Major media executives and professional organizations have endorsed a new agreement with the Pentagon that outlines principles for wartime coverage as a step to assure more independent reporting. But many journalists are skeptical that the agreement will translate into more press freedom during the next conflict.
"There is a potential for a huge gap between prom-ises and performance," says Chicago Tribune reporter David Evans, who covered the Persian Gulf War.
The agreement is the result of months of negotiations that began after the media complained bitterly about restrictions imposed during the gulf war. Journalists trying to cover U.S. forces on the battlefield were confined to small groups, or pools, and escorted by armed forces personnel who reviewed all news dispatches before they were released. Journalists complained that some officers interfered with the reporting process or changed copy when they disapproved of the image it presented of the military. Reporters who attempted to work independently were detained by the U.S. armed forces.
Many journalists insist the restrictions went beyond what was needed to protect security and troop safety, and were designed, in part, to control public perceptions of the war.
America's most-decorated living soldier, retired Army Col. David H. Hackworth, who covered the conflict for Newsweek, called the restrictions a form of "thought control."
"We actually had two wars," Evans says. "The war as selectively presented [in] press conferences and on television, and the real war, that subsequent digging has uncovered."
Reports written after the war have shown that the Defense Department exaggerated the success of the Patriot and Tomahawk missiles, and did not reveal information about U.S. friendly-fire deaths.
Negotiator Stanley Cloud, Time's Washington bureau chief, says the new principles "undo much, but not all, of the system that existed prior to the gulf war that allowed the kind of massive controls the Pentagon imposed on the press during the gulf war."
The agreement says "open and independent reporting" will be the principal means of coverage, pools should be used only in limited situations, and escorts should not interfere with reporting.
But critics worry about several issues, including the failure of press and Pentagon representatives to agree on the need for security reviews of press reports. Media negotiators issued a statement saying that the press would "challenge" any attempt to initiate them. There is no consensus, however, about what such a challenge would involve.
The agreement also says journalists' credentials can be suspended if they violate Defense Department ground rules. But because those rules have not been written yet, skeptics believe there is, in Evans' words, "a real opening for mischief" by the Pentagon.
The agreement has no mechanism to force Pentagon compliance, although supporters hope that the media executives who endorsed it will have the clout to assure the government's adherence. Several media negotiators say the press must rely to some extent on the Pentagon's good faith, because journalists must abide by military decisions on the battlefield. "The Pentagon has guns and..the press does not," says Cloud.
Skeptics, however, say relying on the Defense Department's good intentions means ignoring its previous treatment of the media. "The Pentagon's word cannot be taken," says Newsday's Patrick Sloyan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the gulf war. He and others point to the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada, when media personnel were barred from covering the fighting for two days, and the 1989 invasion of Panama, when the Defense Department deployed the national media pool too late to cover the initial stages of the conflict.
Critics also worry that the Pentagon has little incentive to abide by the agreement. A majority of Americans polled during Operation Desert Storm supported media restrictions, and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Pete Williams wrote in an op-ed piece after the war, "The press gave the American people the best war coverage they ever had."