By: Todd Shields
Two months into the war on terror, newspapers and the Pentagon are at loggerheads over the lack of access to U.S. troops abroad, and now, in frustration, journalists are jostling each other for any chance to get up close and personal. Elbows flew in a Pentagon briefing room in a brouhaha set off by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s trip to five nations near Afghanistan.
The highly charged episode began when the Defense Department failed to give a representative of The Associated Press one of 10 press seats on Rumsfeld’s plane. Six seats went to TV outlets and four to newspapers: USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post.
In a letter to Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Victoria “Torie” Clarke, the American Society of Newspaper Editors called AP an essential source of news. It deemed AP’s exclusion “baffling, disappointing, and troubling.” Clarke wrote back, saying AP had been on all Rumsfeld trips, but “many media outlets, including major newspapers” protested the policy of taking the same news organizations on each trip, adding that defense officials would seek to set up a rotation.
On the same score, the Associated Press Managing Editors wrote to Rumsfeld, calling AP’s exclusion “a disservice” to thousands of news organizations and millions of U.S. citizens.
Rear Adm. Craig R. Quigley met with bureau chiefs Nov. 9 to discuss the issue, and he got an earful, according to a transcript of the session supplied to E&P by the Defense Department. At the meeting, Bill Gertz, a defense writer for The Washington Times, said he believed a wire service should be on each trip. Gene Marlowe, Media General Inc.’s Washington bureau chief, concurred, “We feel it should just be a given that one of those seats is Associated Press.”
“Of course, I strongly disagree,” said Francis Kohn of Agence France-Presse (AFP), the French news service. He said the discussion should be about including three wire services — AP, Reuters, and, of course, AFP.
“I would have to insist that UPI be included,” insisted Richard Tompkins of United Press International.
Reuters Washington Bureau Chief Rob Dougherty countered, “I didn’t come over here to punch people in the nose, but UPI — and I used to work for them — does not have the reach.”
The New York Times‘ Jill Abramson also weighed in, pointing to the “small group” of news organizations that “almost always have traveled” with defense secretaries (the Times being one, of course), hinting that Johnny-come-latelys should butt out. “And if you treat everybody on an equal basis, I think actually that isn’t necessarily the fairest way,” Abramson said.
“I think this conversation probably suggests it’s naive to think we can somehow agree on what a fair situation is,” concluded The Wall Street Journal‘s Washington bureau chief, Gerald Seib.
“I think we have to recognize the current system of everyone screaming when they don’t get on a trip is nuts,” added USA Today‘s Owen Ullman.
Now that was something almost all could endorse. “I agree with you on that point,” said Rear Adm. Quigley. He promised to recommend a new system, but by late last week bureau chiefs had not heard what his decision would be.