The White House, Pentagon, and State Department have learned lessons from Vietnam and other recent wars about how to handle the news media during international crises. Likewise, the media have learned lessons about how to deal with government information policies and how to cover unconventional conflicts.
The government’s media policies in the current anti-terrorism war have brought complaints of lack of candor, limited information, and restricted access. The Bush administration also has been criticized for not effectively countering anti-American propaganda from extremist Islamic sources. And the media have faced complaints for relying on uninformed sources, airing Osama bin Laden videotapes, and making bad predictions about the outcome of the war.
The eighth in a series of Brookings/Harvard forums on Press Coverage and the War on Terrorism took stock of the uneasy media/government relationship on the three-month anniversary of the beginning of the U.S. military campaign against Osama bin Laden.
The Pentagon’s chief information official explained the government’s media policies in this unique crisis while other panelists represented the viewpoints of working journalists and of thoughtful commentators on media issues.
MR. STEPHEN HESS: I welcome you to the eighth in the series of Brookings/Harvard Forum on the role of information and the press in the war on terrorism. I’m Steve Hess, the co-host of the program. My usual co-host is Marvin Kalb, the Executive Director of the Washington Office of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard. Marvin is under the weather today but he and his family have planned their life so that there’s always a very distinguished available Kalb, so my co-host today will be Bernard Kalb. The word triangulation is a famous and often-used word in Washington. He is a triangulation unto himself for a program like this because, of course, he was a distinguished war correspondent and foreign correspondent for CBS, a diplomatic correspondent for NBC. Then he went on the other side of the podium and became Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, and is now a media critic and is a commentator on CNN’s Reliable Source. So there we have our war correspondent, our government spokesman and our media critic all wrapped up into one.
We have, as we often do with people flying around the world, Jack McWethy of ABC couldn’t quite make it in here.So it’s a little different. Bernie doesn’t know it, but he’s actually wearing two hats today. He’s going to be my co-host, questioner, if you will, but then I may turn to him, as may some of the other panel, and he can be a panelist himself.
Alphabetically then, Victoria Clarke is the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. She probably would be best known to you as the Executive Producer of the Rummy Show. The Rummy Show has become something of our icon of news from the Pentagon briefings of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
The last time that Torie was in this room was November 8th, and she had asked us if we would put together a program of her staff as well as Washington bureau chiefs to talk about life as this war was beginning. We had reached the point where Marvin Kalb said, “This is Marvin Kalb”, and bells and whistles and everything went off and we were in the midst of a bomb scare, and we evacuated the building. At which point…
MS. VICTORIA CLARKE: On a beautiful day.
MR. HESS: But the beautiful end of the story is that Torie Clarke, the intrepid leader of information at the Pentagon, marched us all across the street to the National Cable Television Association where she had once been the Vice President, and we continued the program. So that tells you something about the initiative and the creativity of Torie Clarke.
Mike Getler on my left is the ombudsman of the Washington Post. There have been many distinguished ombudsmen, but I think without question he is the one who has spoken with greatest authority as an internal critic, daily internal critic of his newspaper, and on Sundays in a column in the Post he lets the rest of us know some of the things that he has to say about his own paper.
He was the Executive Editor of the International Herald Tribune, a foreign correspondent in Central Europe, foreign editor of the Post.
Our other discussant will be Sanford Ungar. He is the President of Goucher College. Working backwards through his resume, he was the Director of the Voice of America, he was the Dean of the School of Communication at American University, and a secret in my household is that 20 years ago my wife fell in love with him because he was the host of her very favorite program on National Public Radio, All Things Considered. So I’ve always been in sort of a strange competition with my friend Sandy Ungar.
MR. SANFORD UNGAR: Oh, no. (Laughter)
MS. CLARKE: But she only liked his voice.
MR. HESS: The program is an assessing of the media and government at this point, and it is an interesting point. This is January 9th. The first bomb dropped in Afghanistan on October 7th, so it’s almost exactly three months. The months have passed fast, events have passed fast, and on the last day of the year you may have noticed that the New York Times said we are ending our stand-alone section on the nation’s challenge, a moment that should have told us something. If it didn’t, then if you turned to the New York Times three days later and looked at the front page on January 3rd, you would have noticed that the lead story was about the Euro, the second lead was about the new Mayor of New York, there were other stories that dealt with electrical deregulation in Texas, a murder in Norway, and a piece of legislation that Senator Daschle had something to do with.
What does that tell us? That was the first day since October 7th in which there was no date line from Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, or the Middle East.
So clearly, I think this is now a very good time to have our initial assessment of the government’s role in information and journalism in covering this war at this point.
It’s usually our habit that we turn first to a Kalb as a co-host to start the questioning. We’ll have lots of time for questions from our distinguished audience later, but now we chat among ourselves.
MR. BERNARD KALB: Steve, two things to begin with. First of all, thanks for your introduction of me but I must confess I found it hardly adequate. (Laughter)
Secondly, let me convey Marvin’s regrets. But then again, Marvin and I both feel that we are eminently fungible, so here I am and Marvin is home relaxing.
Three months into the process. Torie, you get the first question which I know will be subjected to murderous analysis after you reply.
MS. CLARKE: Your question or my reply?
MR. KALB: It’s a softball question. Three months into the process. How has the Pentagon done in telling its story?
MS. CLARKE: I think we’ve done very well. As we said more than three months ago, this is a very unconventional war. We’re going against people who don’t have armies and navies and air forces. We’re going against people who hide in caves and tunnel complexes. So the military aspect of the war would also be very unconventional, as it has been.
There have been some aspects of it you can see; some aspects of it that you can’t see; but we said we would make our best effort. Those things that could be appropriately covered we would make our best effort to facilitate that coverage. And if you look at what has gone on since right before October 7th and right up until yesterday, and I’ll talk about why Jack McWethy isn’t here, the amount of coverage and the diversity of coverage has been pretty extraordinary. From carriers to bombers to being embedded with troops, to the highly unusual and highly rare instance of embedding media with special forces.
Special forces are playing a part in this war, as everyone knows, unlike they have ever played before. Very unique nature, very unique things that they do. Secrecy is a very big piece of it. But the media, and several of us made the case, it’s an important part of this war, we should try to facilitate coverage.
The reason Jack McWethy isn’t here is because he’s still trying to get back from Afghanistan where he spent a week embedded with one of the special forces teams.
If you took a look at Newsweek this week, there is a large story by Donatella Lorch, who was also embedded with one of the special forces teams. Several AP stories that have run as a result of an AP reporter, the widest reach possible, embedded with a special forces team.
If you looked at the front page of the New York Times, the front page of USA Today, this week. Highly unusual, but media were embedded with special forces teams to cover that aspect of the war. People who have covered wars far longer than I have and been in this business far longer than I have said this is an extraordinary accomplishment.
So obviously a subjective answer, and I have a bias, but I think the coverage has been pretty good.
MR. KALB: I noticed you didn’t bring any blank pages in for stories reporters never got to.
MS. CLARKE: I’m sure there are stories they haven’t got to. Sometimes that’s their fault, sometimes that is our responsibility. Any time we think there is a situation or an instance where having media along would either compromise the success of a mission or put lives at risk, we are not going to facilitate it. But if you want to look at some of the benchmarks along the way, prior to any U.S. boot being on the ground in Afghanistan, there was extensive, literally dozens and dozens of reporters embedded on carriers, interviewing bomber pilots, those sorts of things. And any of the conventional aspects of the war that could be covered, we facilitated that.
The very first time any significant number, more than a dozen, of conventional forces were on the ground in Afghanistan, it was the Marines outside Kandahar, the place that became called Forward Operating Base Rhino, the media were with them in the very first wave. The media went in with the commandos.
MR. KALB: One last question and then we’ll go on to other members of the panel. You talk about best efforts on the part of the Pentagon. Where do you think the Pentagon has fallen short on best efforts?
MS. CLARKE: Oh, I think we’ve made mistakes along the way. There was an incident with the Marines at Rhino. There was a mistake in which we did not allow and facilitate, as is our policy, the coverage of the killed and wounded coming back from a friendly fire incident. So I think that’s one mistake. We immediately took corrective action. We had extensive conversations with the bureau chiefs, so we put in more people, better prepared people, and tried to correct that. So I give you that as one example. I’m sure there will be plenty of others that will be pointed out.
MR. HESS: Torie, since I’m sure we’re going to ask Mike and Sandy to assess the Pentagon’s performance, would you then say a few words about how well you think the press did? What are the strong points and weak points? What are the stories that they should have got that they didn’t get? What are the stories that you think they got wrong?
MS. CLARKE: In general, and I’ve said this before, I think the press has done an extraordinarily good job of covering a very difficult, very unconventional war to cover. I try not to generalize too much about the media.
The Pentagon press corps in particular tend to be people who really understand the issues, really understand what goes on with the military, have done the best job. And they’ve been most sensitive to the special concerns and considerations.
We have had challenges, we’ve had some problems most specifically to mind with what I call the newcomers. People who just came flooding into the building because it happened to be the hottest story for several weeks. But in general I think the media has done a very good job.
What I found interesting is, although there were real concerns and considerations given to how we could put media with U.S. forces, especially when there were no conventional forces on the ground in Afghanistan for some time, nothing stopped reporters from going into Afghanistan. As a matter of fact the most intrepid and the most entrepreneurial and the ones who were most committed to getting the story did exactly that. For quite some time, there were more media on the ground in Afghanistan than there were U.S. forces. I’ll give you one specific example there.
Dan Rather himself and his people for about two weeks straight were calling day in, day out, calling me, calling several other people saying we want to go here, we want to go there, and we gave them the same answer we were giving everyone else which is, “We only have a handful of people on the ground, it’s not appropriate at this time, we’re not going to do it.” God bless Dan Rather, he gave up on us and got himself into Kabul and they rented a little space right there in town and he started reporting from Kabul. So I actually have been impressed. One, the overall coverage, I think, has been quite good and quite fair and quite balanced. They take shots at us when we deserve it. Then I think there have been some in particular that have been extraordinarily intrepid in how they’ve gone about covering it.
MR. KALB: Michael Getler, you’re the ombudsman of the Washington Post. If you had to write a column on what Torie has just said, what would be your lead?
MR. MICHAEL GETLER: I’d think about it first. (Laughter) Only on television do you have to give spot opinions.
I would have somewhat of a different view of it, but I think it’s clear one, the military’s done a hell of a job. As far as we know, they certainly look to have done a very effective job.
I think what Torie said about the reporters there is correct. Reporters in country, in Afghanistan and in the border areas of Pakistan have done a remarkable job, extremely courageous job.
They’re not all Dan Rather. They don’t operate with TV networks and with large support systems. Most of them are individuals who are extremely vulnerable, who have no protection, who have no support networks, who are loaded down with batteries and generators and loaded down with cash in a very dangerous situation where they’re sort of virtually walking ATM machines, very vulnerable to robbery, extortion or worse. So the reporters who have gone in there on their own in a total no-man’s land, I think we all are in their debt for excellent, excellent reporting. Very different from any other situation we’ve had.
And I’m not really the right one to respond to Torie Clarke. The people who have the best feel for how this war is really being covered are the reporters who are in the field. I wish Jack were here. It certainly would have helped. Reporters in the field, and the editors—the foreign editors, the national editors—who are back in their respective desks around the country and who deal with this question of what we don’t know, what kind of accessibility are we having. They deal with that every day. They deal with Ms. Clarke every day to try to fill those gaps that we think we don’t know.
A large question is, we don’t know what we don’t know. We really don’t know. This is a very, very closely held war in terms of information and secrecy. There are obviously some reasons that make that legitimate. My concern, just as an observer, and it’s not provable, but my concern as an observer is that it goes well beyond that. I think what we’re seeing now is a situation where the public really, the United States has been attacked, the public wants the enemy defeated as they should be, and they really are not concerned about press concerns or access concerns or secrecy concerns. They want the job done and you can’t blame them. I think aside from a couple of hundred reporters and editors and press junkies, there’s very little concern about the kinds of things that Ms. Clarke gets criticized for—not personally, but that the Pentagon and the Administration gets criticized for. I don’t think there’s any real constituency out there that cares much about the press’ complaints in this area, and I think that’s a problem.
My feeling is that now the Defense Department, the White House can basically do whatever they want to do. There is no penalty. There’s no real cost to pay with the public as far as the imposition of any kind of secrecy, whatever level of secrecy, whatever kind of restriction they wish to impose. There’s no embarrassment factor, either. The episode, the anecdote that Ms. Clarke mentioned initially about when the friendly fire evacuees were being evacuated, that was the first sort of real test of whether there would be access and they shut these reporters and photographers down immediately and they apologized later. which was nice, but they apologized later.
That can happen tomorrow, the next day, the next day, and the press will scream but nobody else will. So I think this is an ongoing battle. My own view, Bernie, to give you a long answer, I’m sorry, is that just like the whole sequence from almost the Falkland Islands to Grenada to Panama to the Gulf to now is a further and further distancing between what American forces do on a battlefield and what the press is able to see other than report of it.
MR. KALB: I want to go to the Sandy on the question coming out of what Mike has just said. To what degree does the fact that the United States is winning the war shape a positive assessment of both the Pentagon and the press?
MR. UNGAR: I think it does, Bernie. I think the coverage since October 7th has to be compared, or the situation relationship since October 7th has to be compared to two things. First of all, the last major conflict within our memory, the Gulf War, the access is so much greater this time than— And I think, of course as Mike says there’s probably a lot we don’t know, but I think that in general the public is much more honestly familiar with what’s happening now than it was during the Gulf War. And it’s become a cliche. There was a pool side in Saudi Arabia getting briefed and finding out what’s happening.
The other thing is you have to compare post October 7th with the understandably difficult period between September 11th and then, some very, very unfortunate remarks made by people in the Administration, the White House press secretary saying you have to be careful what you say, and then demonstrating how careful you have to be with what you say, erasing that from the transcript of his own briefing the next day so that nobody could document that he had said, you have to be careful what you say. And some very unfortunate and again perhaps understandable moments.
But I think since October 7th, as you suggest, the sense that this has gone well and perhaps better than anyone had any reason to expect, has…
MR. KALB: Shaped these perceptions—
MR. UNGAR: —shaped the perceptions. There is an element of reporting on the home football team, the hometown fans and hometown football team headed for the Super Bowl, and that’s perhaps understandable. You don’t want, nobody, I think, wants to splash cold water on this sort of mood.
There is one, I think Torie and other people have been very careful to say this is going to be a very long war, it’s going to be very complicated. The Secretary of Defense certainly has said this over and over again, but I don’t think the American people really believe it. I think there has been, we are accustomed to short term results and answers in this era and I think we want, even while saying yes, yes, yes, we understand it’s going to be a long war, have we won? Is it over yet? There’s the sense that we haven’t won completely but it’s going rather well so we can relax and the New York Times can go back to reporting other things and life will resume and there will be this unfortunate episode that lasted perhaps six months or so.
MR. KALB: Quickly to Michael. Sandy may be too charitable on the part of what you read from other reporters who believe there are more restrictions on the part of the Pentagon this time around than there were during the Gulf War.
MR. GETLER: I would offer a correction of one point that Sandy made. The access now in my opinion is much less than in the Gulf War. The problem, during the Gulf War there were reporters with every major unit. They didn’t take reporters on B-52s, but there were reporters with all the major Army and Marine Corps units. The problem in the Gulf was that you couldn’t file. The military took control of the dispatches and they sent them when they got ready to send them, when the war was over for most of them, by the time they got filed.
MR. UNGAR: And Mike, there were some unfortunate moments there. I remember, the thing stands out in my head where censors were actually changing copy—
MR. GETLER: But that was minimum. It was a famous case but it was relatively minimum. The problem was the delay in transmission, but there was access.
I would argue now that the stories that Ms. Clarke showed, those are from yesterday. When people wanted access was two months ago. Everybody understands that you can’t take 25 reporters on a commando raid. Everybody understands that. But I would argue that early on there could have been an effort to put a small, one or two reporters embedded with a special forces headquarters unit. You don’t have to be with the guys who go out and are doing the actual, but the headquarters unit. There’s nobody ever been on the Kitty Hawk where they operate from. There’s nobody really early on with the 10th Mountain Division—early on. And you need to stay with troops to get to understand and know what they do and what their life is like and what’s going on.
You can be told look, we’ll let you see this, you can’t report it until Thursday or next week because it’s an ongoing operation. Meanwhile, nobody has seen it.
MR. KALB: Are you aware that Torie’s been taking notes throughout these comments? (Laughter) Torie, go to it.
MS. CLARKE: Just a few things. I think, both of my friends here to my side, greatly underestimate and undervalue the American people. They confront us, they challenge us, they question us every single day.
MR. KALB: That’s the easy part.
MS. CLARKE: There have been instances where they said we want more information. Why aren’t you telling us more about why this JDAM went awry. Why aren’t you telling us more about the special forces guy who was killed? Why aren’t you giving us those sorts of information?
They equally take us to task when they think we’ve been giving out too much information. I don’t see polls and research the way I used to in my private sector life, but there is poll after poll evidently in which the American people say we’re giving out too much information.
In October when the media said we want to see what’s going on with the special forces. In the first raid, it was a covert raid in the middle of the night in Afghanistan, we brought back footage, combat camera footage from that raid, and we showed it on live national television the next morning. Many, many Americans took us to task and said you’re giving out too much information.
I think you great undervalue and estimate their thoughts, their interests, their understanding.
I for one don’t think they have a short attention span, particularly on this conflict. Their level of understanding of how difficult it is going to be, how unusual it is, is pretty extraordinary. That’s one thing.
Two, on many more occasions, because I’m one of the ones who does it, we have stood at that podium before we have been asked and we have acknowledged bombs that have gone awry. When we have solid information about civilian casualties we talk about it and we explain what happened.
We had a B-1 that went down into the water off India, off Diego Garcia. And before they were even back on board the ship that was involved in the rescue we were briefing it from the podium. So time after time we’ve gone out there.
Something else you hear, particularly from Mr. Getler, reflects what is a common challenge is people have a frame of reference and it tends to be whatever happened last time. They do not look at reality and understand how incredibly different this conflict is and view it in that sense. They keep saying boy, in the Persian Gulf War, in Kosovo, in Vietnam. This is none of those conflicts. It’s very different. And we constantly challenge ourselves, and the bureau chiefs and the people who come to my bureau chiefs meetings know this. They hear me say repeatedly, it’s very different, it’s very unconventional. In terms of how the media and the military work together, we too need to think unconventionally.
MR. KALB: But Torie, it does strike me that one difference between the coverage now and in the past is the degree to which the major news is coming out of the Pentagon. After all, Schwarzkopf, he was someplace else. So we get a quite marvelous view of a very articulate, sometimes entertaining, Secretary of Defense. But you don’t have the same flow out into the field.
Tell us then, really, tell us a little about the management of the news conference, because in fact that seems to be the way that most people are getting most of their news about this war. What decisions you’ve made there and so forth.
MS. CLARKE: It’s very little management, quite honestly. It’s dealing with reality.
If you have a team of eight or ten special forces doing an extraordinarily dangerous operation in the middle of the night it’s a bit much to expect them to stop and do a briefing. That is very different than the Persian Gulf War in which you had thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of people on the ground, and you have operating bases that were there for months and months. It’s a completely different situation. So we do what we think is appropriate at any given time.
You’ll hear me say it a hundred times, it’s a very unconventional war. It is not just about the military operations, it’s also about what goes on economically, politically, financially, those sorts of things, and I for one believe that the American people need and deserve to hear from their leaders what is it you’re trying to accomplish, how do you plan to go about doing that? That’s one of the reasons you see Secretary Rumsfeld out there. In addition to the fact that he’s one of the most effective spokesmen of the effort.
So we deal with the circumstances as they come along, but for anybody to think it makes a lot of sense, it’s made a lot of sense over the last two years, given the physical considerations in Afghanistan, to think that you’re going to do the same thing that happened in the Persian Gulf War is just ludicrous.
MR. KALB: Let me jump on that—
MS. CLARKE: I’d make one more point. I think one thing that you hear reflected, and which I’ve heard a lot of. I’m the first one to tell you, I’ve been doing this for seven months. One thing is absolutely certain. You’ve got the Pentagon, for instance, 23,000 people, a couple of million people in the military, and as I think Admiral Crowe often advised his successors, there are any number of thousands of people who can and will give background briefings to reporters. And the amount of leakage and the amount of inappropriate backgrounding and leaking of classified information and information that should never have gone out has dropped considerably. That is because Secretary Rumsfeld has made it a personal campaign that he would reduce the amount of leaking of classified information by people in government and he would reduce the amount of inappropriate backgrounding of classified information.
So you have a fair number of people, not a lot, but you have a fair number of people who are going through a bit of a culture shock. There is not quite the flood of information that there has been in the past, and I will fully tell you that I believe a lot of that information was inappropriate.
MR. KALB: I want to take that phrase of yours and use it differently. You say what happened last time. You were making the allusion, I take it, to the Gulf War, coverage of the Gulf War.
MS. CLARKE: Well, everybody seems to pick their favorite.
MR. KALB: I want to take it back, just to take a minute or two, to talk about the reinforcement of the adversarial relationship between the media and the Pentagon, and inevitably I’ve got to go back to the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War drove that credibility gap wide open. Perceptions in Washington, official perceptions, that the war is at the end of the tunnel. Those of us who spent hundreds of years covering the war knew that the tunnel was in some galaxy millions of miles away, etc.
And you come to that question about the residual resonance of the relationship between the media and the military. In Vietnam the arithmetic done after the war was that many in the military felt that the media had stabbed them in the back and was responsible for the collapse of the U.S. position in Vietnam.
It seems to me that we cannot let that go in defining the nature of the relationship today. You resisted the word managed, but is it in a way, management of the media from your point of view, would be an ideal world, wouldn’t it?
MS. CLARKE: No, not at all. Not at all. And again, I won’t generalize to the extent you will about the relationship between the media and the military. There is as much diversity in those two constituencies as you have in this room, so I won’t generalize. There are some who I’m sure carry with them from Vietnam and other places hard feelings on both sides. But what I’ve found is that you talk about the core constituency, so for instance the Pentagon press corps, or for instance the people who are running this war from the military’s perspective, they’re making extraordinary efforts to work on this relationship.
At the end of the day, and I think we finally got to this the last time we met in November across the street there. At the end of the day, I think it’s a very healthy tension. I think it exists for a reason. The Preamble of the Constitution calls for a common defense. The First Amendment, freedom for Michael’s colleagues. I think that’s a very good thing. If we agreed on everything it would not be a healthy world and we’d probably be living in the Soviet Union. I think it’s very appropriate that there is this healthy tension.
And as I said before, we actually have some pretty common objectives. It is in my interest for the American people to get as much appropriate news and information about this war as possible. If we keep them informed, if we keep them educated, they will stay with us. They won’t leave us if bad things happen or more people get killed. They will leave us if we’re not completely straight with them.
And that’s one of the other things we hear from them, they appreciate that we’re very straight with them.
The news media, it’s your business. It’s your business, it’s your obligation to get out as much news and information as possible.
So we have common objectives. There is a healthy tension. What’s the level, what’s the appropriate information?
There are probably mistakes and variations on each side, but I happen to think it’s a very healthy tension.
MR. HESS: Let me get back to Sandy and Mike, and Torie too in this regard. It strikes me, you’ve given very generous marks to the press. Fair enough. We can sort out the good and bad later. But if we go back to October and think about what we were being told by analysts, columnists, editorial writers and so forth, let’s sort of tick it off. Quagmire was the favorite word. Just look at the Soviet Union, how they were trapped in Afghanistan. Is this going to happen to us? Air power. Look at the geography of this. How can this possibly work? The Arab street, this is going to be a revolution that we’re creating. On and on and on. It strikes me that the people who were opinionating through the media were incredibly wrong. Partly they were wrong, when you get right down to it, and now some of them admit hey, I’ve never been to Afghanistan.
MR. UNGAR: That’s the point, Steve. The area, the region was so little known, and not just by the American public but by the American media, and when you look back and think about the regime that was in power for the time it was in Afghanistan, in part in power because of American weapons that were fed to people to fight the Soviet occupiers, etc., and the Soviet sponsored regime in Afghanistan, it is a shocking thing.
The organization that I used to lead, the Voice of America, was one of the few media institutions that was doing any reporting about what was happening in Afghanistan. The Taliban was a uniquely horrifying regime in many respects. I think we have to be careful what we compare things to. But for this era the Taliban was really quite amazing and we knew very little about it. Very little done, unlike now, about what was happening to women in Afghanistan which was extraordinary and almost unequaled on the face of the earth in the last couple of decades.
I think that it is therefore understandable how poor the coverage was, how little was understood about the country and the region.
MR. GETLER: I just wanted to say one or two points. It wasn’t really— I disagree with you Sandy. We’re good friends, but—
We didn’t understand anything about Vietnam when we went into Vietnam either. But there was understanding of Afghanistan in different places. There was a whole group of reporters, I spent time on the Afghan/Pakistan border as a foreign editor in ’87. There were a whole bunch of people who had covered the Mujahadin and the war against the Soviets in the ’80s. And the Post defense correspondent grew up in Afghanistan, Tom Ricks. There were one or two other reporters there that spent a lot of time there.
But the most important thing is I want to separate what you’re saying. There clearly were people, analysts, thumb suckers, editorial writers, who would I’m sure, like to have some of their columns back or some of their talking head performances back about now, but that’s not a press issue. That’s not the kind of issue that I think about and that reporters think about. That’s opinion, analysis, sound bites on television. What my concern is and what news editors’ concerns are and reporters concerns are news reporting, access to news. Not whether somebody calls this a quagmire on the editorial page or something else. That is true. It’s conveyed in newspapers and on all 24 hour a day cable channels. That is not news. That’s thumb sucking. There’s a different…
MR. KALB: But let me interrupt, Mike. It colors the perception of what the media is reporting.
Right or wrong, a pundit on television must never be hesitant. (Laughter) We have seen a great deal of that as Steve is suggesting in the profile of the ludicrous estimates at the very outset. So that while you may draw a distinction between opinion and news columns, the fact is so much of opinion, particularly television opinion, has a way of shaping the perception of what the drumbeat of the media is saying, and that is inevitable.
MR. GETLER: But that’s not what the press is important for. The press is important for establishing, journalism is important and reporting is establishing an independent historical record of what the United States did here, here, there and there. What our forces did. And that is what is absolutely central to this argument.
MR. KALB: No argument there. But let’s pick up the point about whether or not the press was indeed helping the American public understand the issues at work in Afghanistan prior to September 11th. You talked about people who indeed were raised in Afghanistan, who wrote about Afghanistan and so forth. But after the Soviet Union collapsed, the end of the Cold War, the anxiety at the end, this country, the press in this country went into some sort of sand pit in terms of foreign coverage.
Bureaus, I used to be the Bureau Chief of CBS in Paris. Those things were wiped out. Now there was, beginning in ’90, a sense of passion about news within the confines of America. Numero uno, etc. Nobody could hurt the United States.
Suddenly we are reinvited to join the world against our will. Krauthammer had a lovely phrase, the United States has been on a holiday from history, in fact. So the question is this, Mike, and you pick up the responsibility of the media. Yes, the public during the ’90s may have been disinterested in foreign news, but if you do the arithmetic on coverage, foreign news got this, scandal got that, and domestic got about that. That seems to me to be an accurate, emerging portrait of what the media collectively was in the ’90s.
MR. UNGAR: And further, Bernie, I think it has to be said that this, the sort of excuse that’s very often given by the media that the public is not interested is frequently a self-fulfilling prophecy. The lack of coverage creates a disinterest because how is the public to express its interest? How is the public to demand greater coverage of South Asia? It’s not going to happen.
MR. KALB: At CBS, Dick Salant used to say we give them what they need to know or what they want to know and you have to strike a balance between the two. But the need to know is critical and to a large degree the media abandoned that in the ’90s.
MR. GETLER: I think the danger here, Bernie, is talking about “the media”.
MR. KALB: Fair enough. That’s true.
MR. GETLER: Nations’ interests change, they switch, the agenda— Administrations change agendas for countries. But the point is the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, a bunch of other newspapers did not stop covering the world. There are just as many foreign correspondents on those newspapers now as there were then, and so the material was there. It dropped off in a lot of other parts of the media—
MR. KALB: Major television abandoned it.
MR. GETLER: Television totally abdicated. American television totally abdicated with the exception of CNN.
MR. KALB: The broadcast networks.
MR. HESS: It’s fair enough to draw a line between the editorial page and the OpEd page and the rest of the paper and say you’re talking about reporting, they’re talking about editorializing. But is it not also true that more and more analysis, opinion, drifts into what pages that are controlled by reporting?
MR. GETLER: No, I don’t think that’s true.
MR. HESS: When the Wall Street Journal did a good piece about the myths that were wrong, and they pointed to pieces by Nick Von Hoffman or Dan Shorr, they also pointed to pieces in the LA Times and in the Wall Street Journal that were done by reporters.
Reporters are not robots anymore that are just going to report as wire services hacks. And it strikes me that these myths drifted in to the perception of the street, or the terrain or so forth. That should be worrisome.
MR. UNGAR: The other thing is, one of the things that has changed dramatically since the time, if I may presume to say when Mike Getler and I were both reporters at the Washington Post, quite a few years ago, is that there were a lot of people then, those decades ago, who got their first information about what was happening in a lot of parts of the world from the newspapers in the morning, and that is rarely true anymore. People do not rely, very few people rely on the newspaper to find out what happened yesterday.
MR. HESS: Except other newspapermen.
MR. UNGAR: That’s certainly true.
Because it is no longer the first source of information, as wonderful as the work is that’s being done, there is a tendency to be explaining more and therefore analyzing more and therefore as you suggest getting further away from strict reporting.
MR. HESS: Mike is right, of course, you can’t talk about “the media”. But go back to Torie, who’s got to sort out—
MS. CLARKE: People generalize about the Pentagon.
MR. HESS: Yeah, you’ve got to sort out who you want to give your exclusives to, who you want to give your interviews to and so forth. how does it structure in your mind? Where is the importance in reaching the American people in the hierarchy of it? You want to be on the Today Show first?
MS. CLARKE: Again, it depends on the circumstances. It depends on what’s going on in the war, what we think is important to communicate. It’s a situation in which more than size matters. We believe we have a responsibility to reach beyond just the American people in terms of communicating. We think international audiences are important. So for instance we make a special case for AFP and Reuters, much to the dismay of some of the domestic news organizations.
So it’s a complex situation, it depends on the circumstances. I think if you had to put one watchword to it, it’s diversity.
MR. KALB: Do you call the shots, for example, I’m thinking of Wolfowitz and the New York Times the other day. What was the decisionmaking process to give the New York Times that interview and the timing of that interview that sounded warnings to a variety of countries?
MS. CLARKE: A lot of different things go into every interview request and acceptance by us. There are a lot of people, they actually had requested that interview for some time. A lot of the large organizations are doing their end of the year or trying to look ahead kind of interview, so that clearly was a factor for us as well.
MR. GETLER: Good management—
MS. CLARKE: No. Other people can decide what management means. In this town that tends to have an evil connotation. But we make judgments every single day. What is the best way to get out as much news and information about the various aspects of this war. You’ll go to different news organizations depending on—
MR. KALB: Who are your favorite Pentagon journalists, and I don’t mean to destroy their careers if you mention their names.
MS. CLARKE: For me to say anything complimentary about an individual will cause the person undue harm so I won’t do it. I’ll say something bad about a few and they’ll get a pay raise and everything else. (Laughter)
I will talk about the Pentagon press corps as a group, and I’ve worked with a lot of different press corps—political, Trade Representatives office, those sorts of things. I have never found a group as dedicated, as committed to their jobs. These people, in general, come in at 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning.
MR. KALB: They’ve got “the story” right now.
MS. CLARKE: No, even before that. You look at the first three or four rows in our briefing room, when we brief five times a week, because that is something the media told us they wanted to do. So we brief five times a week. When you look at those first few rows, they are the same people who have been there day in, day out.
And I’ll correct something I said. We do tend—
MR. KALB: Wow. Wait a minute. Take a full breath on that. (Laughter)
MS. CLARKE: I will say this, and I will say here’s where my bias comes in terms of deciding where do we grant interviews and those sorts of things. If I have a bias it is towards long term Pentagon correspondents and organizations?people and organizations that made a commitment to the building and to covering U.S. military well before September 11th.
MR. KALB: How did you pick the reporters who wrote Green Berets outfought the Taliban. [sic]
MS. CLARKE: Who got embedded with the special forces teams?
MR. KALB: Yes.
MS. CLARKE: There were six special forces teams, six individual correspondents. Two were broadcast networks, AP, New York Times, Newsweek, Gannett. A variety of factors.
MR. KALB: Why didn’t you do a pool so that everybody would have access to it?
MS. CLARKE: We had already gone to unilateral coverage. Again, largely at the urging and the request of bureau chiefs and correspondents. The news media’s strong preference, as soon as you can get to unilateral coverage, do it. So I’d say a week or so before we had already moved to unilateral coverage. So we just decided the best efforts being put forward, and organizations and people that we absolutely know will act in an extraordinarily responsible fashion in an extraordinarily unusual and dangerous situation, which this was, those are the people we’re going to put in there.
MR. HESS: Torie, remind us—particularly, me—in 1992 after the Gulf War, the Pentagon got together with the major bureaus and they worked out a set of protocol on how the next war would be covered. What’s happened to that? It strikes me that the coverage today doesn’t sound like the coverage that was planned and agreed to by the Pentagon and news organizations nearly a decade ago.
MS. CLARKE: Well, the operative phrase, nearly a decade ago. What’s happened is the Secretary has endorsed those principles and it’s just one of the many conversations we’ve had with bureau chiefs. Many of the people who I know spent extraordinary amounts of time and hard work on those principles nearly a decade ago, felt very committed to them. We felt very committed, we are very committed to the general press principles and essence of them. We suggested, queried, challenged people gosh, more than a decade’s gone by, maybe we should take a look at these. There was no inclination on the part of any bureau chief that I can remember to change anything. We said okay, we’ll endorse them. The Secretary himself met with the bureau chiefs and endorsed those principles.
As importantly, more importantly, it depends on your perspective, we meet just about every two weeks with the bureau chiefs as a group. I talk to individuals regularly. I talk to the network bureau chiefs on a regular basis as a group. So for us it’s more of a living organism, if you will, and we’re constantly working on it.
MR. KALB: If you take a look at this historically, the point you’re making, Steve, after ever war the media and the Pentagon get together and do a little chest beating. Then they say the next time around it’s got to be a lot better. Then the next time around comes, and as you’re suggesting the Secretary endorses the principles, and then you run into different realities where you make ad hoc judgments about the way you have to go.
This session cannot end with some discussion about the role of the Secretary of Defense himself. The new cover boy, etc. So let me put it in the broadest terms. In broadest terms— two extremes. Is the practicing, the art, or the practice of making as much information as possible, as you can; or is he a charismatic evader? (Laughter) I took extremes. There are 94 other definitions midway, obviously.
MS. CLARKE: I’ll take neither extreme, and there are probably people in this room who have known him longer than I have. But what you see is what you get. He answers questions as directly and forthrightly and openly as he can.
MR. KALB: I can, but I won’t.
MS. CLARKE: If you’ve ever read Rumsfeld Rules, one of them that he’s had for a long time, I know and I can tell you, I know and I can’t tell you, or I don’t know and I can’t tell you. He very often puts those categories out in the briefing room. But he is somewhat, when he focuses on these sorts of things, which he does not. The obsession with him and his role in this and in the briefing room, he just says, I just tell them what I know and what I think I can tell.
One of the reasons you often see him pause and think about what he’s going to say is, you think about the reams of information that come into him every single day, on paper, in person, on secure calls, in meetings. Some of it is highly classified, some of it is classified, some of it isn’t. He is mentally going through what’s appropriate here to reveal and what’s not.
Again, to generalize about the Pentagon press corps, those who know him very well, I think several of them will and have, if you read some of the journals in which these articles get written, will say if you understand him and you watch him closely, he puts out an awful lot of information.
MR. HESS: We grilled Torie pretty strongly about how the Pentagon does its business, but somehow we haven’t asked Mike very much about how the Washington Post does its business. How reporters, where you got your reporters from, this is costly, where you sent them, how you arranged your coverage. Tell us about your coverage and the problems you’ve had; or what you wish they had done and they didn’t do.
MR. GETLER: You have to remember, I do not work for the Washington Post and I don’t control their coverage—
MR. HESS: You’re housed there.
MR. GETLER: So I try to preserve myself as a reader of the newspaper and function at that level.
MR. UNGAR: But Mike, you do work for the Washington Post.
MR. GETLER: I do not work for the Washington Post.
MR. UNGAR: Where does your paycheck come from?
MR. GETLER: Well, I’m a self-employed contractor person.
MR. HESS: But you read the Washington Post closer than any other human being and you’re housed at the Washington Post, and since you’ve been everything down from Assistant Managing Editor to Foreign News, you know them pretty well.
MR. GETLER: I do know them well, but I don’t sit in on their, intentionally I don’t sit in on, although they wouldn’t stop me, but I don’t sit in on any of their strategy discussions or planning discussions, nor do I want to.
But as a reader, as an observer, I think they’ve done quite well. They moved very quickly. I think they were the first, certainly I think they went in with the LA Times, they were the first to get people to Uzbekistan. They have I think eight reporters, the last time I checked, in Afghanistan, and two along the border with Pakistan. They have a couple of photographers there. They deployed very quickly, very well. Their Moscow correspondent, Peter Baker, used to cover the White House here and transferred to Moscow. The story is he arrived in Uzbekistan so fast, it happened that he arrived with khakis and a blazer, which is not exactly the uniform of the day in Uzbekistan or Afghanistan and with no sleeping bag.
So they’ve done very well. I think their coverage has been very courageous from the field. And I think they’ve poured an enormous amount of resources into it, it’s a very, very expensive operation. I think all the newspapers that made major commitments in manpower to the war have the problem of rotation. It’s very wearing and tiring to stay there for very long stretches so you need another group to come afterwards, and that’s a very tricky thing. They’ve done reasonably well at that. And the coverage from here, I thought, is in the best traditions of major daily newspapers committed to cover a war, whether or not, especially one in which the sense is you have an Administration that is very, very dedicated to close-hold on information and is perceived as taking advantage of the idea that this is an unusual and unconventional war, which everybody understands.
So I think they’ve done well. Certainly Woodward’s had a lot of good stories. They’ve had some of their other investigative reporters, then military reporters here have done well in trying to piece together from sources outside of Secretary Rumsfeld what is really going on. What are the questions, what are the doubts people are having at times when they did have doubts, what are the implications of what we’re doing.
It’s quite interesting. This whole operation now, it’s quite clear that it’s had considerable success, is being talked about as a model for other potential interventions. Yet I don’t think anybody on the outside has a real sense of how this is put together, how it works, what kind of decisions— Again, there were no reporters when, at the intensive part of looking for bin Laden in the Tora Bora area, and so was there a mistake in terms of relying too much on Afghan forces, not enough on U.S. forces? I don’t know. There are a lot of interesting questions about this which nobody knows.
What was the deal with Uzbekistan? Did we make any promises about human rights and other issues in order to get access for the troops? A lot of interesting questions out there that we don’t really know much about and maybe in time we’ll find something out about it.
By and large I think the paper’s done a good job.
MR. UNGAR: Certainly we hope that the media will pursue those.
MR. GETLER: Absolutely.
MR. UNGAR: And try to keep the public interest on the issue of what compromises were made to build this coalition and—
MS. CLARKE: May I ask a question? I’ll tell a little story to ask the question of Mr. Getler: who has written a column about this.
When I was trying to get ready for this job months ago, I was doing tons of reading and talking to every live predecessor I could find, reading all of those transcripts of the commissions, the media and the military, what went wrong in, fill in the name of the conflict. Everybody I talked to and every word I read, people would say to me, whatever you do, look up what happened to Arthur Sylvester who was one of my predecessors. Okay.
So I go to look up what Arthur Sylvester had done, and I haven’t seen the speech myself, but according to all the reporting as a person in my position he gave a speech in New York in which he said he thinks it’s okay for the government to lie. And if you go back to the transcripts of the confirmation hearings of every one of my predecessors, at least six or seven times, every time there was a senator on the Armed Services Committee who said of the person who’s going to hold my job, what do you think about that and do you think it’s appropriate for someone in your position to lie. You’d say absolutely not. And I think it is absolutely inappropriate for anyone, particularly anyone in the U.S. government, particularly anyone in my position to ever lie or even come close to it.
Michael did write a piece once in which he took the Pentagon to task for not doing what he thought was a good enough job, and he said he thought it was unfortunate that the journalists don’t have the kind of advocate in the Pentagon like Arthur Sylvester. So—
MR. GETLER: No, no. I didn’t—
MS. CLARKE: You did. You said it was unfortunate— Or no, you said it was unfortunate that—
MR. GETLER: — that word journalists.
MS. CLARKE: — that journalists don’t have an advocate like Arthur Sylvester in the Pentagon.
So I would ask you. Do you want someone in the Pentagon who will lie?
MR. GETLER: No, of course not. Of course not. I mentioned—
MS. CLARKE: So how could you —
MR. GETLER: I mentioned a whole—I think the point was, Torie, which you well know, the point was that the military/press relationship, there’s built-in tensions as you said, absolutely, sure. But it will never, to the degree that it can come together so that reporters can have more access and produce, do their job in a democracy in an area where sometimes they need the military to let them see things or even to protect them.
So my point was that one way, or the only way, certainly one way this will happen is if there are strong advocates within Administrations, and I said journalists, who are just, they grow up with all of these instincts. They grow up with all of those battles behind them. If they’re a strong advocate within an Administration who will fight for that access. That wasn’t really meant as an attack on you.
MS. CLARKE: Since the hallmark of Arthur Sylvester’s career was saying it’s appropriate for U.S. government officials to lie, I would suggest—
MR. GETLER: There were four or five people mentioned.
MS. CLARKE: —you should be careful not to generalize groups of people.
MR. GETLER: First of all, he lied about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Secondly, there was Tom Ross, and several other assistant secretaries of defense who all came out of a strong journalistic background who were in that column. That was the point.
MR. KALB: Let me just pick up that point if I may, because in a personal way I had that experience at the State Department when I had about 18 months or so as an Assistant Secretary of State and spokesman, and was in the State Department because of the experience you’re suggesting, Michael. It is possible to push the doors open as wide as you can. You keep pushing. They might not open as wide as you’d like. On the very simple theory that the press is out there to convey the point of view of the State Department to the American public, because without U.S. public support, policy is foredoomed to failure. By the same token, as you fight for greater opening with the State Department, there may be a time when it comes to resign, which is what I did at a certain point on the question of disinformation as reported in your newspaper and the Washington Post.
Now let’s go to the question about whether there’s going to be, let me go to Sandy on this thing.
The New York Times had a nation challenge shortly after September 11th which they decided on New Year’s Day, it just started a few days ago, not that we are a nation unchallenged, but it had reached a different level of intensity and crisis against the background of U.S. victories in Afghanistan. Are we going to see with the political story gaining new velocity now as we careen toward an election in November, are we going to see some sort of a better distribution of resources, journalistic resources? Or are we going to sort of drift away more toward the domestic? And once again we go back to what the United States did when the Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan. It can’t happen again the same way, obviously. But are we going to see a drift away, possibly, inevitably as we come to political decisions in November, a drift away from the emphasis on Afghanistan, all the nuances, all the primitive ABCs etc., and once again do the heavy lifting in terms of what’s happening in this country as we approach election day in November?
MR. UNGAR: Bernie, I think you have to say I hope yes and I hope no. I mean I certainly hope we get back to sort of a balanced view of what’s happening in the world and the country and our region, etc. It’s unrealistic to think—
MR. KALB: A quick PS. Is America escaping scrutiny because the emphasis is on Afghanistan?
MR. UNGAR: I think for awhile what was happening in the country was escaping scrutiny. You see all these catch-up stories about what’s been happening since September 11th, the things that didn’t get noticed that otherwise would have been noticed, and there’s always been this thing that things that happen in August get much more attention because nothing else is happening.
I think that there will be some turning back. On the other hand, I think the last few days there’s been this sort of almost the phony revival of the political story. I think a lot of people looked at the calendar, oh, my God, it’s 2002, there’s going to be an election. There’s this question of who’s going to control Congress, so we’d better get back to covering politics. So one speech by the President suddenly becomes this lightning rod, a pretty good rhetorical line, it caught a lot of attention. But politics hasn’t gone away, it won’t go away, it shouldn’t go away any more than conflicts between the press and the Pentagon should go away. There will be certain conditions of American democratic life that will continue, thank goodness, and I think we’ll get back to a somewhat more balanced view of things.
But I think after September 11th there was a temptation to believe, and an understandable one, that we have not faced circumstances like this, most of us, in our adult lifetime anywhere. And the whole CNN, “America Under Attack,” I believe it said in the New York Times, “A Nation Challenged,” a more dignified New York Timesish way of saying the same thing. And I think that the question becomes how long do you stay at that feverish pitch day after day after day? You can’t. And of course you probably learn more when you’re not at that feverish pitch. I certainly hope, though, that Afghanistan and the region will not be abandoned. There is a great deal to understand and a great deal to be watched about this friendly regime that we now—
MR. HESS: I think it’s just about time for us to give the audience a crack at this. Would anybody, before we do, like to say anything in terms of those stories that they remembered that were so wonderful and they can’t get out of their mind, or some that are demerits or so forth?
I’d like to at least say one thing, and that is the remarkable job that was called Portrait in Grief that the New York Times did day after day [200-word essays about people killed on September, 11]. That was a service to the nation that was beyond anything almost that I can recall in a situation like this in terms of feelings.
I know people read them for different reasons, but I must say that I made an effort to spend 15 minutes a day reading those to remind myself why we were there, what it was all about. It was a remarkable—
MR. UNGAR: It personalized it, it humanized it.
MR. HESS: Yeah. Anybody else who would like to credit anything before we go to the audience?
MS. CLARKE: I would not focus on particular stories. Because again if you come in one or a person, they get in trouble, if I do.
But I would say one of the good things that is happening is that we’re having sessions like this now, not after the fact. Historically, and the reason we first came to you back last fall, after a conflict. The think tanks have their commissions, somebody has their investigation, you have the media and the military—what went wrong. What is good about this process, I think, and those who have covered wars far longer than I’ve been involved have said they agree, is that it is somewhat, this healthy tension is being examined day in and day out and people are willing to come to the table every week and talk about how can we keep moving this ball forward. So I for one think that’s a very good thing.
MR. HESS: Let me mention one other story in the Post, Michael, that you can take back to the author, because I thought it was so amazing. That was Pam Constable’s story in the Outlook section when she had to go back and identify the body of a colleague in a cavalcade of cars in which she was one car removed from getting killed. And it reminds us, too, you mentioned about the difficulty of this job. That while one American soldier has been killed in enemy fire, we deeply regret that; eight foreign correspondents have. And I think at some point, perhaps when we have one of these conversations with reporters who have come back from Afghanistan, we really have to discuss ways in which news organizations train people and protect people to the degree that they’re able in these very difficult situations.
MR. UNGAR: There’s one that stands out for me, it was done by Anne Garrels on NPR, and it was a piece about a young woman, and I think it was in Kabul, but it was in one of the Afghan cities that had just been liberated and had just been removed from Taliban control. It was a young woman who spoke just enough English to be able to communicate, talking about making the decision to go outside without her burkha for the first time, and what this represented. She was giggling with fear and nervousness about it. For me at least, that particular story conveyed something that I hadn’t completely understood until that time.
MR. KALB: One of many good stories that stand out in my mind is the story that Mike Getler did in his ombudsman column in which he took on what seemed to be a little bit of journalistic shooting from the hip about the so-called dirty bomb, the Washington Post story blared across the front page about the dirty bomb as being developed by Osama, and I think it was the very next day where there was some journalistic hesitation about the impact of that, and you chose to single that out, and that’s one of the pieces that sticks in my mind because of the necessity, the absolute necessity to keep the press under a very critical eye.
MR. GETLER: Thank you.
MR. HESS: Questions.
Q: My name is Catherine Drew. I work for South African Broadcasting.
Apologies. My question is at something of a tangent, but I will never get it near such a distinguished panel again, so I’m going to, I’d like to ask you about the film Black Hawk Down which will be on general release next week as you all probably know. It documents America’s 1993 mission to Somalia.
Seeing as every day we see public debate about what the U.S. is going to do in Somalia, I’m just wondering if the panel would like to discuss their views about if this Hollywood version of what happened should or will play into the public debate about what America does about Somalia, and if in fact this could even affect Administration thinking. Thank you.
MR. GETLER: We’re just a backwater here. It hasn’t opened here in Washington, yet. You have to live in New York or LA to have seen the film.
I read the book. It’s an extraordinary book, a great tour de force of reportorial reconstruction of an event. It’s very, very powerful. And it’s not a political book and it’s not a strategic book. It’s a book about the same kinds of forces that are fighting in Afghanistan, Delta Force and special forces, and their commitment to each other and how a group of soldiers won’t leave anybody behind, and that produces an escalating crisis for them because two helicopters are down, as you know.
So I think, I haven’t seen the film, I heard it’s quite powerful. But I’m not sure that that would necessarily have much of a political impact.
MR. UNGAR: It’s certainly telling, the release of the film was delayed when the initial phase of this war, the producers felt there was something inappropriate about releasing that film at that point. I haven’t seen the film, unfortunately I haven’t read the book. My 17 year old son says it’s the best book he’s ever read, so I take that as a pretty strong endorsement.
But I think it says something about where we are now compared to where we were in September when the film was about to be released but was pulled, that the producers, at least, who know more about it than any of us, feel that this is a good time for that film to be seen.
Q: I’m John Martin with ABC News. I just wanted to thank the panel for a terrific, vigorous discussion. I never expected to see a press spokesman quiz a journalist as you just did to Mr. Getler, and I know it must feel kind of good to be able to get back at— (Laughter)— make those comments.
But one of the things that struck me about this, the coverage of this war and it particularly came to me when the journalists were killed in that convoy, I called the Spanish newspaper that one of them was from and talked to one of the reporters there, and realized this was the first face I had really seen and understood of somebody who had been killed in the conflict. And I realized, too, that there’s no Ernie Pyle in this war. Many of you may know who Ernie Pyle was, but he was probably the most beloved correspondent of the 2nd World War because he spent weeks at a time living with the troops, writing about the troops, using their real names and their real home towns, and it brought the war to people here— what the sacrifices were and what everyone was going through.
I wondered, if Ernie Pyle were alive today, could he report from Afghanistan? Could he live with the troops?
MS. CLARKE: Sure. The short answer is sure. The long answer is, it depends on the circumstances and depends where. Steve Vogel of the Washington Post lived on a carrier for weeks and day in, day out there was incredible reporting, putting faces and names, not always what the home town was, but putting faces and names and a life to these men and women who serve day in and day out. I think we have the Ernie Pyles of the 21st Century and I put Steve Vogel right up there who gave an extraordinarily real image of what these people are going through.
MR. KALB: You’ve gone back on your word earlier, not to mention names.
MS. CLARKE: You’re right. I apologize to Steve Vogel.
MR. GETLER: The question is could they do it on the ground where it is so dangerous? Not very many journalists want to do this.
MS. CLARKE: They are doing it on the ground. A fellow from a news organization I will not name came into my office yesterday to thank me because he had spent two or three weeks with the Marines near Kandahar. Two or three weeks sleeping on the ground with the bugs, the cold, everything else, and he said it was extraordinary. And to the extent you can facilitate more of this, do it.
So six or seven months, I don’t know. But weeks yes, and it is going on.
And to that point, the more we can show people what the men and women in uniform are like and what they are doing and the conditions under which they operate, the better off we are, and we are doing this to the greatest extent because they are incredible people.
A few weeks ago when we flew with the Secretary into Afghanistan and we took 13, 14 media with us, it was only four or five hours, the impact on all of us, and the impact on the media, they’ve told me this themselves, was extraordinary. These people are so dedicated, they are so committed, they are so responsible. This was just a week or so before the holidays. I’d be talking to them around the edges and I’d say what’s it like? You’re going to be here over the holidays, are you sad about that, are you missing your family? And to a person, and you could not write this stuff, to a person they would say this is my family, this is where I should be, and this is so important. It’s just incredible.
MR. UNGAR: Unfortunately I think, though, the Ernie Pyles of this era would not have the audience that Ernie Pyle had in the 2nd World War because of the great multiplication of sources, of information that people have. They’re just not going to depend on a newspaper column for that kind of insight.
Q: I’m Janet Gottschalk of the Medical Missions Sisters. We have sisters that have been working in Pakistan, and currently are working there. We’ve also been in Afghanistan for years. I think I would agree with the comment somebody made up here that much of the coverage has been very positive in favor of the home team.
I am questioning where the American people get news and information, perspective maybe even, from other teams in this whole operation without resorting to the BBC and groups like that?
MR. UNGAR: A brief commercial for the Voice of America, which is not heard in the United States and where I no longer work. The Voice of America has really made an effort over a period of time that was to present all sides of some of these extremely difficult stories. In Afghanistan last year, before all this began in one survey that was done, 67 percent of the men in Afghanistan said they listened to Voice of America every day. The State Department—
MS. GOTTSCHALK: — American—
MR. UNGAR: I understand. Just to finish this point, the State Department, which is not on the griddle today the way Torie Clarke is, the State Department has tried to end that objective role of the Voice of America, tried to turn it into a propaganda agency. I hope without success. And I hope that next week when we take up some of these other issues in public diplomacy, I think Steve, that will be covered.
The American people have to have a very broad variety of sources, both domestic and foreign, if they really want to get a broad picture of what’s happening.
MS. CLARKE: And I’d make a plug for my former industry, the cable television industry or the satellite industry, pick one, you can hear what the BBC is saying, what Al Jazeera is saying, what Saudi TV is saying, there are some of the Asian outlets, I recognize some of the correspondents here. A surplus of riches in terms of the variety of sources from whom you can and do get information.
MR. HESS: And I do hope at some point we’ll have one of these programs about the internet, and its relation to this.
Q: I’m Lou Wolfson from American University. The first thing I’ve got to say is I don’t have a self interest, but Sandy Ungar was once my boss. But I think he made a point early on—
MR. KALB: Even so.
MR. WOLFSON: Even so, exactly. He knows I wasn’t a company man, too.
But he made a point early on that I think got subsequently buried, and Torie answered this in a certain way which was the American people really don’t know especially what’s going to happen next, but each step in this thing we’re wondering what’s going to happen next, what this means. And Torie said oh, I think they do. I think you may be right for the feedback that your office gets, the kind of people that come back to you. But I think the American people as a whole don’t understand what’s going to come next, and I think the Administration understands this because as you keep saying this is a very different war, it continues, and your boss, the Secretary of Defense, and the President almost every day now say this is going to continue, we don’t know how long, we don’t know what form it’s going to take.
MS. CLARKE: A slight correction. I think what I said was the American people seem to have a high level of understanding that this is going to be very long and very difficult and very unusual. I don’t think I said we know exactly what’s going to happen next, as do they. I don’t. Where we go next—
MR. WOLFSON: I didn’t intend to say that if I did.
MS. CLARKE: Where we go next, what we do next in the war on terrorism, which is about more than Afghanistan, are presidential decisions and up to the President to decide when we talk about those things. But what I’ve seen, and I’ll give you that, I have somewhat of a narrow perspective on the world. But what I’ve seen is, and I’ve seen smart people like the ones on this panel talk about this, there seems to be an extraordinarily high level of understanding and commitment to the notion that it will be very long and very difficult and very unusual.
MR. KALB: Can I just add a phrase to this please?
MR. HESS: And let’s move on because we have a lot of hands up.
MR. KALB: What you talked about is essentially uncertainty, in fact strikes me as part of the Administration strategy. The idea is to keep other countries on edge, keep a certain question mark on the air about who might be next, etc. So I think it’s more calculated than a question of doubt.
MR. HESS: Lou, it’s also a question of the American people care, the American people don’t care. I don’t know that we can carry it any farther at this point. I do want to get as many questions in as possible.
Q: Bill Hammon, the Army Center of Military History. I’ve seen both Michael and Stephen refer to the enormous expense of this war. We’ve seen just this week the Washington Post raise its price to 35 cents. How long can we keep this up?
In the Civil War I know one tally that said that the New York Herald spent $400,000 in covering that war. That was a princely sum in that time. And I look at the Vietnam War, and I did a study for the Shorenstein, and we saw the average age of the reporters decline by almost 10 years from the beginning of the war to the end; and we saw a rise of women. They became about 35 percent of the press corps at the end of the war. Because they were cheaper.
Are we going to evolve into a kind of cut-rate press coverage? And what are the implications of this?
MR. HESS: This is a subject that is very dear to the heart of my co-host Marvin Kalb. We are going to very definitely have a whole session on the question of the economics of this. If anyone would like to add some comment directly to the question fine, but I just want you to know come back and we’re going to deal with that one at length.
MR. UNGAR: So much has changed since Vietnam, obviously, including the sense that it was shocking that women came into the press corps at that time and we wouldn’t be shocked by that now, in fact we would say that it’s necessary in order to have full coverage and understanding of what’s happening.
We’re all haunted by Vietnam. I think in some ways there are probably still people in the Pentagon who believe that the press lost the war for the United States and they’re going to avoid those mistakes again, still, even if they don’t fully understand them.
But I think the ability of the media, and again it’s using too broad a term I suppose, to stay with it is a really important question. Who’s going to go, this rotation issue, will there be a large enough group of people who really understand what needs to be done. I think that is a very important long term issue.
MR. KALB: Just to phrase it, the fellow who just asked that question, Bill Hammon, is a remarkable fellow, and I want to offer a biographical sentence or two, because he wrote possibly the definitive book on the relations between the media and the military financed by the Army and Bill’s ultimate conclusion was essentially on Vietnam, the media got it right.
MR. GETLER: I would agree with that. I think 58,000 dead GIs is what lost the Vietnam War and not the press.
But I don’t think there’s going to be cut-rate coverage. I think the major news organizations will do what they have to to finance this coverage. Hopefully they take their role seriously. If you do, this is an investment in what you do. This is an investment in how people perceive your newspaper or your television network and how they count on it in a crunch. I don’t think people— I think people are seriously committed as publishers and owners, they’re not going to pull back on it. I think the ones that, I think it will also be a sorting out process. I also don’t think it had anything to do with the ten cent increase. (Laughter)
Q: My name is Ayesha Ahmed, Islam-Online.
What I wanted to ask about was there was some effort, I don’t remember exactly when and by an unnamed media outlet, not to focus on Afghan civilian casualties in this war in media coverage. And I think there still hasn’t been a wide effort to show the more bloody results of our campaign. Some people see that as an attempt to maintain public support for the war through media presentation of the war. What do you guys think about it? And you as a spokesperson, and you guys as journalists? What do you guys think about that?
MR. GETLER: Actually, it’s a very tough question, and I do think, again I don’t see everything. I look at four or five papers a day. But I do think there have been a number of stories that have tried to get at the civilian casualty question. I know one of the Post reporters walked through a couple of villages last week that had been reported as, and there was not much evidence of it. Clearly some people have been killed, but there wasn’t evidence of a large casualty toll.
It’s just very hard, it’s very hard to get to these places. There’s no transportation there. And there’s certainly no protected transportation.
The military’s pursuing a military objective, and I don’t know how much time they have to go and do after-attack assessments.
So it’s a very tough question, it’s an emotional one. It’s an easy one in a way because though we think something’s wrong and something’s being hidden, but from what I see so far I think there have been legitimate attempts to address this and that there hasn’t been, nobody has stumbled upon some really awful civilian death toll. It may be there, it may be something we’re going to find out six months from now. I don’t think there’s any reluctance to report that.
MS. CLARKE: There were several stories at the end of the year, I can see them in my mind’s eye, several stories the end of the year in which journalists on the ground made a very specific effort and went to hospitals and went to villages and the stories in general were talking more about the remarkable general accuracy of the bombing campaign. So talking to the coverage, I think quite a few have made the effort to the best of their effort to cover that. From our perspective, when we have information about civilian casualties, we put it out there. I myself have stood at the podium and talked about civilian casualties that were the result of an errant bomb. So when we have hard information we put it out. But it is very difficult to get information on the ground because it’s such a confusing place.
MR. UNGAR: Let me assure you that on college campuses this is a subject that is not being let go at all, and people are paying a great deal of attention to it.
MR. HESS: Lots of hands, I would love to have questions, but I must say I’ve got four people here who have been very generous with their time. An hour and a half for Torie who had to take it away from manipulating all the news of the world from the Pentagon. (Laughter) More than you could ever expect—
MS. CLARKE: Ruining a few journalists’ careers here today. I apologize.
MR. HESS: So I’m going to have to call this over. I’m awfully sorry. The panel has given us an hour and a half, that’s their commitment.
John Martin said it’s been a remarkable panel. We are very grateful to the four people who have joined us here.
I have been asked to make an announcement that is this afternoon at 1:30 Brookings scholars are going to hold a conference call briefing on the Bush Administration’s nuclear posture review. If you wish more information on that please call (202) 797-6105.
Let me also just tell you we’ll be back same time, same station next Wednesday, the 16th, 9:30 to 11:00. Our subject at that time will be public diplomacy or propaganda, how America should tell its story to the rest of the world. Our guests will include Joe Duffey, the former Director of the United States Information Agency; Tom Dine, the President of Radio Free Europe; the State Department promises to send us either Charlotte Beers, the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, or Chris Ross, the Ambassador, Arab-speaking ambassador who appears very often on Al Jazeera; and there will be others.
So join us again next week. Thank you so much for coming. We wish we could go on. It’s been a wonderful, wonderful panel. Thank you.
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