The Media Goes To War: 8 July, 1987

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Combat aircraft, soldiers, weapons, and equipment were not the only things streaming into Western Europe in those tense early July days. The global media was heading off to war as well, and there was a significant amount of anxiety all around. The relationship between the US military and the media had not yet fully healed from American media’s treatment of the services during the Vietnam War. It had bred a deep resentment and distrust of the media in US military circles. Even the post-Vietnam generation of officers, NCOs, and soldiers took the lessons to heart.  As a general rule, soldiers have to contend with reporters. It is part of the job. However, no directive exists that can force a soldier to like it. In the post-Vietnam years, the relationship between America’s defenders and its media can best be described as a cool, yet peaceful co-existence. With the world moving towards another major war, there was no guessing what shape the relationship would assume once the shooting started.

The events leading up to the outbreak of hostilities took the US and global media by surprise, as it did to essentially everyone else on the planet. Overnight, the major networks, publications and newly emerging cable news networks had to formulate a plan of action. The Pentagon and NATO headquarters in Brussels was doing much the same thing with regards to the media. Soon there would be hundreds of reporters on the ground in Europe to deal with. A plan was needed, and quickly.

There was much to consider. This war would involve unprecedented Western media coverage. Satellites, and emerging technologies were changing the way reporters covered conflicts. The ability to go live anywhere in the world was a simple act nowadays. The diminishing size of cameras, recorders, and other devices made journalists more mobile. Could they be trusted to report objectively and without revealing details and information that could potentially cause harm to the war effort? Was there enough time to give reporters rudimentary training on how to survive on the modern battlefield and then send them out into the field to join a unit already there? What would the bent of the media be in general; Pro-US and NATO, objectively neutral, or hostile?

By 8 July, a number of journalists had made it forward and joined military units assigned to them by NATO or the Pentagon. It was not simply up to a journalist, or their respective parent agency to decide what unit they would be attached to. For that matter, no reporter was permitted to travel freely anywhere. If they were found to be moving about without their unit or a previously authorized military escort, the offending party was transported to the rear immediately and inevitably sent home. For the most part, journalists were assigned to units belonging to their respective home country. It made little sense to place a Portuguese reporter with a Dutch infantry battalion, for example. Journalists from nations not involved in the fighting were assigned to roving press pools that rarely made it close to the battle line.

In the last days of peace some issues did crop up between the military and media. A BBC reporter attached to the British Army of the Rhine mentioned offhandedly in a live transmission with anchors back in London the delays  some units of the Dutch Army were having in reaching their prewar positions. Farther south in the US V Corps area of operations an intrepid young reporter from NBC reporter took a camera crew out to record a piece on an abandoned village in front of the US Army battalion he was attached to. The battalion commander provided an escort and warned the reporter not to explore the town because it had been ‘prepared.’ The reporter, naturally, became curious. At the first chance he got, he and his crew ditched their escort to explore the deserted town more thoroughly on their own. Less than three minutes later, he stumbled across a claymore mine that had been placed near an intersection. The reporter and his two-man camera crew were all severely wounded and had to be medevaced to the rear. Brussels, and the Pentagon were incensed and came down hard on the media. It was announced that the parent company of any journalist who violated field regulations would be punished along with the offender. All journalists, cameramen and employees of the parent company would be removed from their attached units and transported to the rear for the duration of the conflict.

Senior officers in Brussels, Washington, and across the globe had more important issues to contend with than the media. As the morning dragged on, solid indications started to appear which made it clear the Soviet offensive was likely set to begin within the next 24 to 36 hours.

 

 

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