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NPR Talk of the Nation January 16, 2002

Relationship between the military and the media during the conflict in Afghanistan

NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Yesterday we talked about the military lessons learned in Afghanistan. Today we want to explore the relationship between the military and the media in this conflict. Yes, Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar are still free, and the war is not over, but it looks as if the phase of intensive combat is over. And we do not focus on this issue strictly on parochial grounds. After all, the media is your source for information, but there are conflicting interests. While nearly everyone may accept that the military has legitimate security concerns, how are you supposed to find out what's going on if reporters are shut out?

So we return to some of the questions that we asked earlier in this conflict: Do you think you've received the information you need? Should the military provide reporters access to American troops, even to Special Forces? Or are news conferences with the secretary of the Defense better? Has the media covered the stories you were interested in? What's been going right and what has gone wrong? Give us a call. Our telephone number is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.org. We want to hear from you what you think about the information you've been getting from your newspaper, your radio station and from your television. With us this hour are Donnatella Larch, a national correspondent for Newsweek magazine. She's just returned from a week in Afghanistan, where she followed and lived with a 13-man Green Beret Special Forces A-Team, the one that captured Mazar-e Sharif back in November. She was among six journalists approved by the Pentagon on this mission. Donnatella Larch has covered other conflicts, too--the Gulf War and civil wars in Africa, both for The New York Times. Donnatella, welcome back.

Ms. DONNATELLA LARCH (Newsweek Magazine): It's a pleasure.

CONAN: Also with us, Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence In Journalism. That's a media watchdog group. He's co-author of "The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect." Tom Rosenstiel joins us from the studios of WKCR at Columbia University in New York. Tom, good to talk to you again.

Mr. TOM ROSENSTIEL (Project for Excellence In Journalism): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: To get in on the conversation, again, our phone number is (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address again, totn@npr.org.


DEBORAH (Caller): Good morning. Thank you for this program. A comment and then a question. I object to the sort of press conference control of information. For me, it illustrates a larger philosophy of control, which includes control of other nations. And the justifications that, you know, this is a national security issue I think is going to wear thin if we get this prolonged or years' long pursuit of terrorism. And I honestly believe that our confidence in our government and military requires full disclosure.

My question is this. I was particularly concerned about--and maybe you could clarify this for me--I believe it was either the takeover of control or purchase of all satellite imaging capacity by the Defense Department, and it's that kind of thing I think that, you know, makes us question, well, why is that necessary? Is there something we're not going to be told that we should be told?

CONAN: You're referring to--these are publicly available commercial services that provide images from satellites, and all of the capacity was bought out by the Pentagon.

DEBORAH: Correct. I think that's correct.

CONAN: I believe it is correct. And, in fact, I saw a story a couple weeks ago they'd extended their option for another period of time. I remember reading the story. I don't remember exactly the period of time. But, yes, I think you're correct about that.

Ms. LARCH: If I can just interrupt a bit on your comment earlier about--I think every side in the conflict exerted their control and tried to control the journalists there. It was not only the US military. It was the Northern Alliance. Before Kabul fell, they controlled every little bit of access that any journalist had in Afghanistan. Journalists couldn't be on Taliban side. The Taliban had basically blocked everybody out. The Pakistanis had sealed tribal territory to the journalists so they couldn't get into Afghanistan. And the Northern Alliance was amazing. You know, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah is the spinmeister of all times in terms of his daily press conferences that he had and how he sort of told his version of the story.

CONAN: Tom Rosenstiel, though, I wondered if you wanted to address that broader comment point as well about full access?

Mr. ROSENSTIEL: Yeah. I mean, I think the point that was just made about everybody's trying to exert control is important because it puts into context what the American government is doing. There has been a recognition increasingly over the last 15 years, and the Gulf War only crystallized it for the American military, that the war is won as much in briefings as on the battlefield, and political support for the war is very important. What's going on now is that all kinds of information that has been publicly available for years about who's on what ship and where these ships are and databases on the Web that have been public have been taken down.

All kinds of information that was considered innocent is now considered dangerous. And the Pentagon's argument is that there may be al-Qaeda cells in Kansas City who might, you know, use this information to attack family members. I know a lot of journalists are not persuaded by that and think that perhaps the Pentagon is actually trying to protect these people from the press and to manage their messages as much as possible. And even the Pentagon people who are frustrated by this have admitted--Jack McWethy of ABC News at a program here in New York just an hour ago said he has to admit he's sort of dazzled by Rumsfeld's ability to control his bureaucracy. In all his years of being a reporter, he's never seen anyone exert as much complete control over a federal bureaucracy as Rumsfeld now has at the Pentagon.

CONAN: Deborah, also, remember, we had John Pike on the program, far more expert in these matters than I certainly, but his take on the lease of the satellite that you were talking about before was that there are legitimate military purposes for that information, that they were not using this lease simply to block other people from access to the information. That might have been an ancillary benefit from their point of view, but that there was legitimate military uses that those images could be put to.


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