Defense Department officials said yesterday they would soften proposed restrictions on combat coverage in the Persian Gulf after nearly 50 news executives complained at a heated meeting that the rules amount to censorship.
Six pages of rules, released Thursday in Saudi Arabia, would require reporters accompanying military units in special combat "pools" to submit all stories for "security review." If reporters and field commanders could not agree on disputed material, it would be forwarded to Washington for a decision.
The proposed rules would bar pool reporters from conducting surprise "ambush" interviews with military officials that have not been previously cleared by defense spokesmen. They would ban television coverage of "personnel in agony or severe shock" or "imagery of patients suffering from severe disfigurement."
The rules would also allow commanders to "medically evacuate" journalists they deem physically unfit. Coverage of religious services in Saudi Arabia would also be prohibited.
Other restrictions, some of which are standard in wartime, would bar reporters from disclosing geographic locations, security precautions, information on downed aircraft and ships, enemy tactics and the number of troops, aircraft, tanks, trucks and radars.
"We're professionals -- we know our job -- and we're also Americans," Andrew Glass, Washington bureau chief for Cox Newspapers, recalled saying at the meeting. "You don't need to propose prior restraints and security reviews. . . . It's absolutely clear what they're trying to do is control it from top to bottom."
Pete Williams, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, was "very receptive" to the criticism, said Jack Nelson, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. He said Williams promised to consult top military officials and propose revised rules Monday.
"We're not talking about censorship. . . . We're not trying to muzzle the press or keep them from saying bad things about the operation," Williams said last night on Cable News Network. He called the rules "a proposal for discussion" and said restrictions on photographing casualties were meant "to protect the privacy of soliders" and allow next of kin to be notified.
A dispute between the media and the military has been simmering for months as major news organizations have attempted to ensure that their reporters would not be denied access to the front lines if U.S. and allied troops go to war against Iraq.
The Pentagon has agreed to provide transportation, chemical warfare suits and other gear to two 18-member news pools that would be ferried to the front lines. The pools will represent newspapers, wire services, television, radio and news magazines.
Meetings between Williams and news executives began in October after media complaints that the Pentagon had made no plans for reporters to cover hostilities in the gulf. Media officials say they want to avoid a repeat of the early stages of the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, when promised access to front-line combat never materialized.
"We felt we were heading toward a disaster in the sense of another Grenada, another Panama, where the press was kept from covering the opening stages of combat, and we simply were not going to stand for that," said Michael Getler, The Washington Post's assistant managing editor for foreign news.
In a letter last month to Williams, Getler called an earlier, less sweeping set of proposed restrictions "wildly excessive," adding that reporters "will be subject to essentially unlimited censorship by a battalion of public affairs officers."
Getler said yesterday the consensus among the news executives was that "the rules and encumbrances to reporting have gotten totally out of whack. . . . This is a prescription for censorship."
But he quoted Williams as saying that in an era of instantaneous satellite transmission, "How do you assure commanders that nothing will be reported that jeopardizes their operations and the lives of their men?"
There was no official censorship of field reports during the Vietnam War, although correspondents followed general guidelines designed to protect the safety of military operations. But reporters who once hitchhiked rides on U.S. helicopters in Vietnam will be far more dependent on the military for access in the vast Saudi Arabian desert.
"In the end, they're going to do what they want to do," Nelson said.
Jeff Gralnick, an ABC News vice president, said expectations that the war will be covered "live" are overblown, because satellite transmission facilities are in Riyadh and Dharan, Saudi Arabia, while the combat is likely to be hundreds of miles across the desert.
"Everyone in your end of the business asks, 'Are we finally going to see the war live?' This is not a Nintendo game. This is going to be 1 million troops facing off," Gralnick said.