War within a war: the press and the Pentagon

If the United States goes to war in Iraq, two major campaigns will be under way.

One is the military air and ground war, designed to topple Saddam Hussein.

The other is the public relations campaign of the military and the Bush administration to win public opinion at home.

The press - print and electronic - is going to play an immensely significant role in all this. Journalists in their hundreds will be clamoring to cover the war. They will come not only from the US and Britain but from dozens of other countries and from news organizations ranging from The New York Times to the Japanese press to Egypt's Al-Ahram and the Arab Al Jazeera TV network.

While the Iraqis may permit a handful of correspondents into Baghdad in the hope of manipulating them, most journalists will be attempting to cover the war from the American side. Thus many news organizations are setting funds aside for war coverage, suiting up their war reporters with flak jackets and chemical warfare outfits, and sending them to media boot camps being run by the Pentagon.

The Pentagon's primary concern is the American press, which will substantially mold US public opinion about the course of the war. But major conflicts lie ahead between military and press because the two have entirely different agendas.

The press wants to get as close to the action as possible, chronicling both victories and setbacks, and painting a picture of war as stark and ugly as it sometimes can be.

The military, for security reasons, seeks to cast a veil over ongoing operations, but also wants to shape press coverage of the war in a favorable light.

Since World War II, which most correspondents on the allied side viewed as a conflict between righteousness and fascism, the relationship between journalists and the military has changed.

In the Vietnam War, reporters enjoyed about as much freedom as possible to link up with front-line units, either South Vietnamese or American. Like many another reporter, I could head out to Saigon's Tan Son Nhut airport any day I wanted, and hitch a helicopter south to the Delta, or a C130 north to Pleiku or Danang, to accompany any unit on almost any kind of operation it was engaged in.

This led to a mass of "rice-roots" reporting, sometimes negative, that the military brass did not welcome. Many high-ranking officers vowed that such freedom would not be allowed in later conflicts. Indeed, during the Gulf War and more recently Afghanistan, the access and movement of journalists with American units was substantially restricted.

If there is war in Iraq in 2003, there will be conflicts over where, and when, news reporters can go, and whether they must have escorts, and how casualties and other sensitive aspects can be covered.

Another dramatic change that has taken place over the years is in the techniques of communication. Reporters may have had access to the troops in Vietnam, but for the TV cameramen, for example, it still took several days to get film back from the field to Saigon, then by air to New York for airing to American viewers. Today camera crews communicate with their head offices from the battlefield instantly by portable satellite transmitters and cellphones.

In any war with Iraq, US news organizations may have a new tool for coverage in the form of high-resolution satellite imagery. Once the preserve of governments, this is now readily available from commercial companies in the US, Russia, and France, among others.

What happens when media companies can tell from their own satellite pictures what ships have sailed, what units have moved, what terrorist camps have been vacated, without waiting for an announcement from an official Pentagon spokesman?

Having been a journalist most of my years, and a government spokesman for several of them, I know from personal experience that most news organizations are sensitive to the need for restraint when covering ongoing military or intelligence operations where lives are at stake.

But the tug continues between journalists who push for total disclosure, and bureaucrats who reserve the right to determine what the public can, and cannot, know.

Longtime associations and mutual trust between journalists and military personnel help.

But as General Eisenhower wrote in his World War II regulations for war correspondents: "The first essential in military operations is that no information of value should be given to the enemy. The first essential in newspaper work and broadcasting is wide-open publicity."

Reconciling these conflicting agendas is part of democracy.

John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, is a former editor of the Monitor.

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