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Journalists converge on front only to find themselves on sidelines

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — The military has promised to offer the media front-row seats if U.S. troops go to war with Iraq, but in the meantime many journalists are watching the troop buildup from the nosebleed section.

In Kuwait, the tiny emirate south of Iraq, thousands more Army and Marine Corps troops are pitching tents in the desert every day. But after the media was invited en masse to cover tearful farewells at home bases, few have had regular access to troops as servicemembers set up and train in their new desert home.

“I’m a watcher of the media, and there are a lot of stories saying goodbye and there aren’t any saying hello,” said Stephen Griffin, a constitutional law professor at Tulane University. “It’s like they dropped into a black hole.”

Two U.S. air bases in Kuwait have been strictly off-limits to all media coverage since 1998. And bases from Saudi Arabia, where the Air Force launches no-fly missions over Iraq, to Qatar, the military’s headquarters for any future operations in the Persian Gulf, are allowing the media limited and select access to men and women in uniform.

No one, from the Pentagon to the press corps, denies the importance of shining the klieg light on the U.S. military. The military said it wants the people back home to know what their sons and daughters are doing overseas. It also wants to highlight individual acts of bravery and dispel misinformation that might be put out by enemy forces.

But the Pentagon has meted out coverage while promising that things will change if and when war breaks out with Iraq.

The Department of Defense plans to allow certain print and broadcast journalists the opportunity to live with the units they cover during the war — a process the military calls “embedding.”

Journalists would eat, sleep and travel with the troops from the “onset of action to the victory parade,” said Army Col. Rick Thomas, who heads the public affairs office of the Coalition Forces Land Component Command in Kuwait.

To prepare journalists, the military has orchestrated a series of weeklong training sessions for would-be combat correspondents. Reporters learn how to don gas masks, read a compass and tote a rucksack on a road march.

Seeing is believing

But media analysts are dubious that the military really will exhibit greater openness when the bullets start to fly, especially after its restrictive policies during the campaign in Afghanistan, as well as during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

In Afghanistan, reporters were prevented from covering the return of soldiers killed in a firefight. During the Persian Gulf War, much of the coverage opportunities were limited to briefings by senior leaders or what could be gleaned from press pools.

“I’m highly skeptical that there’s going to be a sea change in this whole area of access,” said Laird Anderson, a former journalism professor at American University and a retired Army colonel.

Anderson said reporters who expect front line coverage already should be living with the troops to start building a relationship with the unit they will cover.

“If reporters are going to have any connection on the ground, it will be too late when [troops] start marching,” Anderson said. “That should not be where the access begins.”

While Thomas has said that embeds will begin before real-world military operations do, reporters aren’t likely to find out until the last minute that they are going to live with the troops for an unknown time.

In the meantime, hordes of journalists are watching and waiting for action. Occasionally, certain media outlets are allowed to report on training activities, but more often the access given is for special events such as the Christmas holidays or the Super Bowl.

Tulane’s Griffin, an advocate of unlimited media access to military operations, said such limits defeat a chief purpose of the media as one of the checks and balances of power.

“You can’t watch the government closely unless you can go where the government goes,” Griffin said.

Since the Vietnam War, the military has tightened its grip on information about its activities, he said, often forgetting that the American public does not like to be kept in the dark.

“They [the military] have to be dragged kicking and screaming back to a reality that not only is this a First Amendment right, it’s simply good sense. If the American people get the feeling that they’re not getting information, they can easily turn against an operation,” Griffin said.

Balancing needs

Thomas and Pentagon spokesman Lt. Dan Hetlage said the military wants to comply with the avalanche of media requests. But it must balance several factors.

“I do not have a mathematical formula,” Thomas said, when asked about how public affairs officers like himself choose which media outlets get coverage opportunities.

He said he looks at the type of training available, the target audience the military wants to reach, and the security risks of such coverage.

“And those are the tough choices,” Thomas said. “For the easy choices, I simply choose media outlets whose turn comes up on the rotation.”

Another common reason given for limited media coverage in countries outside the United States is what the military calls “host-nation sensitivities.” That means officials in a country such as Kuwait, for example, have an aversion to reading about U.S. military activities within their borders.

Anderson calls this excuse “a bunch of crock.”

“A blind man can see what’s going on. Why do we have to be this supercilious? The Iraqis aren’t dummies,” he said.

Nevertheless, one Kuwaiti analyst said the issue of sensitivity is very real for many of his countrymen.

“We are a country that for months was occupied by hostile forces, then liberated by U.S. troops. We went through a war where all of our secrets were exposed. We became a little sensitive about information regarding the military,” said Dr. Shafeeq Ghabra, director of the Center for Strategic and Future Studies in Kuwait City.

Recent attacks on American troops and civilians in the country have heightened that concern over security. On the other hand, he said, Kuwait is not shy about its alliance to the United States. And the people would like more information.

“People would not only want to know what U.S. troops are doing, they would like to know what to expect, how long the war might be,” he said. “There is this anxiety and so in some ways there have been so many questions that nobody has answered.”

Thomas said he’s satisfied for the moment that the military has answered as many questions as it can through media coverage.

“I think we have absolutely provided sufficient access so that the story of the training that’s being conducted can be told. And although I have not been able nor am I going to be able to provide daily opportunities for 300 reporters, I am providing an opportunity as frequently as the training scenario allows.”


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