When Sword Is Mightier than Pen


Washington -- Now that President Bush has visited Raytheon Corp. to thank the people there for developing the Patriot missile, I hope he will also find the time to visit the nation's newest defense contractors, the news business. We all work for the government now.

I have enjoyed a certain vogue these past couple of weeks on television and radio because I suggested that correspondents in Saudi Arabia should come home because there is nothing for them to do out there. They are prisoners of war, or of the Defense Department. It would be more honest, and a lot cheaper, to just show and tell or print what the Pentagon says is happening -- picking the stuff up across the river in Arlington, Virginia -- and label dispatches as what they are, "military communiques."

If the Pentagon people want to cover the war, let them cover it. The joke, I think, is seeing the same pictures and interviews on television with different voice-overs trying to explain what they mean. Or, traveling the country and seeing the same stories, with the same names, sights and smells, in city after city, newspaper after newspaper, with a different byline on top -- as if such "news" was gathered by a man or woman or news organization that has earned the trust of a community over the years.

In fact, those stories are based on pool reports. "Pool" as in drowning, which is what my business is doing. The word means that what you are about to see or read was collected by the dozen or so correspondents who were allowed, under military guard, to be escorted to a predetermined spot in the desert where their metaphorical blindfolds are removed in this high-stakes game of pin-the-tail-on-the-camel. Then, with permission, they are allowed to peek, and ask precensored questions of preselected soldiers and Marines, with the understanding that their escorts can censor the answers -- and anything else they feel like.

In fact, what we are broadcasting and printing is the output of the news organization that has shown the most initiative in this fracas -- PNN, the Pentagon News Network.

And, in fact, the government, or more precisely, our Saudi Arabian allies, are also deciding who will be allowed to "cover" the war. You need a visa to get to Saudi Arabia and certain people are not getting them -- people who might take a dim view of what is going on.

The latest I know of is Robert Sam Anson, who covered the war in Vietnam and Cambodia for Time magazine and came home, after being captured by the North Vietnamese, with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm about that 10-year adven- ture. The official story is that the Saudis just can't handle so many hundreds of Americans with notebooks, though they have no objection to the hundreds of thousands of us there with guns to protect their property.

So, have no doubt that these days the gun and sword are a good deal mightier than any pen. It has been that way for seven years now, since the U.S. Navy pointed its guns at reporters who tried to get to Grenada in chartered boats and told them to turn around or be blown out of the water. PNN took over coverage of that rescue mission. We ran then and we haven't stopped yet.

bTC I understand, of course, that most Americans, according to polls, which means most Americans reading this (if they have gotten this far) disagree with just about every word I've written here. But consider the possibility that next time it may be your boat that the government threatens. Their mission may be riskier and their work, if sanitized by censorship, may seem more glamorous, but the military is just another bunch of federal bureaucrats. They happen to wear uniforms, but their bureaucratic goals are classic and civilian, to protect and preserve their own turf, their institutions and prerogatives, and to pull up their own promotion ladders to keep outsiders outside.

The press is outside now and the military has all the ladders. I do not know whether Saddam Hussein will survive the battering he is taking from the American military, but I would think he has a slightly better chance than does the American press.

*Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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