It was mesmerizing. As bombs rained on Baghdad, we were glued to our radios and televisions. We heard the air raid sirens and felt the tension of reporters as they resisted the Iraqi authorities’ requests to go to bomb shelters. We flinched at the jolts of the antiaircraft missiles and listened in as the Cable News Network crew hid under beds in their hotel room and passed the microphone back and forth to describe what was happening.
It was the first night of the Gulf War, and this was no pool report. This eyewitness account, crackling over the phone lines, riveted us to the television set. As CNN reporter Bernard Shaw wailed that he wished he wasn’t there, we felt like reaching into the television set and pulling him home. And military officials probably felt like that too, when Shaw began lamenting the next day about Iraqi people being killed.
This was war reporting at its most electrifying, completely different from the passive Allied military briefings which resulted from the creation of the official news media “pool.” The pool was invented by the United States Department of Defence so a small group of reporters and photographers, picked by lottery, could accompany the military in action and share their stories with media across the country. But generals with maps, charts, dots indicating strategic sites and before and after pictures-not even pictures but cartoon-like drawings could never match for immediacy, the gut-wrenching accounts of John Holliman, Bernard Shaw and Peter Arnett in the AI-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad.
Most journalists could endorse this kind of on-the-spot reporting anytime, but especially during wartime. Reporters cannot hope to cover a war with any credibility when they’re restricted to air bases, their stories under censorship. At this writing, pool pictures from the Gulf show little more than airplanes taking off from runways in Saudi Arabia for the umpteenth time.
Canadian reporters are even more tongue-tied than U.S. journalists. Because non-American press had to wait for their turn in the pools Conly one space in each pool sortie to the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border is allotted to international journalists- 75 percent of press are American), Canadians had to rely on the American-censored pool press. Clearly reporters of all nationalities were being absorbed into the guided tour of the American military news pools.
The road that ended in these polite question-and-answer sessions between journalists and military officials began after the Vietnam War, during which reporters could travel anywhere without military escort. Many generals are still convinced that it was the bloody pictures on TV that turned the American people against the war.
When the U.S. invaded Grenada in 1983, the military pushed for a total news blackout. News organizations were furious. To pacify the media, the Department of Defence created the official news media pool.
In theory, it sounded promising. In practice, it was a fiasco. When the first military pool accompanied troops during the American invasion of Panama in December 1989, the operation resembled a farce. Herded like sheep, the 19 journalists quickly became frustrated as they tried to cover an invasion which the military tried to hide. Instead of viewing combat as promised, the pool was taken to see selected aftereffects of the battles. When they did discover a fresh news story, it was by accident. Jonathan Wolman, Associated Press Washington bureau chief, likened the frustrated journalist to a sports reporter “missing the game but getting great access to the locker room afterward.”
Today, pool members must pass a physical fitness test. Journalists are accompanied by military escorts whenever they travel into the U.S. combat zone. The best reporters don’t necessarily make every pool. Copy is submitted in the field to “public affairs officers” for “security review.” Lt. Comdr. Gregg Hartung, in charge of pools for the Pentagon, claims that “unlike the British, we don’t have censorship in our country.” Nevertheless, Canadian TV reports were flagged “cleared by U.S. military censors.”
For the military, there are obvious advantages to controlling journalists. A crucial element in any military campaign is secrecy, resulting in a constant tug-of-war between pool reporters and commanders for information-How much? How soon? How accurate? And how complete? Many journalists, like radio reporter Rick MacInnes Rae, who is stationed independently in the Gulf for CBC, say they “avoid pools like the plague.” The one advantage of the pool to a news organization is financial. Canada’s first military pool-a radio reporter from CBC, a print reporter from Canadian Press and two television people from TVA, the Quebec CTV affiliate-filed stories for one month from the warship HMCS Protecteur. The costs were far below those of an individual reporter. Buying into the pool cost $40,000 for an initial 30-day period, compared to a daily $5,000 to $10,000 cost for an individual reporter. But MacInnesRae says that he probably would have refused a bunk on the Protecteur. There’s a compromise, a catch-22 with a military pool. “Even if you find the biggest story since Watergate,” he says, “you can’t normally tell it.”
No reporter or photographer wants to expose anything to endanger the lives of their allies, but Vince Carlin, managing editor of CBC Radio’s national news, says that some of the censorship in a pool is silly. “In a war, like it or not, there are certain things which we cannot responsibly report on,” says Carlin. “However, the military tends to widen that out into virtually anything which might embarrass them.”
The result can be a bland report of the obvious. Rejean Grenier, who filed 48 pool stories in English and French last summer from the radio rooms of the Canadian warships, says that even the most competitive journalists can lose their aggressiveness in a pool. “There was no competition,” he says. “When the heat came, we all did heat stories. We were all saying the same things anyway.” During the first awful weeks of the Gulf War, the news from the Allied forces came as a homogenized package. Military censors changed such words as “giddy” to “proud” and reports were held back in the field, only to turn up in military jargon in some general’s briefing in Washington the next day. Steve Hannah, managing editor of the Milwaukee journal calls the military pool “a pact with the devil.” We need a better way to cover technological warfare, no matter how swift or terrifying, or we will be forced to take the homogenized pablum spooned out to us from the military’s public relations blender.