June 4, 2002







Report from the Front

photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Donald Rumsfeld

Media Matters:
The relationship between the Pentagon and the press

by Jennifer Smodish

Most people agreed that the war on terrorism was a new kind of war. With no clear front lines and visible enemies, it was expected coverage would be different from previous conflicts.

But what may not have been expected was the Pentagon's handling of reporters trying to cover the war. On a recent episode of PBS' Media Matters, journalists talked about the restrictions - tighter than those they faced in the Gulf War or Kosovo - on information and access in this war.

"There are legitimate questions about what we should be allowed to publish or broadcast. And we all agreed to ground rules that we would not report anything that would endanger current operations," says Carol Morello of The Washington Post. "But there was virtually no access to anything but feature stories. And if we can't cover the news we become a public relations arm.

"We knew that something was going. Instead of covering these troops, we'd spent a night in the foxhole. A nice little feature. But we come back the next day and there's a Pentagon briefing. It has been announced that Marines have been sent off on a major mission to interdict Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces. We knew something was happening. We had watched them leave. And we had not been able to report it. That story came out with a Washington dateline with no confirmation of what actually happened in the field," Morello says.

"One of my colleagues covered every conflict for the last 20 or 30 years. He was with the Russians during their occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s. And when we left [Afghanistan] he said to me he said he had more freedom of coverage with the Soviets than he had with the U.S. military," says Morello.

According to Michael R. Gordon of the New York Times, "They have presented a limited amount of information that isn't adequate to judge the success or failure of their own strategy. I kept going to the U.S. military and saying, 'Please send me with your people. Let me go with them.' Nothing happened. Nothing. I think Pentagon access is insufficient, but I'm not planning on using the Pentagon anymore."

Of course, according to the Pentagon, there are obvious reasons for the stranglehold on information. "I just cannot think of a time when there has been a war like this one - when the only substantial ground forces are Special Forces and Special Operating Forces, which historically have been very loathe to have their activities covered," says Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs.

"We will not say a word that will ...endanger anyone's life by discussing operations. and anyone that talks to any of you about that is breaking federal criminal law and should be in jail.."

- Donald Rumsfeld

Some journalists note that the press's relationship with the Pentagon has also changed drastically. "The press is no longer the enemy. The press is the battlefield," says David Martin of CBS News who has covered the military for 22 years. "Now the notion is 'we're going to dominate the press just like we dominate every other terrain feature on the battlefield,'" he says of the Pentagon. "In this particular war, they have a genuine TV star, Donald Rumsfeld."

Robert Burns of the Associated Press recalls Rumsfeld admonishing the press after a newspaper story appeared using information he claimed was classified. According to Rumsfeld, someone in the Pentagon had provided information without his authorization, making the leak unlawful: "The policy is that we will not say a word about anything that will compromise sources or methods," Rumsfeld said in a press briefing. "We will not say a word that will in any way endanger anyone's life by discussing operations. And anyone that talks to any of you about that is breaking federal criminal law and should be in jail."

His comments had an immediate effect on government staff as well as the press. "A lot of people were no longer willing to be seen with reporters in the building or talk to them over the telephone phone for fear that they might be overheard or that someone might report them," says Burns.

Says CBS' Martin, "It's impossible to have an intelligent conversation with anybody in this building without discussing classified information, so much is classified. It's simply a routine occurrence to talk to somebody about information that technically has a secret stamp on it. But if you have leaks, they will sometimes start doing polygraph tests on everybody who was cleared for that information.

"That has a real chilling effect," Martin adds.

photo by Michael W. Pendergrass/U.S. Navy

A media horde surrounds Donald Rumsfeld.

Rear Adm. Quigley defends Rumsfeld's statement, saying it was to prevent Capitol Hill press corps from leaking sensitive news. "If there is information that is possibly going to compromise a future operation or put an individual's life at risk, that is a really terrible thing," said Quigley. "The secretary of defense never was pointing fingers at news organizations on this. It's all about the good judgment of the individuals who are providing the information to them. That's what the secretary called into question."

But journalists disagree with the idea that Rumsfeld's message wasn't intended to have any effect on the press. "If [there were information leaks], they can tell them directly. They didn't have to go on national television, with the press as the backdrop, and tell it. It was a brilliant move to try to put the press on the defensive," said Bill Kovach, former editor of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.

"Where does it end?" asks the National Journal's George Wilson, who has covered the military for more than 40 years. "Are we really going to send in American troops to Somalia? Are we going to take on all the bad guys in the Philippines? Are we going to have to go back to the draft? These are all legitimate questions that are not being answered.

"I think if you've got this attitude that nothing's news until it's announced by the designated official, then you're getting close to a ministry of truth. And I don't think that's healthy for a democracy."

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