By: Mark Fitzgerald
Lieutenant General David Petraeus — the 101st Airborne Division commander during the Iraq invasion who has been both lionized and, he says, mischaracterized by the press — told a group of journalists Thursday night that the military must be accessible to the press.
“What I tell my officers is, it’s not your Army, it’s not the officers’ Army — it’s Americans’ Army, and they have a right to know what we’re doing,” Petraeus said. “We talk about the tone you set, and one of the tones has to be that we will deal with the press.”
Petraeus and former Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran were the keynote speakers at the opening of the annual conference of Military Reporters and Editors at Northwestern University.
Petraeus’ generally pro-press presentation came at a time when the issue of embedded journalists in Iraq has heated up for the first time since the 2003 invasion. Michael Yon, a freelance writer and photographer who was embedded with troops in Iraq in 2005, wrote in the current issue of The Weekly Standard that the number of embedded reporters had dropped to 9 this fall from 770 during the invasion largely because of resistance from “key military officers” and “the often clueless Combined Press Information Center in Baghdad, which doesn’t manage the media so much as manhandle them.”
Yon, who attended Petraeus’ speech, wrote that by “enabling incompetence, the Pentagon has allowed the problem to fester to the point of censorship.”
Asked directly about the embed situation, Petraeus, who now oversees Army training as commander of the Combined Arms Center at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., said he was not ?just not current enough? on the issue to comment.
But he added that he and other officers welcomed embeds to their units, but were reluctant to take them on military operations because the reporters would sometimes literally get lost. ?I mean, we damn-near killed a guy once,? he said, ?You?re out there in the dark, with night-vision goggles, and you don?t know who?s where, and we finally had to say, stop? to embedding during operations.
Petraeus said some officers may also fear being burned by reporters who quote an frustrated outburst. ?We?ve had a couple of officers who, gosh, lost their careers on (remarks quoted by the press), and you have to think, did (the reporter) really have to quote that?? he said.
In general, though, Petraeus said he recommends the military engage the press as often as possible. He even called the television network Al Jazeera — loathed by many for its perceived anti-American slant — a ?favorite? media outlet.
?I tell people, go on it,? he said. ?They will translate you correctly. They may ask the question with a sneer and follow your answer with a snide remark — but they will translate you correctly.?
Petraeus recalled that when he was in charge of pacifying Mosul in northern Iraq, a military public affairs officer suggested tracking media coverage, and rating the stories as positive of negative. ?I said, no, we should be concerned about ?accurate? or ?inaccurate,?? he said. ?It?s what we do that makes a story negative or positive.?
Chandrasekaran — whose recently published book ?Imperial Life in the Emerald City? portrayed the post-invasion Coalition Provisional Authority American-led government as filled with people chosen for their political loyalty and not their competence ? told Petraeus that media accuracy depends on accessibility.
Nevertheless, Chandrasekaran praised Petraeus as ?one of the most forward-looking generals in the U.S. Army, particularly in your relationship with the news media.? That opinion was clearly shared by many of the journalists at the gathering, where attendance was thinned by bad weather that delayed flights to Chicago.
One journalist shouted near the end of the keynote that he and other reporters were pulling for Petraeus to be named commander of American forces in Iraq.
?My wife?s not,? Petraeus said with a laugh.