As the U.S. military gets into position for war, news organizations are getting into position to cover it. For both institutions, not to mention the rest of us, this is a very big deal. Many news outlets have reported on the media's preparations and on the Defense Department's plan for about 500 reporters and photographers to be taken along, or "embedded," as the Pentagon describes it, with U.S. forces. The Post did one preliminary story back in January, but without much detail, so here's the latest scoop.
Early in February, the Pentagon produced new policy "guidance," nine pages of it, that says "the media will have long-term, minimally restrictive access" to U.S. military forces for coverage of future operations "through embedding." This means that reporters and photographers will be assigned to, and will travel with, individual units for weeks or months at a time. "Commanders will ensure the media are provided with every opportunity to observe actual combat operations," the guidance says. The media will be able to use their own communications equipment, and the guidance lays out the process, if necessary, for quickly reviewing possibly sensitive material on the spot. Reporters, as is usual, are expected to abide by clear security guidelines with respect to what should not be divulged.
The guidance is extremely detailed (The Post should do a story about it and analyze how it differs from previous guidance) and the fine print is crucial, because it could shut down coverage at critical moments. The real test will come if combat begins and if things go wrong. On paper, the new guidance seems to be a step forward -- in terms of access and timely transmission of reporting -- from the restrictive policies and tactics the Pentagon has employed in every conflict since Vietnam. The guidance leaves a lot of discretion to individual unit commanders. But what will probably be more important, and will affect the decisions commanders make in the field, are the vibrations about news coverage given off by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the top military commander, Gen. Tommy R. Franks, once fighting begins. Both take a hard-nosed view of revealing anything that doesn't come from behind a lectern.
The guidance makes clear the Pentagon is in a battle for public opinion at a time when there are many sources of broadcast information, both global and in the Persian Gulf region itself. "Our ultimate strategic success in bringing peace and security to this region will come in our long-term commitment to supporting our democratic ideas. We need to tell the factual story -- good or bad -- before others seed the media with disinformation and distortions, as they most certainly will continue to do," it says.
Here at The Post, the buildup is also massive, expensive, high-tech and, well, heavy. In Vietnam, newspaper reporters jumped aboard helicopters with a notebook, a pen, maybe a 35mm camera and maybe a small Olivetti portable typewriter, if it wasn't left behind in a bureau or hotel, where the telephone and telex machine provided the links with the home office. Now reporters carry a laptop computer, a satellite telephone about twice the size of a laptop (sometimes with direct Internet access and the capability to transmit photos), a digital camera, extra batteries and cables, a Global Positioning System device, a tape recorder, body armor, a helmet, and a chemical and biological weapons protective suit with boots, gloves, mask and filters. That's not counting underwear.
About two dozen Post reporters and foreign correspondents, four Post photographers and a "videographer" from The Post's Web site are in or heading toward the war zone. Many have undergone a week of "hostile environment training" by military or private trainers in the United States or Britain. About 10 reporters will be embedded with military units. Others will be in Iraq and surrounding countries and will be able to move more independently. In the past, it is these roving journalists who have managed to bring to readers those aspects of warfare that might otherwise go unreported. And, as in the past, it will turn out mostly to be not so much a matter of equipment -- but more a matter of individual wits, resourcefulness, experience, courage and luck -- that will tell the story.
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at (202) 334-7582 or by e-mail at email@example.com.