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The Troubled Path to the Pentagon's Rules on Media Access to the Battlefield: Grenada to Today

Authored by Dr. Pascale Combelles-Siegel.

May 15, 1996

49 Pages

Brief Synopsis

Ms. Pascale Combelles-Siegel examines the difficult road traveled by the press and the military since Operation URGENT FURY in 1983. She focuses on the development of the 1992 Joint Doctrine for Public Affairs as a practical tool for reducing tension and providing press access to the battlefield. Her analysis reflects the duality of the relationship and the efforts of both communities to find a modus vivendi.


Since Grenada, the question of media access to the battlefield has regularly generated some form of controversy between the press and the military, as journalists and editors regularly complained about military control over information. After each major operation, the Pentagon conducted a review of military-media relations and tried to institutionalize (then to improve) a viable system for granting access to the battlefield: the Department of Defense News Media Pool (DoDNMP).

This arrangement, however, has not satisfied the media. First, the DoDNMP appeared to journalists as a convenient means to limit (rather than grant) media access to the battlefield. Second, the pool concept has proved to be cumbersome in terms of logistics and has limited journalists' ability to react to events. These drawbacks were particularly evident in the Gulf War. CENTCOM used the pool system to control the large number of journalists but did not provide adequate logistical support to ensure timely transmission of pool products. After the war, and for the first time, the media--as an institution--demanded to be part of a review process. Beginning in September 1991, a group of five media representatives and the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs (Pete Williams) began to meet to elaborate new and common ground rules for media coverage of combat operations. In May 1992, after 8 months of negotiations, the Pentagon announced the first "agreement on war coverage guidelines." The agreement soon became a DoD regulation and is now the basis for drafting the first Joint Doctrine for Public Affairs.

Both the military and the media greeted the 1992 rules as opening a new era in military-media relations. Written to avoid the problems that emerged in the Gulf War, the 1992 agreement and the draft directive propose some important changes to the procedures implemented in the past decade. The two main achievements of these new rules consist in abolishing the principle of exclusive pool coverage as a standard means for granting access and in replacing the process of security review by the process of security at the source to protect operational security. Without diminishing the value of those improvements, the rules and the draft policy have serious shortcomings. These include several important questions, such as numerical limitation on reporters assigned to cover military operations; live coverage of battlefield operations; multinational media access to U.S. military operations; and media access to multinational operations. Failure to address these issues might invalidate the progress contained in the 1992 agreement and to be promulgated in the draft DoD directive.

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