Journos battle gov’ts, costs for vantage point

Rush comes amid concern that press won't be allowed to tag along with U.S. military forces

Access, access, access.

The newsies are doing and spending just about anything to cover the war on terrorism. It’s an all-out marathon getting correspondents geared up and shipped off to the frontlines along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Journalists are encountering sand storms, stepping over land mines and traveling on truck convoys loaded down with fuel — all while tripping over the competish.

“The viewer has come to expect instantaneous pictures of anything that’s happening,” says CBS News senior VP Marcy McGinnis. “Maybe it’s not that urgent that you have someone standing on the roof of the Islamabad Marriott. But the viewers expect that you’re at least in the country where the story is happening.”

The mad rush comes amid concern that the press won’t be allowed to tag along with U.S. military forces. NBC News, which is currently the net hat the Pentagon allows to relay the news to all the other outlets, is ready to go, but where and when?

Again and again, President Bush has said the battle against terrorism won’t be like any other war. Newsies translate this to mean it will be a series of covert operations; the White House has all but confirmed that American and British ops are already on the ground in Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld continues to assure journos that he understands the importance of their role in keeping the public independently informed. At the same time, he says he won’t jeopardize a mission, or lives, just so the press can come along for the ride.

The Radio-Television News Directors Assn. prexy Barbara Cochran won’t let the issue rest. Cochran was CBS Washington bureau chief during the Gulf War ten years ago, and says the press got stiffed by the military. Now, she wants the Pentagon to abide by a set of principles drawn up following that campaign.

“We were subject to Draconian censorship during the Gulf War,” says CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, who covered that conflict and was recently based in Islamabad.

“Nonetheless, we were able to see more than we’ve been able to see in this instance. This too may change depending on the progress of the war.”

Once the initial NBC pool is activated by Rumsfeld, the principles signed off on by the Pentagon dictate that the military will set up regional briefing centers, so that newsies won’t have to rely on a pool. Ideally, after that, the military would allow reporters to go out in the field with a particular unit.

It’s not just the Pentagon that’s keeping broadcasters at bay.

The Afghanistan Taliban government has banned foreign journalists from its territory, making it difficult for reporters to get close to the action.

CNN’s Eason Jordan recently met with the Taliban ambassador to push for access into Taliban-controlled territory. Like all the major news orgs, CNN has reporters based in rebel-controlled Northern Afghanistan. The net also has a Pakistani reporter in Taliban-controlled regions. To protect his safety, they do not reveal his exact whereabouts.

Recently, Yvonne Ridley, a London-based print reporter, was arrested for allegedly illegally entering Afghanistan from Pakistan.

News execs and veteran war correspondents say they’re anxious to get a foothold in Afghanistan, but not at a human cost.

“If I hear another network is in a place where the Taliban is and we’re not, I’m not going to force my people into somewhere that’s not safe,” says CBS’ McGinnis. “I’m anxious for my reporters to get in there, but I’m not crazy. Being live with the Taliban isn’t worth it if somebody dies.”

Amanpour is optimistic that reporters will eventually gain the access they’re so desperate for.

“I fully expect that eventually we will get in,” she says. “It may not be the instant gratification that we’ve been so accustomed to, but we will eventually get to the bottom of this story.”

Until borders are opened, the closest newsies can get to the “action” is Northern Afghanistan and Pakistan. Conditions in Northern Afghanistan, in particular, are rustic and potentially dangerous.

“They’re occupying buildings that are carved out of the side of mountains and fit six or seven people in a room. There isn’t any fresh water to bathe,” says MSNBC prexy Erik Sorenson.

Aside from the unpleasant conditions, there’s also the huge expense of shipping staff and equipment to remote locations. Not long ago, news orgs were laying off staffers amid belt-tightening efforts. Now they are touting how much money they’re investing in order to cover the war on terrorism.

“Now, as always, CNN spends what it takes to cover the news,” says CNN’s Jordan, who is chief of newsgathering.

CNN has occupied 30 rooms in the Islamabad Marriott for $200/night each. That’s nothing compared to the cost of $8,000 satellite telephones and as much as $70,000 for shipping and set-up costs for satellite equipment.

While news orgs try to keep expenses down by sharing resources, they all agree that money issues are dwarfed by the immensity of the story.

“We’ve had silence from the financial controllers who would normally be looking over our shoulders at every dime we spend,” says ABC News senior VP Bob Murphy.

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