Defense Reporters Organize To Address Coverage

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Courtesy of Hearst News Service. Copyright 2002 San Antonio Express-News

With prospects of war against Iraq looming, a group of military journalists announced Friday the formation of a new organization dedicated to improving coverage of the armed forces. Military Reporters and Editors, the first group of its kind, was founded by reporters concerned about restricted access to troops at home and abroad.

“We’ve seen numerous cases where the Pentagon has restricted our ability to report on the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who serve the people of this nation,” said James G. Wright, the group’s president and assistant metro editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “MREs wants to ensure that media access improves as the United States wages its war on terrorism. The people of this country deserve nothing less.”

The Seattle-based organization will hold its first conference Nov. 15-16 in Washington, D.C. The meeting will focus on how reporters and editors should cover a new war in Iraq.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Bryan Whitman noted that the military has reporters accompanying combat forces in Afghanistan. “We are committed to providing the greatest access possible to journalists, but we are also charged with ensuring that we do not needlessly endanger the troops we send into harm’s way or comprise the success of our operations,” Whitman said. “This task is more difficult in an instantaneous global communication environment with 24-7 media coverage.”

Organizers say Military Reporters and Editors, known as MREs, also will act as a nationwide resource for journalists covering the military. The group’s charter, written at a University of Maryland conference earlier this year, states that the “association exists to advance public understanding of the military, national security and homeland defense.”

“Beat writers have a high regard for the military and generally have good relationships with troops and their commanders,” said Sig Christenson, San Antonio (Texas) Express-News military writer, who is the treasurer and co-founder of the group. “MREs wants readers to better know the troops as they perform their duties in difficult circumstances, frequently far from home.”

Tom Bowman, Pentagon reporter for The Sun of Baltimore, complained of “nightmarish” restrictions when he tried to cover a brigade of the 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan. Reporters trying to cover troops in combat were restricted to the confines of an air base. “They’d walk us around the base, give us access to some of the forces setting up the perimeters and so forth and asked if we wanted to interview the water purification people and the chaplain,” Bowman said.

The Defense Department’s policy of not using the last names of those deploying overseas also has drawn protests from reporters, who have been cautioned not to say where troops will be going, even when the destination is well known, organizers of the group said.

Florida Today‘s Jennifer Ellis recalled one embargo of information on deployments until the plane was airborne. If the embargo was broken, Air Force officials warned, the media would be barred from covering future action.

Bowman, a nine-year veteran of covering the United States Naval Academy and Pentagon, said he and others are concerned the restrictions on coverage will only worsen if war with Iraq breaks out. “I guess what a lot of us worry about is if that’s the standard — what we had in Afghanistan — what it’s going to be like should U.S. forces go into Iraq?” he said.

The November conference will focus on coverage of the war on terrorism and ways to better cover any future military action in Iraq. David Wood, national security correspondent for the Newhouse News Service, will be among the panelists analyzing lessons from the 1991 Gulf War and Afghanistan. Bob Woodward, assistant managing editor at The Washington Post and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, will be the keynote speaker at the group’s inaugural luncheon Nov. 15.

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