Idaho GIs Given Talking Points for Media

By: Chuck Oxley, Associated Press Writer

(AP) The Idaho National Guard has told soldiers to use five approved “themes” when talking to the media, including support for the war in Iraq and confidence in the superiority of American troops.

The suggestions were made on the front page of “Snakebite,” the official newsletter of the 116th Brigade Combat Team.

It does not prohibit soldiers from speaking about other issues, but says that referring to the themes “adds continuity to the message we are portraying as a unit.”

The other messages include pride for being on active duty, eagerness to work with coalition forces and appreciation for family and employers.

“Those themes are the things we feel are consistent with what we’re doing. Those are the messages we want out there right now,” said Capt. Monte Hibbert, who wrote the article.

Hibbert spoke by telephone from Fort Bliss, Texas, where he is training with 2,000 other Idaho guard members for a one-year tour in Iraq beginning this fall.

The 116th started deploying soldiers to Texas in early June, and there was heavy coverage of soldiers and their families in Idaho newspapers and television.

Hibbert said he did not intend to restrict soldiers’ comments to the press.

But Charles Sheehan-Miles, director of the Washington-based Veterans for Common Sense, said that’s not the message that will be perceived by most rank-and-file soldiers.

“I suspect it’s going to be received with a good deal of cynicism,” he said, because the military is increasingly “trying to control the message, because the leaders and the Pentagon have taken a lot of hits on the war.”

Val Limburg, a journalism ethics and law professor emeritus at Washington State University, said it would be unethical if soldiers were being asked to cover up something that was wrong. He said the approved themes were more of a public relations issue.

Still, Limburg wondered if the military was returning to an era when it avoided uncontrolled media contacts.

“In World War II, we had a War Department and everything was cleared by the government before it went out as news. And the press went along with that because they wanted to win the war, too,” he said.

During the Cold War and as recently as the 1991 Gulf War, contact between rank-and-file service members and the media was generally taboo. Military personnel were instructed to avoid talking to news reporters and to report all contacts to their local public affairs officer.

But Hibbert says the attitude has changed over time, particularly in the last decade and as news technology has changed and reporters have become “embedded” with particular units. Because of the increased contact, even the lowest privates now receive training on dealing with the media.

“We actually try to give them some experience by simulating interviews and role-playing,” Hibbert said.

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