By: Joe Strupp
Staffers at McClatchy’s Washington, D.C., Bureau — one of the few major news outlets skeptical of intelligence reports during the run-up to the war in Iraq — claims it is now being punished for that coverage.
Bureau Chief John Walcott and current and former McClatchy Pentagon correspondents say they have not been allowed on the Defense Secretary’s plane for at least three years, claiming the news company is being retaliated against for its reporting.
“It is because our coverage of Iraq policy has been quite critical,” Walcott told E&P. He added, “I think the idea of public officials barring coverage by people they’ve decided they don’t like is at best unprofessional, at worst undemocratic and petty.”
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman called such assertions “absurd,” adding, “There is no basis of fact for that allegation. It is not true. There are always more people who would like to travel with the secretary than seats available.”
Jonathan Landay, a former Pentagon correspondent and one of the co-authors of McClatchy’s pre-war coverage, said he last traveled on the plane with then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2004 to Istanbul, Turkey, for a NATO economic summit. Since then, he says, none of McClatchy’s people have flown. “It is unusual because we get aboard about two out of three trips [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice makes,” Landay said. “They have a different policy at the Pentagon. We are definitely being discriminated against.”
Drew Brown, who covered the Pentagon on several occasions between 2002 and 2007 before leaving McClatchy for Stars and Stripes, claimed he was never allowed to travel with Rumsfeld or current Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who took over several months ago. “I asked a couple of times, and they gave me a non-committal answer,” Brown said. “The Department of Defense took the outlets they were able to influence, the wire [services] and the big newspapers. I don’t think they really care about anyone outside the Washington Beltway.”
Nancy Youssef, a former McClatchy Baghdad bureau chief who took over the Pentagon beat April 9, said Gates has been on four trips since she arrived and she has been denied access to all of them. “They just sort of brushed it off,” she said. “I bring it up every time, and every time it doesn’t happen.”
The Pentagon’s Whitman contends that McClatchy does not reach as many readers as some news outlets, adding that they are not as actively covering the Pentagon as some other news agencies: “The interests are best served when we select news agencies that have reach and impact. Another factor is that we look toward those reporters that are covering us every day.”
Youssef countered that argument, saying she is at the Pentagon regularly and has a desk in the media room: “We are here, we cover the military.” She pointed out that with more than 30 daily papers, McClatchy has a reach into the heartland, where many military bases are located.
James Crawley, a MediaGeneral military reporter and president of Military Reporters and Editors, said he had not heard any McClatchy complaints about denied access, but added, “that doesn’t mean it isn’t going on.”
Walcott said the bureau had hoped that the policy might change under a new secretary of defense. “I think there still is some hope,” he said of Gates. “He seems to be managing the department in a different way, more egalitarian.” But, he said, the current situation cannot continue. “Practicing this kind of high school pettiness is probably not the right way to go.”