of restrictions, and I can understand that."
Burch said he had no idea when the issue would be resolved.
It better be resolved soon, says Sidle. Live TV coverage of a battle zone, the pictures made possible by backpack-to-satellite technology, isn't a major concern right now, he says, but "it is a future problem."
"It's easy to put off because it's not an immediate problem. We've got maybe a year, a year and a half, maybe more. But it's coming, and it's something that should be talked about now."