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CRISIS IN THE CARIBBEAN : Frustrated U.S. Military Leaders Accuse Press of Fanning Flames in Haiti : Media: Reports are unfairly focusing on violence, officials say. They allege distorted images may be affecting morale and the mission.

October 06, 1994|ART PINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Senior U.S. military leaders are becoming increasingly frustrated over media coverage of the U.S. military operation in Haiti, contending that it has produced a distorted image that ignores the progress made by U.S. troops and in some cases has hurt morale.

While conceding that there have been some snags in the operation, the officers argue that in just 2 1/2 weeks in Haiti, U.S. troops have brought order to the island nation, blunted the local army and police and re-established basic services--with hardly any casualties and few gun battles.

But they complain that the images and words sent back to American viewers and readers have concentrated on a handful of incidents, such as the looting of a warehouse in Port-au-Prince last week, that, taken alone, present a distorted picture.

They also contend that U.S. journalists have been mistakenly describing as "mission creep" the assignment of U.S. military police to help oversee some police-related activities such as crowd control. The officials say such assignments were always in the U.S. operations plan.

Military officers allege that focus on such incidents has made it more difficult for them to manage the operation, frustrating U.S. troops who often see or read the news reports and intensifying pressures in Congress for an early withdrawal date.

Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a House leader on military issues, complained after a trip to Haiti last weekend that press distortions were beginning to "change the mission" by heightening pressure on U.S. troops to become involved in confrontations.

He said that focusing on the relatively few incidents of violence since U.S. troops arrived is "like looking at the country through a straw."

Actually, officials insisted, overall violence levels in Haiti have decreased dramatically since U.S. troops arrived.

The military's chagrin over the press coverage was expressed in an interview with The Times on Wednesday by Navy Adm. William A. Owens, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

While insisting that he was speaking only for himself, Owens said it is frustrating to military people to see reports that omit "the successes we're having" in Haiti.

"Our troops themselves are aware of this coverage," he said.

Although newspapers have not escaped criticism, military officials leveled most complaints at television, which has often provided live coverage of the violence.

"I understand that these are important events that need to be reported," Owens said. "But if you don't see it in the context of the total, then you miss the big picture that is important for everyone who views" news reports.

In the opinion of military officials:

* U.S. forces took on a difficult and complex operation. They were hit at the start with a change in signals resulting from the accord hammered out with Haitian officials by the delegation led by former President Jimmy Carter. Still, they deftly changed plans to fulfill the operation without missing a beat.

* Although U.S. troops hit some snags, officials said the venture so far has been a success--going far more smoothly than they had hoped. Just 2 1/2 weeks into the operation, most of Haiti is secure, services have been restored and the population is under control.

* Opposition to the return of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has been largely blunted. The army and military have been disarmed and are in check, paramilitary arsenals have been seized and the Port-au-Prince police chief, Lt. Col. Michel-Joseph Francois, has left the country.

* Democratic political institutions are gradually coming back. The Haitian Parliament has met. Evans Paul, the exiled mayor of Port-au-Prince and an Aristide backer, has returned. And the head of the paramilitary force that has terrorized the country has pledged to support Aristide.

Moreover, the operation has progressed with only a handful of casualties. Two U.S. servicemen have been wounded--one with only a flesh wound--and there have been two American deaths, both of them apparent suicides. U.S. soldiers have killed 10 Haitians--all, they said, in self-defense.

By contrast, military leaders grumble, U.S. viewers and readers have been peppered with footage and articles showing U.S. troops standing by while Haitians are beaten, Marines shooting Haitian police, crowds ransacking and looting and grenades killing bystanders.

Unfortunate as these incidents have been, they say, they have been relatively isolated and are to be expected in any operation of this nature.

"The surprise is not that there's been some violence but that there hasn't been more," Defense Secretary William J. Perry told reporters Wednesday.

Stephen H. Hess, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution think tank, said that, while military leaders and the press almost always have been at odds, this time the military officers "do have a point."

Hess said that, although journalists generally try to do their jobs well, reporting from Haiti has seemed more one-sided.

"It's a perfect example of parachute journalism," he said. "American journalists are absolutely magnificent for the first 24 hours in a country but, the longer they stay, the more it becomes obvious that they don't have the training or background to cover this for long."

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