Carol Morello, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, was aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier when it was announced over a loudspeaker that the Persian Gulf War had begun. Pilots on board started cheering and giving each other high-fives. But Morello said she and other reporters were quickly hustled below by their U.S. military escort.
"He rounded us up in this little room for that first crucial hour," Morello said. "I tried begging, I tried arguing, I tried banging my head against the wall. I said, 'History is being made.' By the time we got out, that initial euphoria had died down."
Journalists and military officials in the gulf have engaged in a series of low-level skirmishes over the Defense Department's restrictions on media coverage. Reporters in combat pools must submit stories for "security review," and military escorts must accompany all reporters in the region.
Some reporters say the censors have limited their access, changed phrases, deleted facts and refused to approve dispatches until they were old news. For example:
New York Times reporter Malcolm W. Browne said officers told him that U.S. air strikes had destroyed much of Iraq's nuclear capability but that a unit commander blocked his pool report, saying it would aid Iraqi intelligence. Defense officials later disclosed the same information at a press news briefing. "The Pentagon is clearly eager to be the first to report the most newsworthy information," Browne wrote.
Peter Copeland, a Scripps-Howard reporter, said military officials delayed his reporting with Saudi pilots for 53 hours. "The worst nightmare for a journalist is to have a great story and not be able to tell it," he told Knight-Ridder Newspapers.
Frank Bruni of the Detroit Free Press said he filed a story describing returning pilots as "giddy" but that a military censor changed the word to "proud."
Pilots aboard the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy told an Associated Press reporter that they had been watching pornographic movies before flying bombing missions, according to Morello. She said the censor deleted the information, saying it "would be too embarrassing" and also excised one pilot's use of an obscenity.
A New York Times pool dispatch reported "stealth" bombers striking Baghdad on the war's first day, but military officials referred the article to "stealth" headquarters in Nevada for review. The news was stale by the time it was cleared a day later.
Defense Department spokesman Pete Williams has maintained that the rules are meant to protect U.S. forces. In any event, he said, news organizations make the final decision on what to publish or broadcast. But news executives say the process is so cumbersome that important news is delayed and note that the department can revoke the credentials of offending reporters.
A senior military official said some reporters had inadvertently disclosed sensitive information. One television report, he said, described how a French unit was moving parallel to an American unit. "It tells the battle guys on the other side how we're lining up," he said.
Public sympathy for the media's complaints appears limited. Many people complain that aggressive reporting is harming the war effort. "I don't know why you're so intent on proving massive failures of some kind," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told reporters Wednesday.
A survey by Frank Magid Associates found that 24 percent of those polled believe that the media has too much freedom, 17 percent said the restrictions should be eased and 54 percent said the rules were about right.
Thirteen publications and writers, including the Village Voice, the Nation, Harper's and authors William Styron and E.L. Doctorow, have sued the Defense Department, charging that the rules are unconstitutional. Fifteen members of Congress, led by Rep. Bruce F. Vento (D-Minn.), criticized the restrictions in a letter to Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney.
Correspondents also must contend with Saudi and Israeli censorship. After an Iraqi missile attack yesterday, Cable News Network's Gary Strieker said from Tel Aviv, "We're awaiting word from the censors on what we can say."
Some reporters are pleased with the U.S. pool arrangements, saying military officials have cleared more than 200 pool reports with few incidents. "Most of us are amazed by how much they're letting get through," said Molly Moore, a Washington Post staff writer in Saudi Arabia.
But Morello said that, on the USS Kennedy, her stories were subjected to "a triple review" by her military escort, the ship's public affairs officer and the commanding officer. "The only way you can appeal is to hold up your story for days if not weeks," she said.
"This is a total, complete news blackout," said Ron Nessen, vice president of Mutual Broadcasting System and a former White House press secretary. "We've seen airplanes taking off and airplanes landing, and occasionally they bring a pilot out to talk about his adventures."
Nessen, a former NBC correspondent in Vietnam, said military officials believe that negative coverage of the Vietnam War undermined public support at home, and "they've just decided they're not going to let that happen again."
Newsday reporter Patrick Sloyan said he would not join a military pool because he did not want "a flack hanging over my back intimidating the guy I'm talking to. I think the pools are a trap. They'll take you only where they want to go, let you see what they want you to see."