The Media And The Military


The most famous revocation came in 1968, when John S. Carroll, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun , wrote that the Marines were abandoning Khe Sanh near the Laotian and North Vietnamese borders. The Khe Sanh facility had been a dubious military property for some time. Stuck on the outer fringes of Vietnam, it had been under periodic siege, and President Lyndon Johnson and his advisers in Washington became convinced the North Vietnamese wanted to turn Khe Sanh into another Dien Bien Phu, the citadel of French colonial power that fell to North Vietnamese attack in 1954. Under pressure from Washington, the commanding general, William C. Westmoreland, called for massive air and artillery bombardment throughout January and February to lift the siege. Four months after staging a major action in defense of Khe Sanh, the command decided to pull out. Carroll, who had covered the strikes in January, returned in June to see the metal runway being scrapped, the bunkers blown up, and the facilities bulldozed. For reporting what every Vietcong within ten miles could see and hear for himself, Carroll lost his accreditation for six weeks. Political embarrassment at home was beginning to count for as much as military concerns in the field.

During World War II reporters agreed, at Ike’s personal request, to sit on the most colorful story of the Sicilian campaign.

A sorry estrangement developed between the top military and civilian levels in Vietnam and the media. As a rule of thumb reporters like to go to the highest-ranking official they can find who has good information. But correspondents were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the rosy predictions being given out at the top and worked their way down the command level to junior combat officers who had a bleaker view. In effect, many correspondents became rogue reporters working a different side of the story from the official one. When Joseph Alsop, the pundit’s pundit, arrived in Saigon in 1969 and grandly declared that he never talked to anyone under the rank of colonel, he became an object of derision. “We had gotten to the point,” remembers Kevin Buckley, Newsweek ’s bureau chief in Vietnam, “that we hardly talked to anyone above the rank of colonel.”

By the time of the Grenada invasion in 1983, the question of media access to combat operations had changed dramatically. There was none. The Washington columnist Haynes Johnson wrote that it was the first military strike in American history “produced, filmed and reported by the Pentagon.”

Eight years later, in January 1990, one of the biggest stories out of the Panama invasion was one that raised the question whether Capt. Linda Bray, who went in with a group of military police in an attack on a dog kennel that killed twenty-one German shepherds, had actually been in- volved in combat. The press had been reduced to filing light features about an operation they were largely prevented from seeing in the first place. One group of 16 reporters and photographers arrived from Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington and were held for thirty-six hours—the basic battle had lasted six—only to be told by a major general, “My operational orders are that I cannot let you talk with any of my men.” Sometime later 169 journalists and twenty-five thousand pounds of electronic gear flew into Howard Air Force Base and were immediately locked up in a recreation room and refused access even to a telephone. No one was allowed to walk outside, and most were eventually flown back without having left the area.

The Panama operation suffered generally light casualties, 23 military killed and 3 U.S. civilians. But it was not error free. An airborne unit of 850 Rangers dropped into Rio Hato under difficult circumstances when jump levels were lowered from 500 to 375 feet. An Army briefing officer assured the press no casualties had been caused by such a low jump. In fact, in addition to 4 troopers who had been shot dead, another 253 were hurt, including 86 cases of what doctors later called “orthopedic nightmares” mostly caused by Rangers’ forgetting to unhook their hundred-pound chest packs and falling hard onto the ground.

The war in the Persian Gulf was the media’s Cannae, and the press played Varro to Schwarzkopf’s Hannibal: the military’s victory over the press was total and devastating. The media were essentially reduced to being a conduit for official information offered by commanders who could scarcely disguise their scorn for the delivery system they were forced to use. It is a truism of war that to create a victory as massive as Cannae, it takes two generals, a smart one on one side and a stupid one on the other. In the almost twenty years since Vietnam the military has been working on its media problem while the press has been sitting on its First Amendment rights.

The new system is right out of a Madison Avenue manual for a publicity blitz. If you want pictures, you will get more than you can possibly use, but they will be our pictures. If you want quotes, you will get them by the hour, but they will be our quotes. If you want access, you will be personally escorted to the front, but we will determine where and when you get there.