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The Troubled Path to the Pentagon's Rules on Media Access to the Battlefield: Grenada to Today

Authored by Dr. Pascale Combelles-Siegel. | May 1996

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SUMMARY

Since Grenada, the question of media access to the battlefield has regularly generated some form of controversy between the press and the military, as journalists and editors regularly complained about military control over information. After each major operation, the Pentagon conducted a review of military-media relations and tried to institutionalize (then to improve) a viable system for granting access to the battlefield: the Department of Defense News Media Pool (DoDNMP).

This arrangement, however, has not satisfied the media. First, the DoDNMP appeared to journalists as a convenient means to limit (rather than grant) media access to the battlefield. Second, the pool concept has proved to be cumbersome in terms of logistics and has limited journalists' ability to react to events. These drawbacks were particularly evident in the Gulf War. CENTCOM used the pool system to control the large number of journalists but did not provide adequate logistical support to ensure timely transmission of pool products. After the war, and for the first time, the media--as an institution--demanded to be part of a review process. Beginning in September 1991, a group of five media representatives and the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs (Pete Williams) began to meet to elaborate new and common ground rules for media coverage of combat operations. In May 1992, after 8 months of negotiations, the Pentagon announced the first "agreement on war coverage guidelines." The agreement soon became a DoD regulation and is now the basis for drafting the first Joint Doctrine for Public Affairs.

Both the military and the media greeted the 1992 rules as opening a new era in military-media relations. Written to avoid the problems that emerged in the Gulf War, the 1992 agreement and the draft directive propose some important changes to the procedures implemented in the past decade. The two main achievements of these new rules consist in abolishing the principle of exclusive pool coverage as a standard means for granting access and in replacing the process of security review by the process of security at the source to protect operational security. Without diminishing the value of those improvements, the rules and the draft policy have serious shortcomings. These include several important questions, such as numerical limitation on reporters assigned to cover military operations; live coverage of battlefield operations; multinational media access to U.S. military operations; and media access to multinational operations. Failure to address these issues might invalidate the progress contained in the 1992 agreement and to be promulgated in the draft DoD directive.

Conclusions and Recommendations.

The 1992 agreement and the current draft instruction have already produced significant results. For the first time, media organizations have worked together to defend what they view as their collective rights and presented a set of standards that many believe should govern coverage of U.S. military operations. Until 1992, the media had been unwilling and/or unable to take such a step. As AP's Wolman noted, the media has a deep-rooted reluctance for acting together: "We are all competitors and we don't meet in committee as a natural state of affairs. That group came together literally in crisis over the outrageous combat coverage conditions set in the Gulf War, but we don't pretend to be an everyday committee. Most of our organizations are proud and insistent to stand up for themselves under most circumstances."112 For once, the various organizations spoke with one voice. For the first time, the media and the military have agreed on a general set of principles. Both parties now have at their disposal a tool to judge and measure the other's actions: its commitment to the rules agreed upon or its failure to abide by them. For the first time, finally, the military-media controversy has led to the development of a comprehensive policy on media access to the battlefield. Long-time observers of the controversy will note that the principles agreed upon in 1992 were not so different from the principles proposed about 10 years ago by the Sidle commission. Ten years of recurring controversy and three major conflicts (Grenada, Panama and the Gulf War) have been needed to move these from recommendations to policy statement. This should be viewed as a first positive step. It should not be considered an achievement, as the only policy documents that will ultimately matter for the future are the draft instruction and the joint public affairs doctrine that should be promulgated sometime in 1996.

Some gray areas remain, as the draft instruction departs from the 1992 agreement between the Pentagon and the media, at least in two areas. First, the current draft instruction does not set any limitations on the use of pools and leaves it to the CINCs to decide whether circumstances are appropriate or not to resort to pools. But the draft instruction provisions leave the door largely open to using pools as a way to limit and not to grant access. It leaves the commander with only the pool option to limit press access if too many reporters want to take a trip to war. In the current environment, however, commanders have not set up pools to restrict access, but either to grant access to activities that the press would not otherwise witness (the planned invasion of Haiti in 1994 and UNITED SHIELD in March 1995) or to ensure protection of journalists at the request of the press (Somalia, October 1993) . Those experiences, though limited in time and scope, could help shape a new attitude among commanders regarding the use of pools, even in large-scale combat operations. However, the draft doctrine leaves the door open for far more restrictive arrangements. Second, the current draft instruction neither subscribes to nor rejects the possibility of media people carrying and operating their own communication devices on the battlefield. In the current environment, this is already done. In Haiti and in Somalia, media organizations operated their own devices. However, it is unclear that commanders would agree to let the press use them in situations where electromagnetic signals matter (such as in the Gulf War.)

Finally, neither the 1992 agreement nor the draft instruction take into account some very important issues that need at least to be explored as possible alternate remedies to the recurrent problems.

Numerical Limitation. The military and the media should agree on a numerical limitation on reporters assigned to cover combat operations. Such a limitation will serve both the military and the media's interests. It will enable the military to make more accurate predictions over what kind of accommodations it needs to plan for. To be able to provide accommodations and logistical support for the press, the military needs to know what to expect in advance and to plan for media requirements so the necessary assets can be allocated.

Working with a limited number of press representatives will definitively eliminate the issue of limiting access by pooling-- which has been the media's goal for nearly a decade. The military can hardly accommodate hundreds of reporters who want to cover an operation. As long as a limit is not agreed upon, pools will be used and remain the only available tool to limit access.

A New Accreditation System. Limiting numbers could occur through a simple accreditation process which would take into account the reporter's proficiency. Today, all a reporter requires for accreditation is association with a U.S. media outlet. Both the military and the press have a common interest in a better accreditation system. The military could be more confident that reporters covering a military operation possessed adequate knowledge to do so professionally. For the press, a new accreditation system would ensure that better qualified reporters would be first in the area to witness operations; these reporters would likely provide a better informed picture of what is going on. This would avoid the type of situation that occurred in the Gulf War when a reporter from Mirabella (a fashion magazine) went into the pool while reporters from The New York Times and the

Wall Street Journal were stuck in Dhahran.

Communication Assets. The presence of sophisticated communication devices on or near the battlefield is a foreseeable cause of problems. Currently, the draft instruction does not address this issue. The DoD should expand efforts to develop appropriate and realistic policy and procedures on these communication devices.

Multinational Operations. U.S. military operations are increasingly multinational in nature, and frequently involve the U.N. Just as with every other aspect of military activity, this "combined" nature of operations adds complexity to the military-media relationship. Specific problems due to multinational operations thus need addressing. One of the most important questions concerns the accreditation process of coalition members' reporters to cover U.S. forces and activities. So far, except in the case of UNITED SHIELD, the U.S. military has made no efforts to grant access to foreign (especially non-English speaking) reporters. This policy needs to change.

The DoD draft instruction also does not address how the public affairs community should handle differences between U.S., allied, and U.N. approaches to the media in terms of media access to operations and release of information. Do U.S. units assigned to U.N. operations follow U.N. public affairs guidance (likely to reduce access to operations) or follow U.S. public affairs guidance (at the risk of antagonizing allies)?

The draft instruction and the draft joint public affairs doctrine represent a step forward in the DoD approach to military-media relations. But significant shortfalls exist in these drafts that hopefully will be addressed in the process of final coordination. Finally, there is the simple fact that these key documents remain at the draft stage 3 years after the conclusion of the DoD-media negotiations. It is time to bring them to completion.

ENDNOTES

112. Jonathan Wolman, Associated Press, interview, September 28, 1995.