The Shallow End of the Pool?
The pool assembled to cover the invasion of Haiti raises more questions about the journalists than about the Pentagon.
By Jacqueline E. Sharkey
Jacqueline E. Sharkey is head of the University of Arizona Department of Journalism and author of "Under Fire--U.S. Military Restrictions on the Media from Grenada to the Persian Gulf."
When the Pentagon activated the national press pool on September 17 for the planned invasion of Haiti, Newhouse News Service correspondent David Wood – who has covered the military for more than 10 years – donned his fatigues, picked up his flak jacket and went to Andrews Air Force Base ready to go to Haiti with the first wave of U.S. troops.
He was surprised to see how some of his colleagues had shown up to accompany U.S. forces onto the battlefield. Some had arrived in shorts and sneakers. Despite the Pentagon's request that journalists bring no more than they could carry, some pool members had suitcases and other personal gear that they wouldn't be able to manage alone.
Some journalists had neglected to purchase flak jackets or obtain immunizations, as the Defense Department had requested months earlier, when DOD officials first told the pool to begin preparing for a possible U.S. operation abroad. Military personnel had to give the correspondents jackets and injections.
"The military is usually cast as the villain" in pool critiques, Wood says. But in this case, he adds, it's the press that has not upheld "its part of the bargain."
Several news executives deny that they sent ill-prepared personnel to the Haiti deployment. "We take our pool responsibilities very seriously. I think most of my colleagues do, too," says Associated Press Washington Bureau Chief Jon Wolman.
The debate about the preparedness of the Haiti pool brings into focus several issues that have created longstanding
problems between the press and the Pentagon.
ýike pools in the past, the Haiti pool – which was disbanded the night of September 18, after the U.S. invasion was halted and before any pool members made it to Haiti – suffered from logistical problems. Some members were unhappy that their assignments were not on the front lines. Transportation and communication difficulties hindered correspondents' efforts to transmit reports about final preparations for combat.
Ironically, many of these problems resulted not from White House or Pentagon attempts to control access to information – as has sometimes happened in the past, most recently during the Persian Gulf War – but from the Pentagon's efforts to allow more open and independent coverage.
But journalists and military personnel say several problems were caused by news organizations that sent unprepared personnel into the field – a practice that seasoned correspondents and the armed forces have criticized since the Vietnam War. Sending reporters who are unfamiliar with military procedures to cover conflicts does a disservice to readers and viewers, they say. It also enables White House and Pentagon officials to put their own spin on what happens during military operations.
For the Haiti operation, the Pentagon's "new game plan was to be as open as possible," says Andrew Schneider of Scripps Howard. According to the Pentagon, the pool was given classified information by high-ranking officers, including Lt. Gen. Henry Hugh Shelton, commander of the operation. Other than an embargo until the start of the invasion, Schneider says "there were no restrictions on what we could report or how we could report it."
After calling up the pool, the Pentagon placed members with troops involved in crucial phases of the operation. The military did not plan to do security reviews of pool reports after the operation started, as it had during the Persian Gulf War.
æedia analysts note that several political and military factors lay behind the Defense Department's new openness. One major consideration was the Clinton administration's need to increase public support for the Haitian operation.
Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz says White House, State Department and Pentagon officials "were quite up front about the need to try to build support for what looked to be an unpopular military invasion, and they were going out of their way to accommodate reporters and let them tag along with the troops."
Media analysts also point out that so many correspondents had been sent to Haiti in advance of the planned invasion that the White House and Pentagon could not have controlled the flow of information or access to the streets.
In addition to placing members of the pool with key military units, the Pentagon also arranged for more than 50 additional journalists to travel independently, as "unilaterals," with military units that weren't in the forefront of the invasion. White House and Pentagon officials also acceded to a decision by news executives not to accept some of the administration's proposed ground rules, including a White House request for a lengthy news blackout at the start of the operation.
"This was the most open access that we've seen, both for pool coverage and for unilateral coverage," says Wolman of the AP, who was part of a team of news executives who spent months after the gulf war negotiating with the Pentagon for more press access to the battlefield.
The result of those negotiations was an agreement adopted by the Pentagon and the press in March 1992 that laid out principles for coverage of military operations. The agreement says "open and independent reporting will be the principal means of coverage," but that "pools may sometimes provide the only feasible means of early access to a military operation." The military is to provide transportation for the pools and to supply public affairs officers with facilities for "timely, secure, compatible transmission of pool material."
The Haiti pool was the first to be deployed to a potential combat situation under the agreement, and Wolman says the Pentagon made a "good faith effort" to comply with its provisions.
Despite the pact, pool members encountered problems. Some reporters couldn't file electronically because the military's communications equipment apparently was incompatible with their laptop computers. Some pool correspondents felt they were competing with unilaterals for access and information.
Pool members also were critical of how some public affairs officers handled the order to disband the pool – and the subsequent lifting of the embargo – after the invasion had been canceled. The order came after many correspondents had gone to bed, and in some cases, military personnel decided not to wake journalists to tell them the news.
Some correspondents found themselves stranded on ships and in staging areas because units they had been scheduled to travel with were not immediately needed in Haiti after the invasion was called off. When transportation became available, the military took pool members who wanted to go to Haiti with them. They worked independently as unilaterals.
But some pool members were satisfied with their experiences. Richard A. Serrano of the Los Angeles Times spent more than a week at Cap-Haitien, and was one of the first reporters to get out the story about the shootout between Marines and Haitian police in the area.
He says public affairs personnel – who set up a press center in an open-air shed quickly dubbed the Voodoo Lounge – were "very helpful."
Schneider of Scripps Howard was assigned to the 82nd Airborne. He went to Haiti with segments of the unit and stayed about three weeks. He had high praise for some personnel at the military's Joint Information Bureau.
"They took me any place I wanted to go, and never once interfered," says Schneider, who covered military operations in Vietnam, Latin America and the Persian Gulf.
Schneider was less enthusiastic ýbout some journalists in Haiti who seemed to have little experience with or knowledge of military operations. He recalls that some correspondents stood watching a soldier fire an M-16 at a steel door, apparently unaware they could be hit by ricocheting bullets. Schneider also saw a TV crew try to jump on the back of moving tanks. When troops tried to stop this, journalists thought the military personnel were being hostile.
News organizations have a responsibility "to make sure that the journalists that are going in understand the potential for problems, for injuries," Schneider says.
He and other experienced correspondents and military personnel concur with the analogy that many editors, who wouldn't think of sending a reporter who knew nothing about sports to cover a football game, apparently think nothing of sending inexperienced journalists to cover a war.
In fact, the 1992 agreement between the press and the Pentagon states that news organizations "will make their best efforts to assign experienced journalists to combat operations and to make them familiar with U.S. military operations."
"We were the Pentagon combat pool, but we definitely were not a group that any commander would feel comfortable taking with him into battle," says David Wood of Newhouse.
ABC cameraman Douglas Allmond agrees that some correspondents "weren't very prepared," and says those who showed up to go into a "combat situation with suitcases" were "ridiculous."
A Pentagon after-action report on the pool says the fact that some members needed all their shots "caused problems later," when journalists became sore or sick, and that members "need to reduce" equipment and personal belongings. The report also says some news media sent substitutes, requiring additional work by DOD personnel.
üood sent a memo to the Pentagon recommending that the pool be "scrapped or radically altered." He says many news organizations send experienced correspondents ahead to prospective battlefields whenever possible, making the pool assignment a low priority.
"As a result, the pool will tend to be inexperienced, unfamiliar with the military and uncertain how to operate in a combat environment," says Wood.
Wood fears this will prompt the Pentagon to put pool members in "safe and undemanding positions," which "should be unacceptable to news organizations for whom the only value of the pool is to report from 'the tip of the spear.' "
In his memo, Wood makes several proposals for revitalizing the pool, including additional orientation sessions by the Pentagon to familiarize inexperienced pool members with weapons, vehicles and battlefield survival tactics. Wood says he also suggested that the pool "rehearse all this regularly in tough, realistic exercises."
Some journalists disagree with Wood's characterization of the pool. CNN Washington Bureau Chief Bill Headline says, "We don't send people who are ill-equipped" to serve on the pool. He and other media executives insist their pool representatives were knowledgeable and well-prepared.
Daniel Glick of Newsweek is one of many reporters who object to the assumption that a correspondent without a great deal of experience will cause problems. Glick, a general assignment reporter, doesn't think he "was somehow failing the national pool" by not being "a Pentagon correspondent for the last 20 years... I come up to speed on stories all the time."
Some journalists also reject the idea that the Pentagon needs to provide more training for pool members, arguing instead that news organizations should be responsible for ensuring that correspondents have the knowledge and experience they need.
However, Andrew Schneider thinks editors should allow such training, because one excellent way for journalists to learn how the military works is to "get out to the field with them and spend a few days."
The Pentagon did deploy the pool to Guantanamo, the U.S. base on Cuba where Haitian and Cuban refugees are housed, several weeks before the operation in Haiti. Some journalists say the exercise didn't prepare them for Haiti because conditions were so different.
One pool member – Richard Serrano of the Los Angeles Times, who had never been on a deployment – didn't go to Guantanamo because he was trying to arrange to go to Haiti as a unilateral. After those arrangements fell through, he went with the pool and reported independently after the pool disbanded. But he doesn't think the Guantanamo deployment would have helped him.
"I'm not sure what I would have gotten out of it," he says. "I would have just been through an exercise where..you get on a ship or you get on a helicopter, you get off the helicopter and get on the ship, and you watch them do this and you watch them do that."
The debate about the media's responsibilities for pool coverage reflects a longstanding controversy about the tendency of some news organizations to send reporters with little knowledge about the armed forces to cover military operations. During the past three decades, this practice has made it more difficult for both institutions to do their job on the battlefield, according to military officers and experienced correspondents.
"In Vietnam, they sent over some really poor reporters" who didn't even know what a battalion was, says retired Army Maj. Gen. Winant Sidle, who was chief of information for the military in Saigon. Sidle was the head of the military-media panel that worked out the pool concept in the wake of controversy about the coverage of the 1983 invasion of Grenada, when the news media were barred from the fighting for two days.
When the national media pool was deployed during the invasion of Panama, news organizations sent several reporters "who were not experienced in military operations," including one "dressed in suspenders, tie and baseball cap," according to a U.S. Southern Command after-action report.
"A ground commander is going to be very reluctant to accept any added risk," the report states. "If he is presented a group dressed more for softball than field operations, he may refuse. Pool members may be willing to accept the risk, but the commander does not need additional risk factors added to his soldiers and their mission."
Journalists in the gulf war included "a fashion reporter dragged up from somewhere and a couple of food reporters," says Joseph L. Galloway, a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report who has covered military operations since the 1960s.
"There has to be some more responsibility on our part," says Galloway, coauthor of "We Were Soldiers Once...and Young," a 1993 bestseller about the Vietnam War.
Reporters who know little about military operations can endanger troops. Sidle says television news crews did this during Operation Desert Storm by reporting where SCUD missiles landed, thus providing important targeting information to the Iraqis. "I'm sure they didn't mean to give aid and comfort to the enemy, but they were. That was strictly ignorance," Sidle says.
The adage that "a good reporter should be able to cover any story" is only true if the reporter is "given the time to learn how it works," Schneider says.
He adds that editors are "doing a disservice to the reporter and to the readers or viewers" if they assign a reporter to any specialized beat without providing the opportunity to learn about the issues, terminology and personnel involved.
ýournalists point out that some mid-size news organizations have one reporter covering both the Pentagon and the State Department. Galloway says this reflects the attitude of many journalists that in terms of what's happening in the Defense Department, "nobody cares, really, until it looks like war. And then everybody cares. And then when the threat's over, nobody cares."
This leads to reporters showing up "ill-prepared, incompetent, not taking this role of reporting on the military seriously," says Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. James Callard, who served in the gulf war and teaches foreign policy courses at Fort Lewis College. "When this occurs – as it apparently did with the Haiti pool – it hurts efforts to preserve independent reporting in the field."
When news organizations send journalists who are not well prepared to cover military operations, says Callard, they "give field commanders – who are uncomfortable with reporters anyway – a real reason to say, 'Hey, look, let's just take our public affairs guy. He can contact the newspapers, the TV stations, even provide some video. We don't need to take the reporters with us.' "
Pentagon public affairs personnel learned during the gulf war how effective it could be to bypass the news media and take their message directly to the public through televised briefings.
In an interview after the war, Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, a Pentagon briefer, said that for the first time, "the American people were getting their information from the government, not the press." The White House and Pentagon were so pleased with the results – which included extraordinarily high public approval ratings for President George Bush and the military – that Kelly believed "the lesson for the future is that we should endeavor to do that more."
2ut the American people – and the military – suffer when the news media are unable to provide objective, informed reports from the field, journalists and armed forces personnel say.
"We need look back no further than the gulf war," says David Evans, a former Chicago Tribune military correspondent who spent 20 years in the Marine Corps, including three as a Defense Department analyst. During Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf's final press conference, "we were told that the door was slammed shut on Saddam Hussein's retreating Republican Guard divisions. What we're now discovering is that the door was not slammed shut."
Some journalists and military officers fear that the decision to send unprepared personnel to the Haiti pool might undermine the Clinton administration's support for more openness between the Pentagon and the press.
Clifford H. Bernath, principal deputy assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs, wants to allay those concerns, and says the military and the media must continue to discuss such issues.
"It is the case of everybody, people of good will, trying to make it work...," he says. "There are no villains in this, it is just competing interests." l ###