The Generals And the Press

THE war in the Gulf has precipitated another kind of confrontation - between the press and military. It is a confrontation that besets most democracies when they take up arms and must balance military security versus the people's right to know.

It is a confrontation not peculiar to the current war. Correspondents and the military fussed over censorship and pool arrangements in World War II and Korea. They feuded bitterly in Vietnam - one of the most open wars the press has ever covered - and in Grenada, one of the most closed wars.

It is a tension compounded by the press's suspicion that the military are trying to put the best gloss on a campaign, and the military's suspicion that the press is preoccupied with the hunt for the negatives and mistakes.

But if the confrontation between press and military is long-lasting, it has some brand new wrinkles in the Gulf. This is the first war to beam instant coverage into our living rooms.

In earlier wars, hours and sometimes days elapsed before wire service reports became print in our local newspapers. Even the television coverage of Vietnam was not instant; film had to be shipped back to New York, with time for correction, reflection, and editing. This time around, we see the TV correspondents live, by satellite, and if the news flashes to us faster, so do the mistaken reports, as when a correspondent passes on rumors that one Scud carried a chemical weapons warhead.

Another problem with instant coverage is that it is available instantly to the enemy. Cable News Network, which has led the television coverage of the war, counts Saddam Hussein a regular viewer in Baghdad. If a network becomes too detailed in its reporting of the war, does it provide the enemy with useful information?

And what about manipulation by the enemy? Iraq has permitted CNN to maintain correspondent Peter Arnett in Baghdad. He sees what the Iraqi government wants him to see. But CNN's value to Iraq is offset by the value it offers to Americans in producing a rare, if censored, inside view of Baghdad.

Another new wrinkle: the size of the press corps in Saudi Arabia. Vietnam, in the early days of the war, was covered by half a dozen full-time American correspondents. In Saudi Arabia, 800 newsmen and women are covering the conflict. Most want to go to ``the front.'' But the front is far across the desert and only the military can get them there. Hence escorted press ``pools,'' and limited access, and a conflict between a military that says it just cannot handle that many correspondents and reporters who say they cannot be sure of the truth unless they can talk to whomever they want.

Consequently, much of the news of the war is gathered at the official briefings in Saudi Arabia and at the Pentagon and White House in Washington.

It is at these briefings that we come to the crux of the problem. In wartime, reporters and military briefers are engaged in a delicate compromise. On the one hand, it is reasonable for the military to withhold information of value to the enemy. It is improper for them to withhold information simply because it is negative or politically embarrassing. On the other hand, it is acceptable for reporters to press for the fullest account possible of what they are being denied from seeing first-hand. It is unreasonable for them to extract information that could help the enemy, like the disclosure of future tactics and troop movements.

Veteran correspondents give high marks for frankness and fairness to top-flight briefers like Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Desert Storm commander Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. But junior military officers assigned to press relations are often uninformed and unenterprising. In all fairness, it must also be said that a green crop of war reporters sometimes ask questions of incredible naivet'e and inexperience.

The reporters need to learn and to develop more perspective on what is reasonable to report. The military needs to develop much more sophistication in its handling of the press. To some soldiers the press may seem a nuisance in wartime. But the quest for public support of the Bush administration's objectives in the Gulf is as important as the military's drive and valor on the battlefield.

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