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Media Coverage of Military: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 10, 2003 – The U.S. military is the best-trained, best-led and best-equipped force in the world, a senior defense official said today, and the American taxpayers deserve to see "just how professional that force is."

Bryan Whitman, deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, said in a C-SPAN interview this morning that he believes reporters should be allowed extensive access to military operations because they'll cover what he likes to call "the good, the bad and the ugly."

"They'll see the goodness with which our troops carry out their missions. Our troops are human though, too, and they'll make mistakes, and I believe that reporters will cover the bad as it occurs," Whitman said. "And I think reporters will also cover the ugly because war is ugly, and the world should see that war is ugly (and know) we don't make these decisions to go to war lightly."

Defense Department officials estimate hundreds, perhaps thousands, of journalists will cover various aspects of any conflict in Iraq. More than 500 of those reporters will accompany U.S. military units in a process the Defense Department calls "embedding."

Reporters are given the opportunity to embed in specific military units before conflict begins. They'll then travel with those units, maneuver with them, accompany them during operations and be under their protection.

In return for such access, cooperation and protection, the news organizations agree to follow certain "ground rules." Whitman said those rules are designed to facilitate cooperation between the media representatives and the military commander on the ground. The ground rules cover such things as coverage of injuries and deaths, electronic submissions on the battlefield and other issues that could compromise security and endanger lives.

"We have to ensure that our embedded reporters know and understand what is sensitive or sensitive at the time it is being reported," Whitman explained.

He noted journalists are by and large professional and said he's not concerned that their presence in units will violate security or endanger the military forces.

"I have not met a journalist that has willingly wanted to compromise a mission. Furthermore, I find it kind of inconceivable that a journalist wanted to compromise a mission that he or she was part of," Whitman said. "I just don't see that they are going to do something like that that would endanger themselves as well as the unit they're with."

Eighty percent of the journalists embedded with U.S. military units are from American news outlets, but Whitman added, the remaining 20 percent are from Arab, Asian and European outlets.

Whitman said the Defense Department has made facilitating the media such a priority because, "truth should matter if there's a conflict."

"We know that our potential adversary Saddam Hussein is a practiced liar," he added. "He uses disinformation all the time. What better way for us to counter some of that disinformation than to have objective reporters out there in the field reporting what's going on in near-real time so that Saddam Hussein cannot lie about what's actually occurring."

Whitman, a former soldier himself, was full of praise for reporters in general. He said he believes it's a courageous decision to put oneself in harm's way to report what is happening. He noted many news organizations have sent their potential war correspondents through training, some with the Defense Department, to try to prepare them for the hazards associated with military operations.

He said he's particularly concerned about reporters who aren't embedded with military units but still want to cover battles from "between the lines," or between Iraqi forces and coalition forces.

"It's even more dangerous ... if you're out there working independently, heading to the sounds of the guns and perhaps traveling with your own personal protection or security that can often be misconstrued as potential enemy contact out there," he explained.

Whitman also recommended a way for the public to stay abreast of news from and about the U.S. military.

www.DefendAmerica.mil is an official Defense Department site that features ways in which individuals can communicate with troops, stay abreast of operations, read about life in military units in stories written by military journalists, and "get a lot of information that is synthesized from various sources around the world and within our own government on one site," Whitman said.

"So if you only have one place to visit each day ... and you want to get some news about what's going on in the world quickly, DefendAmerica.mil will do that for you," he added.

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