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War In Iraq Special Report
War In Iraq Transcripts
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Live Online Transcripts

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War In Iraq: Military & The Press
With Jay Coupe
President, Coupe Associates

Wednesday, March 26, 2003; 1 p.m. ET

The U.S. military's high-tech, $1.5 million briefing center in Central Command headquarters in Qatar was used for the first time on Saturday for a press briefing by Gen. Tommy Franks. The new briefing center and unprecedented number of "embedded journalists" traveling with U.S. forces have changed the tone of military cooperation with the press.

Jay Coupe, a former Captain in the U.S. Navy, has been involved in handling press relations and providing public affairs counseling in numerous international crises, including the shootdown of the Iran Air flight in the Persian Gulf, the bombing of the Marine Barracks in Beirut, and the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam.

Coupe was online Wednesday, March 26 at 1 p.m. ET, to answer questions about the give-and-take between military officials and the press.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Bronx, N.Y.: Sir,

I witnessed the daily U.S. military briefing in Qatar this morning on television. The general conducting the press conference was peppered by questions, even from American reporters, about the lack of military in being forthcoming about information. In particular, many criticized the general for showing the same video clips of American missiles hitting their targets, while not showing or giving any information of missiles missing their targets. The general avoided such questions to the point his briefing seemed more like propaganda. When is this going to change?

Jay Coupe: Let’s be honest. No organization, be it the military or an international business or an American embassy abroad, is going to focus on the bad news of its operations. That should come as no surprise to anyone. The important fact is that there are journalists present to challenge what is said. That’s what independent journalism is all about. You can bet that those sorts of challenges are never made in any press conference held by the Iraqi Government. And therein lies the difference.

Frederick, Md.: I am working on a departmental honors on this subject and have just one question for you: How do you believe wartime coverage should be handled -- embed, unilateral or no access -- and why?

Jay Coupe: I have been involved in virtually all elements of wartime media coverage during my military career. In Vietnam, journalists were relatively free to travel with our troops. However, the absence of wireless computers and cellphones limited how they got their stories reported. The legendary “Five O’Clock Follies” news briefings in Saigon provided most of the overall view of the progress (or lack of it) in the war. Clearly, the present plan of “embedded” media with the fighting forces provides the greatest access to military information to the media. It is an entirely different approach than that of “Desert Storm,” when there was little press access to actual combat situations. While I applaud the decision to “open up” the military action to press coverage and scrutiny, I believe that there must be a balance achieved. The average American watching the networks cover the action is exposed to a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs—we captured 1,000 Iraqi prisoners, we lost a helicopter, the population of Basra welcomes us, we had five US soldiers captured. This becomes confusing and depressing to many viewers. It provides almost too much information for the civilian audience on a 24-hour basis.

Harrisburg, Pa.: At first I avoided asking this question, because I didn't wish to draw attention to it. Yet, I have now heard several times on television commentators discuss how the black smoke that Iraq is burning to try and confuse missile attacks on Baghdad will not work because our updated weapons are not affected by the smoke, unlike some missiles during Desert Storm. When I first heard this, which was mentioned while Iraqis were digging the hole before the war started, I was stunned. Why is potentially sensitive military information being made public, especially when it seemed Iraq was unaware of this (for if they were, they wouldn't be wasting their time digging the holes and subsequently burning the oil to create the smoke). Am I wrong, or should information such as this not been made public?

Jay Coupe: The protection of our forces should be an overriding consideration in granting media access to military action. I am convinced that virtually every American journalist in the field understands and respects that requirement. However, the fact remains that foreign journalists are also embedded with some of our troops. I believe that the field commanders are giving explicit direction to journalists as to what they can and cannot report. This remains a matter of concern and we cannot permit our security in the field to be compromised in any way.

Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: At these morning {EST] conferences in new the "big tent," foreign correspondents don't seem to be as cowed by the stars and bars on the stage as do the American reporters. The Americans ask the predictable and though some of the foreigners [Chinese, Iraqi, French] ask the usual party line stuff, they at least muster some sense of independence. Do the American reporters feel they're threatening their chow bag by showing some spine? What used to be hardball questioning back in my day [college/Navy during Vietnam] has been replaced by these sickeningly-sweeet puff pastry sessions. It may please military press handlers but a coolie press doesn't serve democracy, not in the long run. Thanks much.

Jay Coupe: I must admit that I never have encountered any “puff pastry” American journalists. And I believe that they are not worried about upsetting the military with frank questions or threatening their “chow bags” by being tough. Please remember that Ted Koppel is over there and no one has ever suggested that he is a piece of cake.

Washington, D.C.: I thought that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld didn't like the media. Why would he open up our fighting units in Iraq to the intense scrutiny of embedded journalists?

Jay Coupe: Secretary Don Rumsfeld is the most experienced person ever to hold the Defense position, having served more than 25 years ago under President Ford. He is forthright and frank and has expressed his views very directly. His decision to open up this conflict to the close coverage of embedded journalists gives lie to any suggestion that he is anti-media. The truth is that he and Torie Clarke, his Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, have cooperated with the media in an unprecedented way in bringing full coverage of this war to the American public

Beverly Hills, Ca: Why is Barry McCaffery making "Second Guess" statements? Could it be because he is a Clinton Democrat? As I remember he was Clinton's Drug Czar. His war is either lost or still going on.

Jay Coupe: General McCaffery had a very distinguished military career and now provides on-air commentary on the war in Iraq. Not every former military leader will agree with every military actions taken in subsequent conflicts. I do not see this as a political issue. It is, rather, a difference of opinion on how best to conduct a war. The fact that a former military leader disagrees with some aspects of a campaign should come as no surprise to anyone who knows the senior leadership. While they are all patriotic Americans, they do not necessarily agree on every element of combat action.

Athens, Ga.: Two questions:

1. When U.S. forces eventually occupy Baghdad, how do you believe media coverage on the ground in the city will be affected?

2. Has there been disparate treatment (access, responding to questions, etc.) by the U.S. military of reporters depending on their country of origin and their network affiliation?

Jay Coupe: I believe that the media coverage of an occupied Baghdad will be less frenetic than what we are seeing now. Obviously, the military advance of our forces under combat is going to garner more media attention than will the occupation and our peacekeeping efforts in Baghdad. As for any “disparate treatment” of journalists, I do not believe that this is a major issue for the military. The Al Jazeera network is covering our operations, as is Abu Dhabi Television. As long as journalists, of whatever nationality, abide by the restrictions on divulging material that might put our troops in danger, I do not believe that there will be any special restrictions on them.

Rockville, Md.: How do we ensure that the information reported, however trivial it may seem, does not lead to compromising the security of our military? For example, "we are one day away from.."

Jay Coupe: The security of our forces in the field is the overriding concern of the military commanders leading them. There must be specific guidance given to journalists to ensure that they understand the importance of this issue and we should not hesitate to restrict media access if this rule is broken. Frankly, the problem with the non-stop, 24-hour coverage of virtually every aspect of our military actions in Iraq will inevitably lead to some indiscreet coverage that will compromise security in some way. The field commanders must watch this carefully.

Wheaton, Md.: Does the average reporter seem supportive of the war or do they look for fault and reasons to criticize?

Jay Coupe: I believe that the journalists covering the war attempt to be objective. That doesn’t always mean that they appear supportive but, after all, that is not their role. They provide the independent information to the American public about what is going on and the overwhelming majority do it in an honest and forthright manner. Naturally, there are occasional criticisms expressed about some actions. However, those criticisms are not limited to coming from journalists. There are many officials within the Government who might express the same concerns.

Portland, Ore.: I was struck by reporter's questions to Secretary Rumsfeld about insufficient numbers of U.S. troops in the country leading to problems of protecting rear echelon support, supply lines, etc. Now we're hearing that the battle for Baghdad will be delayed to address these problems in the south.

I certainly don't expect any civilian or military leader to be candid about this during war, so I fully expect them to say they thought of everything and we have enough troops (as Rumsfeld did say).

I'm just wondering how will we know if our leaders realized they did make a mistake and we do need more forces in country? Will that trickle out to the press by lower ranking officers off the record? And as a former PR guy, how would you "manage" a potential problem like this, where the idea of a "plan" has to be changed?

Jay Coupe: I will never forget the description of war expressed by my former boss, Admiral Bill Crowe, who was then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said, “War is not neat and it’s not tidy. Plans have to change in the middle of it and people die. There are no simple solutions once you enter into the fray.” So, of course, there will be changes in our strategy in the course of this conflict and those changes will become apparent to everyone both in and out of the military. In terms of “managing” the public relations side of this, the best strategy has always been candor and forthrightness.

Tacoma, Wash.: Why do we only have only one heavy infantry division in the region? Where is the 4th infantry division? Lousy planning on the part of top brass.

Jay Coupe: You're talking with a former Naval person. I will defer to General Wes Clark for comments on the need for a heavy infantry division.

Evanston, Ill.: I believe the "embedded reporter" concept is an unbridled and dangerous PR coup for the Pentagon. I believe this for many reasons but I'll limit my skepticism to one area and propose a scenario for your comments:

You are an embedded reporter and your Jeep driver unethically/illegally/impetously kills some civilians (from inexperience and nerves, for uncontrolled retribution r.e. comrades of his killed/wounded, etc). You are now in a battle zone and are 100 percent dependent on that driver for days after that incident to literally "tell you when and where to duck." I can't imagine you writing a timely and truthful report on this. Doesn't your simple common sense tell you that the public will have the truth hidden because of this controlled symbiosis inherent in the "embedded" mechanism? Thanks.

Jay Coupe: I don’t believe that a journalist would hide the truth because of his need for his driver to continue to ferry him around. And I reject the idea that the “embedded” mechanism would lead to such outrageous failure to live up to moral standards. I know that it is easy to become skeptical of journalists, but I believe that your suggested scenario is way over the top.

Washington, D.C.: Could this war become a quagmire that lasts as long as Vietnam?

Jay Coupe: There is no way that our campaign in Iraq will extend as long as the "quagmire" in Vietnam did. I have no doubt that the battle will be over relatively quickly--perhaps not in days or weeks, but quickly. The real issue is how long the process of rebuilding the country will take, both from a structural and a political point of view. We have to be prepared to face a scenario that requires an American presence in Iraq long beyond the last shot that is fired.

Austin, Tex.: Your comment about the lack of journalists asking tough questions of the Iraqi leadership is a point well taken. The military seems to be trying very hard to be as honest and forthcoming as circumstances permit.

However, please permit me a comment about some of the super-hawks outside the government. I have serious doubts about the wisdom of this war, but I won't be out protesting while American troops are fighting on my behalf. However, some people, including some of your questioners, aren't satisfied with this attitude. They seem to want absolute, blind obedience from everyone. They can't even accept that a retired general might talk about strategy, or that reporters might ask about problems. That's more in line with what happens in Baghdad. There's dissent, and then there's dissent. A fair comment?

Jay Coupe: I appreciate your comments and especially your support of our troops, even though you question the military action. The entire idea of press freedom in this country is that journalists are permitted to ask tough questions of the Government and to be skeptical of some of the responses. In a very real way, that is why millions of Americans have fought to preserve our democracy and to ensure our freedom. Your comment is both fair and appropriate.

Washington, D.C.: Is it for tactical cover-of-night reasons or because it looks better on TV that the initial attacks occurred at night?

Jay Coupe: I don't believe that General Tommy Franks of the U.S. Central Command was thinking about how the attacks on Baghdad would look on television. Nighttime attacks are much safer for our aircraft.

Princeton, N.J.: How many Hermes ties do you have?

Jay Coupe: I wish I could count that high!

Corona, Calif.: Doesn't embedded journalism violate journalistic ethnics? It has to by it's very nature make the journalist lack independence.

Jay Coupe: Journalistic ethics apply, whether journalists are embedded or not. In all my years of dealing with the media, I have met few, if any, journalists who lacked independence.

Munich, Germany: I would like to make a question on what I have seen on German television some days ago:

German television showed the the first American prisoners of war, how they were were interviewed and identified by a reporter. Indeed, it was not one single but several different channels that showed these scenes. Then I got to know that these pictures were not shown on American television because filming and identifying singular prisoners of war is against the Geneva convention.

So, how the situation is in the U.S.? Do the American people have the chance to see or read of these prisoners of war, do they get informed of their identities or is there a complete lack of concrete personal information and is the information reduced on the fact that there are several unidentified prisoners of war?

Jay Coupe: The concern about showing pictures of Prisoners of War centered on the Geneva Convention. There was also a concern that their families would see those pictures on television before they had been notified. The information about POWs is eventually released, but not until families are aware of the situation.

Jay Coupe: I have been in the public affairs business for most of my life, both in and out of the Government. I have always been a strong proponent of giving full access to the media and in dealing with them in an open and honest way. Journalists act as independent witnesses to history and they provide unvarnished information about the actions of our Government. With the exception of any compromise of national security or the safety of our troops, I believe that our policy should always err on the side of more, not less, information being provided. The Department of Defense has taken an important step in this direction with the “embedded journalist” principle. While there are occasional downsides to any such major policy change, it is a positive development in the long campaign to strengthen the public’s right to know about the actions of its Government. Thanks for participating in this discussion.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company