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Public Would Get a Closer Look at War

Some in the news media question the Pentagon's motives in permitting access to combat units. A loss of objectivity is a potential risk.

March 11, 2003|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Hours after American and coalition forces launched the ground war in the 1991 Persian Gulf conflict, they routed Iraqi troops and brought the fighting to a rapid conclusion. But few Americans learned about this campaign as it unfolded, because most journalists were kept miles away from the front lines.

As U.S. forces gear up for another conflict in Iraq, Pentagon officials promise that coverage will be different this time: More than 500 reporters from America and around the world will be stationed with combat units, shoulder to shoulder with U.S. soldiers, and the public is likely to get a grittier, grunt's-eye view of modern war than the remote, video-game clash that was beamed into living rooms 12 years ago.

"There may be a more human face to this conflict than the last one," said Eason Jordan, CNN's chief news executive. "Many correspondents will be reporting about people literally fighting on the front lines. They won't be covering briefings."

The sheer number of reporters assigned to combat will be unprecedented for the opening stages of a conflict involving the U.S. But as journalists report to their new units, a process the Pentagon has dubbed "embedding," a debate has erupted over the reasons for this new battlefield access and its likely effect on the media.

Military officials believe embedding will serve the interests of Pentagon policymakers and reporters alike. Yet many news executives -- while cautiously optimistic the plan will work -- are doubtful that embedding will reduce the tensions that have marked media-military relations since the Vietnam War. And some believe the Pentagon did an about-face on access because its policies of exclusion no longer work in a world where the media landscape has changed so dramatically.

"So much of this new policy coming from the military is driven by the realities of new technology and the growth of 24-hour news channels, not just in America but in many other countries," said Sandra Mims Rowe, editor of the (Portland) Oregonian.

U.S. media coverage of war in Iraq, no matter how voluminous and state-of-the-art, will be competing with Al Jazeera, the widely watched 24-hour news station in the Arab world, and a profusion of other news outlets, she said. Amid this explosion of new voices, Rowe noted, "the Pentagon can't keep information from people, like it did so well in the first Persian Gulf War. That's clearly going to be a losing game now."

To win the battle for public opinion in an age of never-ending news cycles, experts say, the Pentagon had no choice but to give reporters a front-row seat. Beyond the battlefield, there will be an entirely different war fought over TV images and newspaper coverage, and the side that tells its story best can gain a crucial advantage. This is particularly important given the global reach of the Internet, which was in its infancy during the 1991 war and now speeds breaking news, rumors, propaganda, data and a wellspring of alternative opinions to millions.

Yet the U.S. military has been slow to learn these lessons. As recently as the Afghanistan war, few reporters were allowed to cover the conflict in any depth from the scene, until most of the fighting was over. There was a period when the only battle images seen on American televisions came from Al Jazeera, and they were of civilian casualties from U.S. bombing raids, Jordan said.

This time, the military believes there will be a dramatically new dynamic.

"The idea is to get as much coverage of our service members' efforts in any hostilities that may develop, yet it's definitely a two-way street," said Army Maj. Timothy Blair, a Pentagon spokesman. "We are allowing the press to get the coverage it's asking for, and this also permits us to provide the public with a firsthand knowledge of events on the ground and in the region -- an untainted view of what's happening."

But how much has the media given up in return for battlefield access? Few observers doubt that experiencing war firsthand beats the tedium of waiting for military briefings every day, hundreds of miles from the action. Yet some wonder whether a variation of the "Stockholm syndrome" may develop, in which journalists become enamored of the soldiers they're covering and lose perspective.

"The virtue of embedding is that it allows reporters to eat, breathe, sleep and experience war firsthand with soldiers," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Project for Excellence in Journalism. "But the danger is that you're liable to start reporting from the point of the view of the troops who are protecting you. In a way, you owe your life to them, and the Pentagon knows that."

Given the potential for such bonding, many news executives believe the most independent -- and controversial -- stories that Americans are likely to read or see will come from hundreds of additional reporters, the so-called "unilaterals," who will not be assigned to military units and can roam through the region.

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