Base officials at Zama organize to handle media frenzy
CAMP ZAMA, Japan — U.S. military officials don’t get too many media circuses in the Pacific but they had to come up with a big top rather quickly last week.
On Saturday, Sgt. Charles Jenkins — accused of abandoning his South Korea post in 1965 and defecting to communist North Korea, where he lived for about 39 years — presented himself to U.S. military authorities, who placed him back on active duty and levied charges of desertion, aiding the enemy, soliciting other servicemembers to desert and encouraging disloyalty.
After issuing 178 media passes for the event, the U.S. military needed a media nerve center. That responsibility fell to Maj. John Amberg, a U.S. Army Japan spokesman who converted Zama’s Community Cultural Center into a Joint Information Bureau to accommodate the international media onslaught that accompanied the 64-year-old sergeant’s high-profile surrender.
Jenkins had been in Japan since July, when he flew to Tokyo for medical treatment.
“It’s probably the biggest thing to hit Camp Zama in recent memory,” Amberg said. “I can’t think of anything bigger.”
News outlets covering the Jenkins story included The Associated Press, The New York Times, Reuters, ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN — along with every major network in Japan. Amberg even got an inquiry from Time magazine.
Faced with 150 to 200 requests for media credentials, he said the only manageable way to service that many press representatives was to create an information bureau.
“You have to feed the beast,” Amberg said. “Due to the 24-hour news cycle, we must make sure information is readily available to the media. The directive I have from DOD is maximum release, minimum delay — which means you provide the most information possible as fast as possible.”
But with so many journalists descending on Camp Zama to get the best angle on Jenkins’ return to U.S. military jurisdiction, safety became a concern. While 178 had access to the installation itself, another 50 to 75 media personnel camped outside the base gate, jockeying for position.
“We did not know when he was leaving the hospital. The media did not know when he was leaving,” Amberg said. “If everyone had left the hospital at the same time, there might have been a big crush at the gate. That was a significant safety issue in my mind — and another reason to put up the JIB.”
Amberg had help from Maj. James Bell of U.S. Forces Japan and Bill Doughty of U.S. Naval Hospital Yokosuka. Lt. Col. Mark Zimmer of U.S. Army Pacific flew in from Hawaii.
Maj. Martha Brooks, a U.S. Army Japan spokeswoman, was in charge of the media center and responsible for accreditation and providing the press with ground rules. She also handed out fact sheets that included translations in English, Japanese and Korean.
“We were actually here to support the family, too,” Brooks said. “Protect their privacy, just like any other soldier who transferred in would get. We had to treat Sergeant Jenkins as a soldier and ensure he got fair treatment. We wanted to make sure the media saw that we were treating him as innocent” while his case proceeded to adjudication.
“We wanted to show the media exactly what was going on as he in-processed, show them all the steps involved. We brought out subject-matter experts and combined with the fact sheets, they could ask questions. But it would have been unfair to let the media swarm him when he’s here to do his duty as a U.S. soldier.”
Inside the makeshift information bureau, two large plasma screens were installed — one for closed-circuit television broadcasts and another for live Internet updates, said John Austin, chief of applications integration and visual information division for Zama’s 78th Signal Battalion.
He fed text, video and audio updates to the U.S. Army Japan Web site, which gets 400 to 600 hits on an average day but received more than 15,000 visitors Sunday, according to Amberg.
“It was new to me,” Austin said. “Seeing that many press in one location was kind of intimidating. But we planned for a large number of interested press. That’s what we worked toward, with video and venue. We chose a venue to handle it in any contingency and couldn’t have a better building for that.”
Austin’s team of photographers, videographers and graphics specialists created more than 250 press badges, put together the staging area for information briefings by military officials, produced all the room’s signage and recorded the day’s events for historical purposes, he added.
Sgt. Neil Jones, who acted as the Joint Information Bureau’s noncommissioned officer in charge, was responsible for logistics, ensuring all facets of the event flowed properly.
“Sound, phones, stage setup, the Web, TV, lights: I just had to make sure those things got accomplished,” he said. “I have nothing but accolades for the technical experts who made it happen. It was perfect orchestration. Everybody pulled their weight.”