Newsies in old battle for access

WASHINGTON — When word finally broke on Sept. 28 that U.S. and British special forces had indeed begun operations in Afghanistan, there was no footage for newsies to roll.

Welcome to what President Bush calls the first war of the 21st century, a war in which camera access may be hamstrung in the name of national security, when military action means commando raids and secret ops instead of missiles lighting up the sky.

Since Sept. 11’s devastating terrorist attacks on Gotham and Washington, Radio-Television News Directors Assn. prexy Barbara Cochran has fought to make sure the news cycle isn’t left in the dark for no good reason.

“It’s a difficult proposition right off the get-go, partly because of what we’ve been told about the nature of the operations,” Cochran says. “No news organization wants to be responsible for putting U.S. fighting men and women in harm’s way. But we also have a responsibility to keep the public informed about key government activities, which surely include critical military operations.”

In his first press briefing after word broke of the special operations, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer reiterated there are “elements to this war which everyone will know about and see for themselves” — and elements that people do not know about.

“I will never comment on military operations that may or may not be under way,” Fleischer said. “History, I think, is good guide, but there are challenges in the modern communications area that didn’t exist during World War II. Today, things are instantly heard by our enemies around the world.”

Late in the afternoon of Sept. 28, a team of newsies from the nets and CNN, along with print reporters, were scheduled to hold a meeting with the Defense Department to hash out the rules of the road as American troops mass in the Middle East.

In a letter sent in recent days to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Cochran stressed that media be given a fair shake. “I urge you to grant access as broadly as possible to the news media tasked to cover the military,” she wrote.

After the Persian Gulf War, Cochran –then CBS News Washington bureau chief –helped hammer out nine principles with the Defense Department for military coverage, principals she wants followed in the current conflict.

Cochran says Desert Storm was frustrating for broadcasters and cablers, as they felt they often lacked critical access, even though the military was presumably taking them along.

For instance, the Defense Dept. would assign a pool newsie to a unit going out in the field. Yet once out in the desert, there was no way for the pool person to transmit photos or news reports.

Cochran is urging Rumsfeld to abide by the nine points as military maneuvers continue in Afghanistan and possibly in the Middle East.

“Because it appears that so much action will be done through covert operations or by small units, one concern is how will we be able to cover something that is so small and tightly controlled? How much will we be able to observe firsthand?” Cochran asks.

One TV news exec says the other thing to be concerned about is whether the Pentagon will allow erroneous reports to get out and then not correct them.

“Suddenly, you are unwittingly conveying disinformation,” the exec says.

Stateside, Cochran is facing the difficult task of getting the government to once again allow news helicopters up in the skies. Those choppers have been grounded since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a serious frustration for news stations wanting to transmit traffic and other information.

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