By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 25, 2009
Tensions between journalists and military officials are nothing new. But a bitter series of clashes between a top Navy spokesman and a Miami Herald military reporter reached a new, eye-opening level this week.
In a letter to the paper's editor, Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon accused Carol Rosenberg of "multiple incidents of abusive and degrading comments of an explicitly sexual nature." Gordon, who deals primarily with the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison, said in the letter that this was a "formal sexual harassment complaint" and asked the Herald for a "thorough investigation."
"Her behavior has been so atrocious over the years," Gordon said in an interview. "I've been abused worse than the detainees have been abused."
Herald Executive Editor Anders Gyllenhaal said Friday that "obviously we're trying to sort this out. We're not going to talk about a personnel matter like this until we figure out what it's all about." Rosenberg, who declined to comment Friday, is described by other journalists as a seasoned reporter who pushes hard for access and answers.
The extraordinary complaint shines a light on the sometimes bruising battles between journalists, who sometimes must scratch and claw for information, and government officials, who attempt just as tenaciously to control information provided to news organizations. This cultural clash can be especially stark on military matters.
Gordon, 41, detailed a number of "vile and repulsive comments" he attributed to Rosenberg, stretching back to last summer. In the July 22 letter, Gordon alleges that:
-- While watching Sept. 11, 2001, co-defendant Mustafa al-Hawsawi seated on a pillow in court last year, Rosenberg told Gordon: "Have you ever had a red hot poker shoved up your [butt]? Have you ever had a broomstick shoved up your [butt]? . . . How would you know how it feels if it never happened to you? Admit it, you liked it."
-- When Gordon emerged from a shower facility in shorts and a towel last year, Rosenberg said to him and more than a dozen journalists and soldiers nearby: "Seeing him topless in tent city was the most repulsive sight I've ever seen in my life. I wanted to vomit."
-- After dealing with a Gordon intern whom she described as "your little chick with the hot pants," Rosenberg told Gordon, earlier this month, in the presence of others: "I know you're hot for your interns and bring them down as your 'companions,' but seriously, if I'm going to do their work anyway, what purpose do they serve? (Carol knows my intern last year was a male, therefore another inference that I was gay.)"
In addition, the letter alleged, Rosenberg "routinely labeled my colleagues in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Justice Department, as well as her peers in the press, as 'bitches,' 'stupid,' 'lazy,' 'incompetent,' 'Nazis,' 'Saddam Hussein-like,' etc." Gordon works for Defense Secretary Robert Gates and said he consulted department lawyers in drafting the letter.
One friend, Los Angeles Times reporter Carol Williams, dismissed the letter, saying, "This is an attempt to discredit a journalist who has managed to transcend incredible odds to cover a story of tremendous significance to the American public."
Rosenberg's coverage of Guantanamo, its terrorism trials and its suicides has been sustained and highly detailed. She has written about a prisoner so afraid of returning to his native Tajikistan that he is asking to stay at the prison in Cuba. She has written about how bottled water there is kept chilled in a 3,470-pound shipping refrigerator meant for the dead. And last year she wrote about one general attacking another as "abusive, bullying, unprofessional" in a dispute over trial tactics at the war court.
Jamie McIntyre, a former CNN Pentagon correspondent, said of Rosenberg's interactions with Gordon: "I didn't think there was any sort of sexual abuse, unless you're telling me a naval officer, a sailor, isn't used to hearing anatomical references in anger. It sounds like an overreaction on everybody's part." He said Rosenberg "was always professional in her demeanor when I was around her."
In the letter, Gordon said Rosenberg told him, in reference to housing for McIntyre and other journalists during a Gitmo trip: "You're kissing his [butt] so much that I can't believe you're letting him stay with the rest of us. Do you love him?" McIntyre said he did not hear the comments, but that others later repeated them to him.
Jerry Markon, a Washington Post reporter who spent a month at Guantanamo last year, said he saw "some fairly heated arguments" between Rosenberg and Gordon: "The tension between them was palpable. Carol is a very good reporter and she's very aggressive. She's constantly pushing the envelope, pushing the military to get as much access as possible. . . . Gordon seemed very frustrated by her approach, thought she was obstinate, thought she was difficult."
Josh White, a Post reporter who previously covered the Pentagon, said that Rosenberg "would treat [Gordon] and others in an aggressive, sometimes demeaning way. It's hard for me to say whether it was abusive or harassment."
Another Pentagon official, who declined to be identified describing his dealings with the press, said that Rosenberg complained at Gitmo that the U.S. military escorts dealing with reporters reminded her of Iraqi minders in Baghdad. "She said we were no different than Nazis," this official said.
Rosenberg, who graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1982, reported from the Middle East and from Washington in the 1980s and 1990s. Now based in Miami, she has been a Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University and has appeared on PBS's "NewsHour."
In his letter this week, Gordon said he appreciated Gyllenhaal's efforts last July, after a previous complaint to the Herald, "to correct Carol Rosenberg's patently offensive conduct," but was "disappointed that the results were merely temporary."
Gordon said in the interview that he spoke to Gyllenhaal by phone for 30 minutes Friday and is "satisfied" that the editor will look into his complaint. Gordon, a career officer who joined the secretary's office under Donald Rumsfeld in 2005, is retiring early next year, an exit date that may help explain the unusually harsh nature of his complaint against a journalist.