Covering the Air War
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TERENCE SMITH: The images of America at war — sights and sounds of the flight deck all by now familiar to Americans at home. For the last six weeks, scores of reporters and photographers have shuttled on and off aircraft carriers from the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain.
MICHAEL PHILLIPS, Wall Street Journal: We were able to look at how they lived, what their expectations were, what their fears were, but the big limitation is that we could not speak about ground operations that may or may not have been taking place.
TERENCE SMITH: Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Phillips watched Marines leave the amphibious ship the Peleliu on an undisclosed mission. He says it’s impossible for journalists to know if reporting more information would jeopardize security.
MICHAEL PHILLIPS: Because we’re not privy to the plans, the operations that may or may not be taking place on the ground, it’s very difficult for us to assess whether those operations would be endangered by more disclosure.
TERENCE SMITH: The Pentagon has released very limited pictures of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and video of bombing runs there, but has not permitted American reporters to travel with U.S. forces operating on the ground. Photographer Barry Iverson has covered the Middle East for Time magazine for 20 years. He photographed the opening salvos of the war from the U.S.S. Philippine Sea. He says the current conflict is different from those he has covered before.
BARRY IVERSON, Time: In the Gulf War, you know, you knew your enemy, and it was very defined. But now it’s very elusive, so you’re kind of… It seems like everybody’s always looking behind their back a little bit.
TERENCE SMITH: The Navy’s ability to get pictures back to the United States is more sophisticated than ever. Some of Iverson’s photos, for example, were e-mailed back from the aircraft carrier. And the new breed of military information officer is more sophisticated.
BARRY IVERSON: They’re all grown on the Internet, multimedia; they’re much more savvy. There’s much more of a refined sense of public relations message.
TERENCE SMITH: Nearly a quarter million active duty military and dependents are based here in the Norfolk, Virginia, area. With 15,000 to 20,000 of them already deployed in the Middle East, the war is a big story here, and a sensitive one.
PATTY CULHANE: We had to feel okay with not becoming too much of a cheerleader for the Navy, which is easy to do when you’re in Norfolk.
TERENCE SMITH: Military reporter Patty Culhane and her videographer Aaron Kurtz were aboard the aircraft carriers Theodore Roosevelt and Carl Vinson for their Virginia station, WAVY. Operating under ground rules hammered out by the press and the Pentagon, Kurtz says he got his pictures.
AARON KURTZ: I can’t really complain. They allowed me the access that I needed for all the shots that I wanted. They even suggested some positions that would be beneficial to me, and they turned out to work out very well.
TERENCE SMITH: But he concedes that the Navy was engaged in some subtle public relations.
AARON KURTZ: They shied me away from shooting anyone that was unkempt, a little bit on the heavier side. They didn’t want me to show sailors that were out of shape.
TERENCE SMITH: Patty Culhane says the local station’s interest in features, rather than hard news, made military guidelines less of a problem.
TERENCE SMITH: Was it security they were concerned about or image control?
PATTY CULHANE: Both.
TERENCE SMITH: Both?
PATTY CULHANE: Even the things that we saw that maybe weren’t so glamorous weren’t necessarily bad for the navy.
TERENCE SMITH: The larger issue for reporters was the cocoon-like atmosphere on the vessels. Culhane says most sailors she talked to seemed unaware of the controversy over civilian casualties.
PATTY CULHANE: It’s almost as if you’re in some sort of a vacuum. It’s… it’s very hard to get the bigger picture.
TERENCE SMITH: Another reporter, Ron Franscell of The Denver Post, and his photographer joined both military exercises in Egypt and an aircraft carrier on station in the Arabian Sea.
RON FRANSCELL, Denver Post: Every place I asked to go, I got to go — with an escort.
TERENCE SMITH: He says reporters have little choice but to accede to military restrictions if they want any access to fighting men and women.
RON FRANSCELL: It’s been argued that a certain amount of censorship and prior restraint is the price, an unfortunate price, that you pay for that access, and that’s true. Our only other choice is to forgo that access, or to, you know, take it from the Pentagon, which, you know, has its own aims.
TERENCE SMITH: He says he was allowed to mingle freely with the pilots aboard the carrier, and that his reports were not censored. But in the age of instant information, military public affairs officers knew immediately what had been published. Could such instant critiques have a chilling effect?
RON FRANSCELL: I think it could. I certainly do.
TERENCE SMITH: Franscell thinks that the military must work out a new set of guidelines with the media, one that satisfies the legitimate concerns of both.
RON FRANSCELL: I don’t want to imperil soldiers, it’s the last thing on my mind. I was a soldier. I don’t want to do that. I just want to be able to tell the stories that need to be told.