By: Debra Gersh Hernandez
Haiti invasion would have been the first combat test of
new media arrangements since the Persian Gulf War;
those involved say it would have been a success, citing
‘strong planning’ and ‘good faith’ on the part of military sp.
AN INVASION OF Haiti would have been the first combat test of media pool arrangements since the Persian Gulf War, and although the mission was cancelled, those involved said the pool likely would have worked.
“This was a good first test of the nine principles,” said Associated Press Washington bureau chief Jon Wolman, referring to the principles for combat coverage hashed out between the military and the media after the Persian Gulf War (E&P, June 6, 1992, p. 17).
The pool, which was called up in secrecy early on Saturday, Sept. 17, “was well-positioned in plenty of time to be an eyewitness to the opening attack had there been an invasion in Haiti,” Wolman said. “We were satisfied with the arrangements the Pentagon was able to make. It looked as if it could have been a successful combat pool.”
Considerable unilateral coverage in Port-au-Prince and for journalists covering military units on ships also led to some good stories and photos, Wolman added.
There seemed to be “strong planning and good faith by the military in this,” he said, noting that both sides worked hard to avoid the problems that arose during the Persian Gulf War.
“The test will come when there are actual combat and hostilities,” Wolman said, adding, “This came very close.”
Scripps Howard reporter Andrew Schneider was in the pool and was on a flight with the 82nd Airborne as the mission began, said John Moore, Scripps Howard assistant managing editor for news.
Although Moore had not gotten “a full briefing” from Schneider as E&P went to press, he said his impression was that the pool worked fairly well.
Schneider “was in place to do the job of pooling from the standpoint of those going in first,” Moore said noting, however, “one concern was getting his pool information to us and everybody else.
“They had the right people in the right place, but they never went through that end of the exercise,” he said. “It’s important to know they’re placing people in the right spots, but it’s also important to get the information out.”
Since the invasion was cancelled, there obviously was no need to disseminate pool material.
“From the lead-up aspect of it, in terms of preparation, notification, it seemed to work,” Moore said, adding he thought calling the pool up 36 hours before the invasion, which was slated for Sunday, Sept. 18, may have been a little earlier than necessary.
Agreeing that it is better than being called in late, Moore said Schneider could “be there a week, as long as it’s for a good reason.”
Moore said they have had “a lot of contact with the Pentagon over the last seven weeks. They were very straightforward with us.”
Meetings last spring between Washington bureau chiefs and Pentagon officials included a discussion of media coverage for an invasion of Haiti, and may have helped this operation run smoother.
Clifford Bernath, principle deputy assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs, explained that the approach to pooling also was somewhat different for the Haiti operation.
“This pool was a little different than the others because it implemented what we call the point of the spear concept,” Bernath said. “The normal pool is about 13 people. This was 28 people. We did that because instead of putting the pool in one location and handling it as a group, we divided it up so each point in the attacking effort would be covered.”
Bernath noted this was “a lot more complicated,” but it directly addressed criticism in past operations that the media were not at the point of attack as it occurred.
The pool was enlarged by asking members in the current rotation if they could handle the expansion, and if they could not, the next organization up was called in.
In addition, only because they had the room, all four major television news organizations ? ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC ? went along, he said.
To help prepare both the military and the media, the regular standing pool was exercised at Guantanamo Bay about three weeks earlier, the first such exercise in about three years, Bernath said.
Scripps Howard’s Schneider was part of that exercise pool, which Moore said “seemed to work fine.”
Bernath also met with media representatives to discuss seven voluntary points about coverage. Four, he said, were no problem because they involved “common sense” issues such as not shining tv lights on forces at night.
The remaining three, which he emphasized were voluntary points put out for discussion, were not accepted by the media, but they said they would cooperate as much as possible.
The first was a military request for a voluntary one-hour embargo of broadcast video depicting troop landing locations.
Bernath said the media did not want to agree to a specific length of time, but would make a good faith attempt at restraint.
The military’s other two concerns, he said, involved the safety of journalists ? one proposed that journalists on the ground remain in their hotels or at the American Embassy until the streets were safe, and the other asked the press to stay off the rooftops of buildings.
The media thanked the Pentagon for its concern but declined, noting they would take care of themselves, Bernath said.
“It was commensurate with the principles,” Bernath said of the request. “We felt it was our responsibility to raise that.”
An added dimension to this action was that “the whole plan was based on a hostile intervention,” Bernath explained. “We didn’t have a hostile intervention. The pool broke up quickly, but we never expected it to be in place long.
“We ended this one while they still were on ships and planes. We had this tremendous effort done to get the pool and unilaterals to shore to cover what is going on in Haiti,” he said.
Getting the media ashore was not only a matter of transportation, but also of making it a high enough priority among the senior leadership, Bernath noted. The last journalists were expected to be ashore on Tuesday, Sept. 20.
Having “well over 200 [news] organizations” on the ground in Haiti already “certainly was a factor in the planning,” he said. “They affect the mission once we are there.”
One thing they affected was the planned length of the pool.
“The pool mission was to cover the deployment and the landing, which couldn’t be covered by people on the ground,” he said. “Once they landed, the pool was over.”
Bernath said the Department of Defense also worked closely with the State Department briefer in Haiti and later set up a Joint Information Bureau there.
While it was still early to tell, Bernath said, “things seem to be going all right.”
As time passes, he said of the media-military relationship, “things get better and better. There is still a healthy antagonism between the media and the military, because our missions are slightly different. But more and more of our leaders are becoming more media conscious, more media aware, and there are fewer problems.”
Bernath plans to meet soon with the Washington bureau chiefs to go over what went wrong, what went right, and how it can be applied to the next operation.