By: Joe Strupp
A report today that soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center are being told not to speak with the press is apparently just the latest move in a recent effort to tighten restrictions on journalists’ access to many military facilities, according to the president of Military Reporters and Editors.
James Crawley, a military reporter with MediaGeneral and MRE president, said today’s revelation by Army Times that Walter Reed patients had been barred from speaking with reporters is not the first case of tightened restrictions. In recent months, he says several MRE members have reported similar crackdowns. What’s worse, many of the denials are apparently in reaction to the potential negativity of a planned story.
“It is starting to look like it is becoming a policy in some areas where they are not allowing reporters on the base unless it is an absolutely positively good news story,” said Crawley. “The military is making it harder and harder to do stories on bases, as far as doing man on the street interviews.”
A Pentagon spokesman contacted by E&P had no immediate comment.
Crawley’s accusations followed today’s Times story, which reported that Walter Reed patients had been muzzled just a week after The Washington Post revealed that outpatients at the facility were forced to live in rundown, poorly maintained housing. The Times also reported that “The Pentagon … clamped down on media coverage of any and all Defense Department medical facilities, to include suspending planned projects by CNN and the Discovery Channel, saying in an e-mail to spokespeople: ‘It will be in most cases not appropriate to engage the media while [the Walter Reed] review takes place.'”
But some MRE members said that the clampdown is in place at other military facilities, not just medical centers. Sig Christenson, former MRE president and military writer at the San Antonio Express-News, cited two recent instances of access denials he received.
Several weeks ago, he said he was denied entrance to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio for a story related to the 3,000th death in Iraq. Just this week, he said Lackland Air Force Base had refused to let him in for a story related to the recent controversy surrounding drill sergeant Michelle Manhart, who was demoted by the Air Force for posing in Playboy.
“I wanted to spend some time with the trainers there and show how they instill core values and integrity in these troops,” said Christenson. “They refused me access because Michelle Manhart was part of the story. They did not want to support another story that had Michelle Manhart in it.”
Christenson said the denials were serious because they were apparently in reaction to the subject of the story, not any security issue. “This is the first time in 10 years that any installation had denied me access on the basis of the content of my reporting,” Christenson, a multiple Iraq embed, said. “It is a really dangerous thing that raises a lot of issues. It raises the question of my credibility.”
Crawley agreed. “This is troublesome because it keeps the average person from learning the real facts here,” he said. “They are trying to censor the news, in this case it is bad news. The military has gone into a bunker mentality.” He also had heard reports from some reporters that casualty numbers were not being released as freely as in the past. “They are trying to manage the news,” he said. “There has to be some middle ground and in the past there has been middle ground.”
Related E&P story: Wounded Soldiers Told Not to Talk to Media