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Gregg Ramshaw’s Dispatches from Qatar: March 31

BY Gregg Ramshaw  March 31, 2003 at 4:05 PM EDT

The battle for the hearts and minds of the international press corps goes on here at the Central Command’s forward headquarters in Doha, Qatar. 

Last week the media vs. the military war was raging. What appeared to be setbacks for the U.S. forces in Iraq, after a rip-roaring advance to Baghdad the week before, were stubbornly denied by CentCom briefers. They insisted there’d been no derailments, no obstacles that could not be, and would not be, overcome. As one might expect, there’s no shortage of self-confidence among professional soldiers. 

The unfortunate “chum” for the media sharks has been an earnest Army Brigadier General, Vincent Brooks, a West Point graduate and a former fellow of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He’s a career Army officer from a career Army family. Brooks, deputy director of operations at CentCom, was so doggedly “on message” that reporters felt they weren’t getting straight answers, or any answers at all for that matter. 

All the news was coming from the “embeds,” the brave colleagues riding on the hoods of Humvees racing across the Iraqi desert or witnessing some nasty street-fighting in Iraq’s southern cities. 

The Public Affairs Officers at CentCom, also known as Camp As Sayliyah, mostly milled warily about the media center confirming or denying or claiming ignorance of reports from the field. 

The media operation here was clearly designed to feed the hungry maws of live all-news television, especially cable news operations that do not return to lucrative entertainment programming like the commercial networks.

The media handlers are for the most part, young, attractive, articulate officers who speak in soundbites and stand by for live television and radio cut-ins. They can’t say too much, but they help field correspondents fill time when the anchor throws to “our reporter live” at command headquarters. 

For more than a week, no senior officers were made available for interviews, except under rare circumstances. Gen. Tommy Franks reportedly gave a half-hour interview to CBS Radio, arranged by a friend linked to the general’s favorite country music station, a CBS affiliate in Tampa, Florida, the Central Command’s non-wartime home. 

Other than that, it was a drought. And as what seemed like a news blackout dragged on, news organizations pulled up stakes.

George Stephanopoulos took his ABC News Sunday show and went home. Chris Bury of Nightline left. He anchored his program from a balcony of the Doha Ritz Carlton Hotel and called on reporters from elsewhere, including his boss, Ted Koppel, to convey the news. There was nothing coming out of Qatar, except what General Brooks had — or didn’t have — to say. 

This week it’s getting off to a better start. On Sunday, General Franks briefed the press corps; that makes for a better mood because his word is final in Qatar. He can be trumped only by President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, or Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers.

Of course they can be voluble and quotable, especially Rumsfeld. 

There also seems to be a favorable uptick in the war as far as the coalition is concerned. And the media operation is loosening up and making some of the senior command staff available for interviews, an important ingredient in the NewsHour’s coverage of the war. 

The briefing has developed a predictable routine. The general officer who briefs iterates the successes on the battlefield, including video clips of “shock and awe” strikes on Iraqi targets. Those targets can only be described as being “blown to smithereens,” so utterly complete is the destruction. 

Then there are solemn words memorializing fallen comrades and expressions of condolences for their families who have sacrificed a loved one for this cause.

Each briefing now also includes one or two anecdotes about the extreme cruelty of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Franks spoke Sunday of two brothers ordered to be suicide bombers. They fled and surrendered instead. 

General Brooks told of a family of four fleeing toward an American checkpoint in an automobile, a truck with Iraqi soldiers in hot pursuit. They fired on the family, killing the mother. A firefight with GIs ensued; the rest of the family was injured; an Iraqi soldier was killed, another wounded. 

Then the briefer subjects himself to about 45 minutes of questions and answers from the irascible press corps.

They are hungry for a lead, poking for contradictions, parsing words and phrases, and seeking official replies to the endless notions being offered by armchair analysts and critics. 

“That’s really why we get combat pay,” chuckled a public affairs officer, noting that the safe haven of Qatar, far from the battlefields of Iraq, seems to pose no other threats.