Nets press war access

Bureau chiefs pushing for entry into ground operations

Network news bureau chiefs in Washington are stepping up pressure on the Pentagon to grant journalists access to the war front in Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insists the Pentagon has been “enormously forthcoming” with the press, but news execs aren’t so sure.

“The Pentagon considers that we’ve entered a new phase in the war; we think we need to enter a new phase in terms of coverage,” said Janet Leissner, CBS News VP and D.C. bureau chief, who added that all of the network bureau chiefs are pressing hard to have access to some ground operations.

“We’re not asking to get to go along with special ops forces, but to talk to them after the operation wouldn’t compromise national security. At least it would give us actual firsthand eyes and ears of what’s happening over there,” Leissner said.

As civilian casualties of U.S. bombing raids mount in Afghanistan, news departments will feel more pressure to air their own footage, even if it irks Washington. There are limited sources of such footage, with the Arab satellite news channel Al-Jazeera — the only news net up and running in Afghanistan — being the main feed.

Earlier this month, Rumsfeld was among a parade of top White House officials showing up to be interviewed by Al-Jazeera; idea was that the U.S. must do a better job at spinning its cause.

Spin doctor

Over the weekend, a defensive Rumsfeld changed his tune, saying Al-Jazeera has a “pattern” of putting out “propaganda” for Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network. “That’s just a fact,” he said during an interview with ABC News correspondent Cokie Roberts.

Again at a press briefing on Monday, Rumsfeld said certain reports about civilian casualties are “unsubstantiated propaganda.” He said the military action shouldn’t be determined by the appetite of the 24-hour news channels.

Yet overseas, press coverage of America’s war on terrorism is growing more and more critical. TF1 French TV exec Ulysse Gosset told CNN’s Judy Woodruff during an interview Monday that people in his country are increasingly concerned about reports of civilian deaths. Footage of actual injuries is appearing with far more regularity on overseas TV networks, whereas not so much is airing on American nets.

Thus far, the Pentagon hasn’t activated the official TV news military pool, a point of frustration for news execs. The Pentagon recently issued a tape of the special operations, but, as Leissner noted: “It was on their terms. It was their camera and their editing. We could do the same thing.”

While news execs know it’s not unusual for the Pentagon to be cautious about confirming casualties, information seems to be harder to come by than ever — and there are many questions about what’s accurate.

“At various points during these three weeks, we have been given to understand that the Taliban forces had been ‘eviscerated,’ that its ranks had been severely depleted by defections, and that the United States had bombed so heavily it was running out of targets,” ABC News’ Peter Jennings wrote Monday in his daily email to “World News Tonight” viewers. “Today, as bombing enters week four, those claims appear questionable.”

Need to know

If the war turns into a true ground war, it will be a true test of access, say some newsies.

“We would expect coverage as either individual organizations or as a pool,” said NBC News VP Will Wheatley, who added that there have been discussions between the Pentagon and the networks on these matters. “There isn’t any procedure nailed down at this point. We haven’t been guaranteed anything.”

Other news execs say the blame for the lack of access lies elsewhere. “It’s the Taliban and the topography of Afghanistan that’s standing in our way,” one cable news exec said.

Acting ‘humanely’

Rumsfeld insists that U.S. newsies have been and will continue to be afforded access but that it’s difficult to activate military news pools when there isn’t U.S. ground movement in Afghanistan. He said the press has been involved “in as many aspects as I believe has ever been the case of things where it’s humanely” possible.

“The press has not been parachuting in on special-operations activities into a hostile environment in Afghanistan, to be sure. But I don’t think they want to, nor do I think it’s safe for the troops trying to protect them, once they got in there,” Rumsfeld said.

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