Ready … set … wait.
That’s the operative phrase these days for NBC News, the official pool on official standby to head out at a moment’s notice with American military forces, presumably to the Afghanistan region.
But for NBC and other newsies anxious to capture actual military footage, the big question is when and where. They’re concerned that their obligation to keep the public informed will be turned upside-down by the nebulous nature of President Bush’s war on terrorism.
In a series of rap sessions with journos over the last week, the Defense Dept. has said all the right things, i.e., that it understands the role of a free press and that it will abide by a series of principles hammered out in the wake of the Gulf War. After Desert Storm, nets complained that the government had impeded coverage, sending journalists out with military units but leaving no way to transmit reporting and footage.
At a Sept. 28 meeting, Dept. of Defense spokeswoman Victoria Clarke gave due deference to the Fourth Estate but was also careful to point out the unprecedented nature of the conflict at hand. As a show of good faith, she announced a transcript of the session would be made public.
Present at the Pentagon meeting were Washington bureau chiefs for network news operations, as well as radio and print (which have their own pools).
“There’s no tablet that comes down from on high and says this is the way it will be and this is the way it will be from now until kingdom come,” Clarke said. “This will be a very changing, evolving, fluid situation that we’re in, and hopefully we’ll be sitting down every X number of times that it takes.
“What I’m saying is anyone who thinks the way the world works prior to Sept. 11 is the same today is nuts,” she said.
By Tuesday, what is referred to as the DOD National Media Pool — one NBC News correspondent and a two-person camera crew — was on high alert. As fate would have it, the pool chair changes quarterly, meaning that the baton passed from Fox News to NBC this past weekend. ABC became the backup pool.
Scrambling to front lines
Knowing full well that their access to American military maneuvers will be limited, if not cut off altogether, all the news nets have independently rushed to get their people on the front lines. All have correspondents in Pakistan and in the northern section of Afghanistan not controlled by the Taliban.
Nic Robertson had reported for CNN from Taliban territory in Afghanistan until Sept. 17, when he was forced to leave after the Taliban told him they couldn’t guarantee his safety. Since Robertson was ejected from Kabul, Western reporters have had difficulty getting in. That doesn’t mean the nets aren’t trying.
“We’re working on getting into Taliban-occupied Afghanistan,” said MSNBC prexy Erik Sorenson. “But everybody is being very cautious. As these aid workers have found out, it’s not a good time in those zones to be an American.”
In regards to the official Pentagon pool, the rules of the road dictate that the pool’s activation is top-secret. The nine principles drawn up after the Gulf War suggest that this first pool is in and out of the field within several days, ensuring that actual reporting can be disseminated and footage rolled.
“(Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld activates the pool when no other access is possible — it’s done in secrecy,” a TV news exec said. “The whole point is that we promise we won’t break operational security if you take us along.”
From that point, the nine principles state that reporters should be allowed increasing access to military units, whether as additional pools in remote locations or independently.
Newsies obviously want their own footage of military movement as quickly as possible, another net exec said. Realistically, nets know the usual rules may not apply.
“I mean, there are already U.S. military in the region that we don’t have any access to,” a newsie said. “We’re in a type of operation that really wasn’t anticipated in all the rehearsals. It’s a battle that may take months and years, on many different fronts. We’re just waiting.”
On Tuesday, before leaving for the Middle East, Rumsfeld was expected to meet with Pentagon reporters and hear out their concerns one more time.