Media boot camp

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(Host) Commentator Bill Seamans thinks that basic military training for journalists makes sense for anyone preparing to be a war correspondent.

(Seamans) As we get closer to the day that President Bush’s pseudo war against Saddam Hussein turns into the real thing, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld apparently is worrying about another Vietnam-type Pentagon collision with the news media.

Rumsfeld has the familiar war-time problem: how to control battlefront news to protect the movement and safety of our troops, and at the same time satisfy the public’s demand to know what’s going on. For Rumsfeld and President Bush, this is a greater problem than Vietnam because of the tremendous growth since Vietnam of our electronic news media. The average American is now literally swamped by the availability of news coverage. Therefore the public’s demand to be adequately informed in wartime will be louder than before.

So now the Pentagon has added a rather unfamiliar word to the Washington lexicon – the word “embed” – which in this case means to make an integral part of, or to assign. The Pentagon has offered to embed correspondents, photographers and tv crews with frontline combat units to counter the criticism that it was censoring military coverage by restricting access to frontline combat units.

It was decided, however, to give the media men and women some real basic training to increase their margin of safety in the field. So the Army at Fort Benning and the Marines at Quantico have established “boot camps” for the press and it looks like the drill instructors are seriously sweating them out. A New York Times reporter described his boot camp experience: “The weeklong training at Fort Benning covered combat first aid, land navigation and dead reckoning, camouflage and concealment, small-unit maneuvers under direct and indirect fire, protection from chemical or biological attack, minefield detection, and the laws of war.”

Having experienced both sides of the problem – in combat as an infantryman and later as a civilian war correspondent – I think this is a step forward that should have been taken years ago. Combat troops will learn that the news people voluntarily sharing their dangers are not media monsters. Neophyte war correspondents will learn that combat is brutal and ugly.

If this idea of embedding media boot camp grads into combat outfits works out, I think it will be a win-win situation for all concerned. The Pentagon will improve its maligned public relations image, the war correspondent will eyewitness the action, instead of getting a questionable second-hand version from the public relations officer back at headquarters. And we the people will benefit because of the embedded newspersons who will be able to give us better reports within the bounds of safety for our troops.

This is Bill Seamans.

Award-winning journalist Bill Seamans is a former correspondent and bureau chief for ABC News in the Middle East.

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