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Media : Reporters Wage Their Own Battles in the Gulf : With the military watching their every word and move, it's tough to rise above the fray.

January 29, 1991|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia — Colin Nickerson of the Boston Globe is traveling light, writing his front-line dispatches by hand on a legal pad. At the bottom of one, he scrawls a postscript to a colleague here in Dhahran.

Robby: If you can find time between Scud attacks, urgently need typewriter, writing pads this size and an Xtra - large sweat shirt. It is bitter cold on these desert sands, and I have no change of clothes except socks. Sleeping on the sand near foxhole. Lots of booms and fighter activity up here and we go closer soon. Be safe. Best Rgds.

The fog lights of the world's press flicker as scattered dots across this sweeping theater of conflict.

But some war correspondents find the sensation of bringing this fight home in words and pictures like hurtling flat-out down the autobahn, no brakes and unable to see further ahead than the hood ornament.

Exhilarating, yes.

And full of surprises and doubts. Reporters worry about being garroted in their sleep by Iraqi commandos. They watch and wince as missiles fall over their positions. They have nightmares that the stories they struggle to write will be lost or misplaced by the couriers carrying them to headquarters areas for relay to home. They worry whether editors will appreciate their struggles. And perhaps most of all, they wonder if their tiny peepholes on the action are blinding them to bigger stories that need telling.

It's confining work, too, with military public relations specialists looking over their shoulders to enforce controls on the flow of information, restrictions uncomfortably at odds with the American concept of a free press.

A reporter writes that pilots are "giddy" upon returning from a F-117 Stealth fighter mission. The military changes the dispatch to say that the pilots returned "proud."

Another correspondent reports that Marines were "ordered" to add more sandbags to their bunkers. His military escort challenges the description and suggests that "asks" might be a better.

Malcolm W. Browne of the New York Times files a dispatch with a note explaining a vain effort to get an earlier report of Stealth fighter action back to press headquarters. "Even after the file was censored here," he wrote to his colleagues, "it was held up (further) by the Pentagon and never reached Dhahran."

Because this is war, complaints simmer but do not boil. Wars kill some soldiers and make heroes of others, and sometimes the difference is one's concentration on the larger task. It's a little of the same for combat journalists.

The 710 journalists here cannot escape the knowledge that the correspondents who emerged as heroes of the last war were those who peeled back the many layers of military misinformation and miscalculation in Vietnam to report the failures of U.S. efforts.

But that was a story that took years to tell convincingly.

Few if any here think they will have more than weeks or a few months to tell the story of the Persian Gulf War. If it lasts longer, the failure will be self-evident.

The journalism heroes of other wars also ghost through Dhahran.

"My editor told me to write like this," said a young woman, who flew the 20 hours from America to the battle zone with the last flight into Dhahran. She held a copy of a book by Ernie Pyle, the legendary World War II correspondent who glamorized the drudgery and bravery of the ordinary fighting man. When war erupted, she boarded the plane in the pre-dawn hours with better-known journalists--like ABC's Sam Donaldson, who brought his own small army to cover the fighting, including someone to patiently hold a flashlight so Donaldson could read his newspaper.

Arriving in the war zone, the problems are pretty much the same for both Donaldson and the young woman.

It's a matter of access. Powerful officers of the Joint Information Bureau control where reporters can go in the military theater. Which is to say, they control everything.

At the point of a gun, they insist on "pool" coverage, in which small groups of seven journalists are deployed with field units, ships and air units. Their dispatches and film are relayed back to the Dhahran International Hotel, where they become the property of all reporters gathered here to cover the war.

At any given time, fewer than 100 men and women are deployed in the pools, or held back in a quick-response pool to be sent out at the discretion of the military. Each pool is a mix of photographers, writers and broadcasters, heavy on the latter.

"To have 16 print reporters covering a half-million men and women is ludicrous," says Joe Albright, a reporter for Cox newspapers, who served for a time as coordinator for print pool correspondents.

Yet Albright and many others have not given up entirely on the system, thanks chiefly to their faith and determination to support the correspondents who are living the crusty, dangerous life of soldiers and Marines on the front lines.

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