The Gulf War Pool System
I had just been hired by the New York Times. They hired me because I spoke Arabic, I had been in the Middle East, I'd covered conflicts, I'd been in Central America for five years, I'd been in the Middle East for two when they hired me. But they wanted to create a diverse team, and they kept trying to balance it out with the right number of women and the right number of people of color. And because of the fear of gas, nobody wanted to go, and I kept sort of crawling down to the foreign desk on my knees every day, asking if they would send me. Finally, when enough people said they weren't going, two days before we were supposed to leave, they said, "Okay, your number is up. You go." I wasn't prepared, but I went anyway.
I had never covered a conflict in which the U.S. military was directly involved. When we all got off the plane, they handed us a piece of paper that said, in essence, "You'll do everything you're told by the U.S. military, you'll never go anywhere unless we tell you, you'll never report anything…" And it was garbage. It was unbelievable. So I sat in the room and signed it like everyone else, and then promptly ignored it.
The next day I ran into a bunch of friends of mine, all of them of dubious moral character; they worked for tabloids in London, and I'd met a lot of them during the Falklands War, when I was in Buenos Aires. They had gotten a jeep, and they were all going to go up to this town of Khafji [a Saudi Arabian town captured by Iraqi forces, then recaptured], so I went with them. I wrote a story about this abandoned border town; it wasn't a great story, but it had mood and color, and I came back and filed it. It was a complete violation of everything I had signed a few hours before, and was not a pool report, and this immediately started to create problems with my colleagues who were abiding by the rules.
I really didn't come to the Gulf to sit in a hotel and rewrite pool reports. It didn't make any sense to me. It just seemed too humiliating. I mean, I wasn't going to do it. I would rather be thrown out or have the paper send me back [to the United States]. There was some risk, because I was a new employee, but I kept going out. I hooked up with units, mostly the Marine Corps, because the press rules were established by the Army, and the Marines saw this as a great conspiracy against the Marine Corps, and were very welcoming. So I kept filing and filing until the other journalists, who did sit around rewriting the pool reports or were in the pools, which were very restrictive sent a letter back to the foreign editor and said I was ruining the New York Times' relationship with the military.
Most of the press welcomed the pool. They wouldn't tell their editors that, but the fact is that in every war I've covered, the number of people who are actually willing to go out I mean, really go out is small. Ten, twenty percent, maybe; I mean, it's tiny. Most people want to play war correspondent. They want to sit in the hotel. They may do something mildly daring and then spend weeks talking about it and probably writing about it. But the number of people that really hustle is tiny. So you had that phenomenon coupled with the fact that most news organizations sent people from Washington, and reporters who report out of Washington and reporters like myself, who spend a lifetime in warfare we hate each other. They make their living by having lunch with policymakers and being on the inside track and being asked their opinion on important world issues, so they can feel like a player, too.
If you look at Washington reporters, after a while they begin to look like congressmen. They survive by building relationships with people who are lying to them. My job as someone overseas is to write "This is a lie." There becomes a huge antagonism between those of us on the ground and those of us reporting out of Washington, because these guys want to get on the front page, too. The fact that it's mendacious and a bunch of crap is irrelevant. It's been leaked to them; it's an exclusive; and they want it out. This certainly happened in Central America. It happened in Bosnia, and of course during Bosnia you had Dick Holbrooke [U.S. special envoy], who was just the master of this of deciding who's going to ride in his car and who isn't, who he's going to put on a plane and who he doesn't. You have the press corps reduced to yapping little dogs at the feet of these obnoxious bureaucrats, begging to be included in their entourage. It's absolutely the most bizarre phenomenon. For the fifteen years I've been overseas, it never stopped. The press is very vulnerable to being stroked by the people they should be very critical of. Washington is a very, very corrupting, and the longer you do it the more corrupt you become I'm talking about the press so these were the people who were sent to the Gulf.
And what did they want to do in the Gulf? They wanted to create what they had in Washington. They wanted to be briefed. They wanted to have background briefings for the big press, like the New York Times, which nobody else could come to except maybe the Washington Post and CNN. They re-created that whole Washington environment, so that those of us who were actually trying to go out and cover a war free of those restrictions were not only a tiny minority, but were considered a terrible impediment to what they were doing, as well as an embarrassment to themselves because they were getting rockets back [from their editors] asking, "Why didn't you go to Khafji? Why didn't you go here? Why didn't you go there?" So the only reason the pool system worked in the Gulf is because the journalists wanted it to work. The military never could have run that. You had a bunch of self-selected journalists sitting around deciding who was going to go on what pool and it was bizarre.
Of course, I got in terrible trouble and was banned from the hotel by the military and arrested and all sorts of stuff. But after some of my colleagues complained to the foreign desk, I went to Johnny Apple [R.W. Apple, a veteran Times reporter and Washington bureau chief], who became my great protector. Johnny called a meeting of all the New York Times reporters in Saudi Arabia and said, "Look, we don't work for the U.S. military." Without his protection, I couldn't have continued to work.
From Reporting America at War: An Oral History, compiled by Michelle Ferrari, with commentary by James Tobin, published by Hyperion, 2003. Copyright ©, 2003 Goodhue Pictures.