AJR  Features
From AJR,   March 2003

Preparing For War   

With time running out in Iraq, journalists underwent hostile-environment training, struggled to get into shape--and debated whether the Pentagon would keep its promises of greater openness during combat.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

An American soldier was writhing on the ground, his right hand holding a bloody stump. Screams echoed like shock waves through the hot zone that frigid December morning.

Four nervous reporters rushed to the fallen infantryman, offering frantic words of comfort as they worked to stop the bleeding. John Burnett of National Public Radio was part of the group faced with administering first aid until a medic arrived. He later reported on the exercise on "All Things Considered," with a background of gunfire and anguished cries.

Fortunately, this was merely a simulated combat wound, part of an unprecedented military boot camp designed by the Pentagon to help journalists prepare to cover modern warfare as a showdown with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein loomed.

Lethal biological agents, brutal urban combat and the noxious fumes of scorched oil fields could become reality for Burnett and hundreds of others on round-the-clock standby for Gulf War II.

Over the past two decades, journalists have chafed under tight restrictions for covering American military operations, a stark contrast to the much freer access of the Vietnam era. But as the seemingly inexorable run-up to war in Iraq played out, Defense Department officials were promising greater openness.

On January 14, the Pentagon held a briefing for more than 50 bureau chiefs in Washington, D.C., to spell out the parameters of journalists living side by side with combat troops in the epicenter of the hostilities. Under the plan, select reporters would be "embedded" in individual military units.

To prepare, reporters and photographers climbed ropes, crawled on their bellies, lifted weights and trekked for miles during rugged training offered by the Pentagon at places like Georgia's Fort Benning and Virginia's Quantico Marine Corps Base.

NPR's Burnett reported: "Our escorts for the week were mostly Army drill sergeants. They compared supervising correspondents to herding cats."

As the noose around Iraq tightened, news managers rushed to implement game plans in the Middle East. By mid-January, Jim Michaels, USA Today's deputy world editor, had set up a command post in Qatar for correspondents operating out of places like Bahrain, Turkey and Iraq. "We wanted to have an editor on the scene to coordinate," he said.

The tiny Arab nation quickly became home to CNN and other networks jostling for prime broadcast space.

Back home, editors waited and worried over the Pentagon's final decision on which media outlets would win the embedding game.

Sandy Johnson, the Associated Press' Washington bureau chief, laid out the best-case scenario: "The big pro would be that you'd get lucky and wind up with a unit that sees real action...that you would be the first Western journalist with the U.S. military" during a march into Baghdad.

The worst, she said, would be "that 'embeds' wind up in a blackout situation where they are not allowed to file until after everything is over. It is up to the local commander, and we did see that happen in the [first] gulf war," said Johnson, who directed coverage of that conflict in 1991.

Lives were on hold as reporters and photographers awaited the call to action. Some, like Terry Ganey of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, spent their time beefing up muscles and stamina for toting computers, satellite transmitters and video equipment on long desert treks. "I've been putting weights in a backpack and hiking a bit in the neighborhood," said Ganey, who attended the Pentagon's media boot camp at Fort Benning. Ganey, 54, who was preparing for his first war assignment, called the training "rigorous and challenging."

Getting into shape for harsh living conditions and hostile terrain became a priority for many correspondents. Sig Christenson was hiking at full speed back to the San Antonio Express-News after an hour-long session with a personal trainer, hired by the newspaper to help him prepare for the rigors of war coverage.

"We've had people ask, 'Are you going to keep up or make the military take care of you?' We're going to be able to take care of ourselves, and we are spending the time and the money to do it," he said. "We are going to get ourselves into condition where we can walk long distances without even a blink." Christenson was assigned to accompany Georgia's 3rd Infantry Division.

Some journalists traveled to the Middle East to document the buildup to war. Noelle Phillips, who created the military beat at the Savannah Morning News, covers the 17,000 soldiers and their families in the newspaper's circulation area. In November, she headed to Kuwait with photographer John Carrington to report on Operation Desert Spring, a training mission for the 3rd Infantry Division, deployed from a base near Savannah.

In January, she was back in Georgia. "I guess I've been dealing with the waiting game by going ahead with normal life here," said Phillips. She hung out with her boyfriend, attended her book club, walked her dogs and wrote daily stories about troop movements. "At the same time, always in the back of my mind, I am thinking about what I need to get done before I go, such as filing income taxes."

On January 24, Phillips' frustration reached a crescendo. "An example of how this is going and how difficult it is just happened a few minutes ago," she wrote in an e-mail message. "At first, the 3rd Infantry Division said no local media would be embedded with units leaving on this deployment. Then, they told us maybe. Yesterday, we were told to fax copies of our passports and visas to them. But they still weren't sure it was a go.

"Then, at 3:30 p.m. this afternoon, a Fort Stewart public affairs person called and said they were putting us on a plane Monday or Tuesday. As you can imagine, this drastic change is pretty tough. In 48 hours, I went from they're not taking us to maybe to get ready to go this weekend."

Phillips met with her executive editor, managing editor and team leader to figure out how to proceed. "Our big debate is: Go now [with the troops] and probably wait for weeks in the desert and save the airfare, hotel and other expenses? Or spend the money on our own and hold off sitting in the desert for weeks waiting to see what happens." The decision this time was to remain on hold.

During her earlier trip, the reporter spent five days on maneuvers with troops in the Kuwaiti desert. "It was no problem. The soldiers were polite. Sometimes they needed to turn their back so I could go to the bathroom," she recalled. "The younger soldiers would say, 'You're out here with us. That's so cool.' "

Correspondents already on duty in the gulf faced a different brand of angst. They complained about hanging around hotel rooms, waiting for the big story to break and about deep frustration with the Iraqi visa process. There appeared to be no rhyme or reason as to who was approved, or when.

The degree of paranoia among the press corps became evident when sources in Amman, Jordan, offered to provide insight into the scramble for visas on the condition their names not be used. They feared that public criticism of the Iraqi regime would slam the door on gaining admission.

One seasoned war correspondent noted, "Reporters often show up at the Iraqi embassy [in Amman] with booze and money for the press attaché. Nearly all of the hacks try to take him out to lunch, dinner or, at the very least, drinks at the bar at the Intercontinental Hotel, with the hopes he will help them get a visa." Journalists in Baghdad described a similar scenario. It was common for reporters to offer gifts to Iraqi bureaucrats to gain favor. Some alluded to the existence of an actual list--suits, dress shirts, leather shoes--of what some powerbrokers prefer.

It was common knowledge that visas could be obtained through a Jordanian fixer who has an "in" with the Iraqis. Her going rate: about $400. Members of the foreign press corps took to tipping their government minders in Baghdad from $50 to $100 a day. In return, the minders would write positive security reports and recommend reissuing visas. "Without the tip, it can be difficult," one reporter said. "The Iraqis have turned the visa process into a cottage industry."

Not all news managers scrambled to move staffers to the possible battle zone. Mark Silverman, publisher and editor of the Detroit News, had no plans to send local talent. "I would love to send people to Iraq to get stories if the stories would be as good as or better than something I could get from AP, USA Today, the Washington Post," he explained. "You send people into a war zone for two reasons: if you have the expertise that allows you to do meaningful coverage or if you have some good local ties." Silverman said he is against "an ego trip just to get a foreign dateline."

Steve Sweitzer, news operations manager at WISH-TV, a CBS affiliate in Indianapolis, took the same position. "We don't have the resources to cover the war. We see our charge as covering our backyard," he said. "If we could send a crew to cover Indiana troops, our interest would be much higher." The station will turn to CBS and CNN for coverage of frontline action.

In a Dow Jones Newswire column, Brian Steinberg wrote about the skyrocketing expenses--up to $1 million a day by some estimates--for TV networks to report from the scene. He wrote that the much-watched but grisly coverage drives away sponsors and their coveted revenue.

But CBS News spokeswoman Sandy Genelius said her network wouldn't be cutting back. "I would say to cover a war aggressively and thoroughly for our viewers is our most important mission," she said. "The last thing our corporate partners want to see is a soap opera on CBS when bombs are falling on Baghdad."

As the American media braced for war, one question lingered above all others: Is the Pentagon serious this time about providing unfettered access to America's fighting forces? Or will it be a replay of Afghanistan, when, on one occasion, journalists at a Marine base inside the country were locked in a warehouse to keep them from reporting on U.S. troops hit by friendly fire.

Pentagon officials used the January briefing in Washington to define "embedding for life" and to spell out the rules of coverage.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told the bureau chiefs: "Embedding means living, eating, moving in combat with the unit that you're attached to. If you decide to make the decision that you're no longer interested in the unit that you're with or you've covered them sufficiently, of course you can say, 'I want to try to retrograde back and leave the unit that I'm with.' But once you do that, there are no guarantees that you'll get another opportunity with that unit or necessarily even with another unit.... That's what I am talking about when I say [a reporter] 'embeds for life.' "

The notion of being stuck with one unit the entire time raised questions. Will the Pentagon pair journalists with troops most likely to see combat? Or will reporters be relegated to reserve battalions far from the action? One correspondent called it a crapshoot.

Another Pentagon rule: Each news outlet must have a single point of contact to serve as a go-between for the embedding process.

Victoria Clarke, the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, warned: "The only deals that get made on the embeds, for at least the initial phase as we're describing it, will be deals that are made here. If you have correspondents around the world saying to you, 'Don't worry about it, I've got it greased. I've got my colonel on such and such a ship who's told me I'm taken care of,' you need to get to him or her and say, 'It's not a deal.' "

According to the Pentagon, blackouts--situations in which journalists are forbidden to file--will be based on "operational security, success of the mission and safety of the people involved."

On PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," Jim Crawley, military reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune, called the Pentagon's promise of greater access "a baby step." He added, "[A]nd like baby steps, you know, it's a little uncertain. There's a little wobbling, there's a little bit of falling down here and there."

Controversy swirled around the unknowns of embedding. There was concern that journalists, dressed in combat-like gear, might look too much like fighters, making them targets for enemy troops. Some wondered if spending weeks eating, sleeping and moving with the same soldiers might instill an "I am one of them" attitude, eroding impartiality.

Jay DeFoore wrote in Photo District News about an incident that triggered similar fears. A United Press International reporter was photographed wearing full battle fatigues and holding an M-16 while a Marine gave her instructions during a Pentagon training session. After the photo ran in the International Herald Tribune, some boot campers worried that it would fuel suspicions that journalists were in collusion with the military.

Many were unconvinced that embedding will work. Mark Thompson, national security correspondent for Time magazine, was among the skeptics. "If there is a blackout with embedding, some guy from the BBC or Al Jazeera two miles over, who's not under the umbrella of the U.S. military, is going to do [the story] anyway," Thompson said. "If that happens, the American press is not going to sit still for it."

But San Antonio's Christenson said that bureau chiefs generally were optimistic that "we've had a turning point with the Pentagon, and that we're going to have very robust coverage of this war, on the scale of what we saw in Vietnam. But we don't know how this is going to work, and we're not going to know until we're out in the trenches with the troops."

USA Today's Michaels, a former Marine, saw the issue from both sides. "I think more than anything else, the Pentagon likes to control the flow of information," he said. "They don't want free-for-all chaos. But they have to understand the media is a free-enterprise operation that doesn't react well to centralized control."

John Hughes, editor of Salt Lake City's Deseret News and a veteran war reporter, predicted that if fighting breaks out in Iraq "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."

In an opinion piece headlined "War within a war: the press and the Pentagon," Hughes wrote: "In the Vietnam War, reporters enjoyed about as much freedom as possible to link up with front-line units, either South Vietnamese or American.... This led to a mass of 'rice-roots' reporting, sometimes negative, that the military brass did not welcome."

Meanwhile, new groups worked to achieve greater journalistic access.

Military Reporters and Editors (see Free Press, November) and the Belgium-based International News Safety Institute are approaching the DOD and other powerbrokers with a collective voice.

MRE--also an acronym for "meals ready to eat" in military lingo--had 130 members in 2002. In November, the first MRE conference drew an audience of 200, including officials from the DOD.

Christenson, one of MRE's founders, believes the American public wins when they can see a military force he describes as professional, very disciplined and highly motivated in action.

"The American people simply have been deprived of the opportunity to know so much more about what the armed forces do," said Christenson. "I want to stress that this is not about us versus the Pentagon. That's a stupid argument to get into."

Across the Atlantic, a coalition of more than 80 media companies, journalists and press freedom groups formed the News Safety Institute to strengthen the status of the media in conflict zones and push for greater access. The BBC, ABC, CNN, Reuters TV and Wall Street Journal Europe are among the members of the global network.

Aidan White, general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists and one of the organizers, wants the coalition to serve as a watchdog over censorship, the manipulation of media messages and other issues. "This is a hopeful, if not an impossibly optimistic, aim," White said, "but we intend to try."

On Friday, February 14, Noelle Phillips got the word: She'd be leaving for Kuwait the following week with the 3rd Infantry Division. She anticipated a weekend of packing and teaching her boyfriend how to pay her bills. She had picked the books she was taking--Carl Hiassen, Joseph Heller, Jack London, a couple of murder mysteries. But she still needed to choose what she'd be playing on her new portable CD player.

After all of the false starts, her gulf assignment was now a reality. "Mentally, let's think this is the last weekend," she said. "This is serious."