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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

Where the Media and Military Meet

March 16, 2003|Geoffrey Mohan; Carol J. Williams; Tony Perry

Hundreds of newspaper, TV and radio reporters heaved on flak jackets and strapped on gas masks last week and joined U.S. forces preparing for war in a massive experiment that could reshape the way the American military allows itself to be covered by the media.

Participating in what the Pentagon has dubbed "embedding," journalists joined Army, Marine Corps and Navy units in the hope that, if battle comes, they can report on it from an up-close perspective. The Pentagon is seeking to cast the most positive light on the way it would wage a war that is highly unpopular throughout most of the world.

A few days into this process, the two groups are dealing with their own clash of cultures as media meet military in the field. It is a mixed bag. These are reports from embedded Los Angeles Times writers.

*

KUWAIT CITY

`You Volunteered for This?'

The beginning was inauspicious.

Drops of blood the size of quarters marked the path from a building of the Hilton Kuwait resort to the tennis court. They marked the first casualties of the Pentagon's plan to embed reporters.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 14, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Embedded reporters -- A March 16 article on members of the media traveling with the U.S. military during the war in Iraq said that a French reporter was killed after stepping into the path of a tank in Afghanistan. The accident occurred in Kuwait.

Out on the court, reporters and photographers struggled with trash bags laden with their newly issued nuclear, biological and chemical equipment -- NBC gear, in the Army's Babylonia of acronyms.

"Be careful opening the canister for your air filter," warned a sergeant. "We've already had some people need stitches."

Indeed, a peel-open system, like sardine cans of old, left razor-sharp edges to the containers, which were slightly larger than a can of cocktail peanuts. Within minutes, one reporter had bandages on three fingers, having confirmed the sergeant's warning.

The NBC training included donning a gas mask in nine seconds, with eyes closed and breath held. That was followed by a demonstration on donning the oversized jackets, suspender pants and loose rubber galoshes that complete the outfit.

Then came an explanation of how to expel bodily waste while suited up for weapons of mass destruction -- a process that involves much swabbing with charcoal wipes, rolling of clothing, more swabbing and gingerly unfastening.

"A lot of soldiers just go in their suits and do laundry later," the sergeant explained.

Never take off your mask, she added, until someone yells "all clear."

"OK, take off your masks," she said. Thirteen reporters complied. All of them, the sergeant explained, were now dead.

"You forgot to wait for 'all clear,' " she said.

In exchange for their positions within battlefield units, reporters and photographers have agreed to not report positions, troop strength, future plans and operations with any precision, or to wait until actions are over to divulge details.

Lt. Col. Eric Wesley of the Army 3rd Infantry's 2nd, or "Spartan," Brigade, offered advice to reporters: Don't step in front of a tank. Give wide berth to gun turrets. Do as you're told. This is the only brigade that has already killed a reporter -- a French photographer who, pursuing a better angle, stepped in front of a tank in Afghanistan.

At the 4th Battalion's C Company ("Cyclones"), in a staked-out patch of thick sand populated by 20 or so tents, reaction among troops who squeezed another cot into a tent to accommodate a reporter ranged from enthusiasm to a weary GI shrug.

They begged for news beyond sporadic shortwave-radio dispatches that have been their lifeline to home for months. Their usual next question, repeated often: "You volunteered for this?"

Geoffrey Mohan

*ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN

`It's the Admiral's Ship, and He Can Do What He Wants'

Engagement of Iraq may still be days away, but the war between the media and the military is already flaring.

Despite assurances from Pentagon public affairs officers that embedded journalists would be accorded "unprecedented access" to sailors' and aviators' sacrifice, pain and glory, the 30 media representatives on board this aircraft carrier have been received with all the warmth due invading enemy forces.

Escorts assigned to each journalist shadow every move and contact. Said to be for the media's safety and to ensure that classified information isn't inadvertently imparted, the minders are required to report in writing to their superiors the name, rank, department and comments of every crew member with whom each media representative comes in contact.

Big Sailor is always watching.

Numerous interviews among the 5,500-member crew have been denied or discouraged because the carrier group's commander, Rear Adm. John M. Kelly, has objected or because public affairs officers anticipate such displeasure.

"It's the admiral's ship, and he can do what he wants," Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Bender has told several of the reporters who have voiced displeasure. (Kelly met with reporters Friday to hear their complaints.)

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