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Desert Shielded The Military Stifles the Press in the Persian Gulf BY DEBBIE NATHAN WHEN AMERICAN troops began departing for Saudi Arabia last August the Pentagon an nounced it would cooperate fully with the news media. Then it helped ship a national news pool to the desert and assigned the members dozens of information officers. The policy seemed to be an improvement over the one followed in Grenada, when reporters were kicked off the island during the invasion, and in Panama in 1989, when the Southern Command at first isolated the press pool from combat areas. Now, though, a growing number of reporters complain that the military is censoring sources, discouraging national press access to the field, and squelching critical coverage in favor of “Hi Mom” local reporting aimed at boosting pro-war sentiment at home. Information officers, for instance, invariably accompany reporters into the field, where they monitor and even interrupt interviews. A recent ABC “Nightline” showed a correspondent asking an officer whether civilians working with units will have to stay in the field if fighting breaks out. When the , officer tried to answer, a public affairs escort cut him off and forbade questions calling for speculation about “things that we don’t know about necessarily.” In another sequence, an enlisted man started telling a reporter his thoughts about praying in Saudi Arabia, where only Moslem rites are . legal. “I still have my beliefs,” the man was saying, when an information officer broke in and nixed any discussion of religion. The military,usually chalks up the censorship to concern for security. Correspondents covering Desert Shield generally comply willingly with rules ordering them not to report troop numbers and exact locations. But National Public Radio’s Saudi Arabia correspondent, Deborah Amos, thinks the military’s on-site editing about other matters is sometimes “arbitrary.” She finds it frustrating that the Central Command’s Joint Information Bureau in Dhahran doesn’t honor journalists’ requests to visit troops. Reporters wait weeks or months for approval and sometimes never get responses. ABC’s John Laurence has had that experience; he believes the Bureau has blacklisted him because last fall he helped produce a Peter Jennings show that described heat and sand problems with equipment and Debbie Nathan is a freelance writer living in El Paso. This story also appears in the February 1991 issue of The Progressive. shortages of ammunition. Amos and Laurence both said that national media efforts to do critical reporting often get squeezed out by soft, “tell-the-folks-backhome-I-love-’em’! troop coverage, like the kind that has appeared lately on TV network morning infotainment shows. Local journalists, or “hometowners,” as the military calls them, also get much freer access to the field. A novel Pentagon program has so far invited about 450 reporters to travel to Saudi Arabia at military expense. Once there, the hometowners spend as long as four days billeting with units from their cities Tucson, Buffalo, Houston, Killeen, Dallas, and the like. Even The New York Times, which maintains correspondent James LeMoyne in Dhahran to cover the buildup, sent a metro reporter on a Pentagon junket to do hometowner coverage of a National Guard battalion company’s trip from Harlem to Desert Shield. Hometowner coverage undoubtedly makes troops and their communities feel good. But skeptics wonder whether the military’s enthusiastic promotion of this kind of news might be a repeat of former President Ronald Reagan’s attempts to garner favorable coverage by inviting local rather than national reporters to news briefings. Is the Pentagon likewise hoping to capitalize on small-town sentimentality about “our boys” to further the Bush Administration’s foreign policy objectives? If so, are the U.S. media soft on the scheme? Bob Locke, city editor at the El Paso Times, recently traveled to Desert Shield with a press pool sponsored by the 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade and 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, out of nearby Fort Bliss. The Times is a Gannett newspaper in a city where a sixth of the population owe their livelihood to the military. The paper, which normally forbids its staff to take free trips or meals from , sources, nonetheless quickly accepted the Army’s invitation. “We couldn’t afford to send anyone otherwise,” Locke said. Too, the Saudi government does not issue tourist or visitors’ visas, and the Times heard that it’s virtually impossible for journalists to get visas without U.S. military sponsorship. Phil Pruitt, national editor for Gannett News Service, confirms that it took days of calls and visits to the Saudi Embassy to get his national correspondent a visa. But Pentagon-endorsed approvals for such hometowners as El Paso’s Locke produce transit papers almost immediately. The Army provided Locke, along with a local radio-TV reporter and a cam eraman, with training in nuclear/biological/ chemical warfare and the etiquette of saluting. They were also issued dogtags and G-12 status, equal to the military rank of major, so they could commandeer jeeps and sleep in officers’ tents. This pool shared their copy and footage with El Paso’s major media outlets. And the Times went further. It shared Locke’s photographs with the Fort Bliss newspaper and gave the Army 8,000 reprints of his coverage for distribution to Fort Bliss units in Saudi Arabia and their families back home. At least six Gannett papers have sent reporters to Saudi Arabia with the hometowner program. “I’m suspicious of it,” Pruitt said. “I think [it’s] a Defense Department PR attempt.” To his knowledge, though, there have been no company-wide discussions at Gannett questioning the propriety of participating in the trips. EDIA INTEREST groups haven’t had much to say about the access problems of national correspondents. This is partly because the press gauges its freedom to cover the military by how much fighting it gets to see and so far Desert Shield isn’t a combat zone but merely one of unprecedented buildup. Organizations such as the American Society of complaints about troop access problems and censorship to meetings with Defense Secretary aides chief Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams, for example. Dick Schmidt, counsel to ASNE, feels that Williams, himself a former journalist, is pro-media and “wants to do everything possible to avoid Grenada.” But others, even those who accept the Joint Information Bureau’s current way of operating, worry that war in the Mideast could mean a repeat of the military’s behavior toward the press during the invasions of Grenada and Panama. “That’s the worst possible case that we could have,” AP’s Richard Pyle told “Nightline” this fall, “where the press would be taken to the desert equivalent of a golf course in Panama and stuck there while the fighting is going on someplace else.” Memories of the invasions of the 1980s haunt the media, but Desert Shield’s real ghost is Vietnam. Reporters who covered that war remember it as a journalistic paradise; almost anyone could take a commercial flight to Saigon. “If you were a freelancer or smalltowner,” recalls Laurence, who covered Vietnam for CBS, “all you needed was THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15