Lou Boccardi

The Media and the Military: Whose War Is It Anyway?

VTR Date: November 2, 1991

Guest: Boccardi, Lou


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Louis D. Boccardi
Title: “The Media and the Military: Whose War is it, Anyway?”
VTR: 11/2/91

I’m Richard Heffner your host on THE OPEN MIND, and my guest today is again Louis D. Boccardi, President and Chief Executive of the Associated Press, the world’s largest news-gathering organization.

This is the second of two programs about the news media in contemporary America. About the role in our national life of the press, both print and electronic…and we focus today on the media and the military.

Indeed, in 1984 Lou Boccardi joined me on another program with Major General Winant Sidle, who after President Reagan’s initially press-less military excursion into Grenada chaired a Pentagon appointed military media relations panel designed to avoid controversy “next time”. But, “next time” came in Desert Storm, in our Gulf War in Kuwait and Iraq…and the matter of press access proved so problematic once again that my guest and his press colleagues have formulated still further principles about the military and media in a democratic, free society. They write: “We believe these are the principles that must govern future arrangements for news coverage of the United States military in combat”…but I want to ask my friend, Lou Boccardi why “must” they? Where is it written? Lou, where is it written besides on this statement of principles?

Boccardi: I think clearly, Dick, we use the term that they “must” govern as an expression of our sense that these would be the appropriate rules. Obviously, if this was something that we could simply ordain by saying then we’d be…we wouldn’t be discussing them, and in fact, having lengthy conversations with the Pentagon about the arrangements for next time. So I think you’ve seized on something that’s just a matter of language and try to make a little bit more of it then there really is.

Heffner: Which is my habit.

Boccardi: We think…which is your habit, and one of your endearing habits. We think these are an appropriate…these express an appropriate approach to covering a war. What will happen as the Washington Bureau Chief group that, that was the drafter of these principles, engages in this discussion, I don’t know yet. That process is going forward.

Heffner: But when you testified before the Sidle Commission…

Boccardi: Yes.

Heffner: …or a panel…

Boccardi: Yes.

Heffner: …back so many years ago…

Boccardi: …8 or 9…

Heffner: Didn’t you think then that something had been accomplished and, in fact, it turned out that it had not been accomplished?

Boccardi: Well, something had been accomplished, but it didn’t unfold in the Persian Gulf the way it was envisioned. And I think even General Sidle would, would agree with that statement. What the product of the Sidel Commission was, was simply this…that there would be on-going pool arrangements made between the press and the Pentagon so that on a stand-by basis or on a hurry up call basis, there could be convened a small group of press representatives, writers, photographers, television and so forth, who would in the first 24 or 48 hours, or even 96 hours of some sort of military engagement, be taken to the scene, be able to report on behalf…and, and the product of what they would do would then be shared with all of those who could not possibly be there in that environment. That was the product of the Sidle Commission before which many of us went down and tried responsibly to, to participate. What happened in the Gulf was that these pools, which were conceived and everybody, I think would agree to this, which were conceived as a beginning device…a facilitating device, became not the, the rules of engagement for the beginning, but essentially the on-going full-time permanent, for as long as permanent might be, rules for coverage of the war. That’s what happened between the vision and the contribution of the press to the Sidle deliberations. The vision of the Sidle Commission’s recommendations and what finally happened in the Gulf.

Heffner: Well, didn’t it happen, Lou, because of a certain set of ideas on the part of the military themselves, and of the Administration?

Boccardi: I don’t think there’s any question about that. Of course. And we are engaged now in this Bureau Chief effort that I alluded to, to try to persuade the Administration that there are some better ways to do things than happened in the Gulf.

Heffner: But why would the Administration, why would the military be persuadable, when they were so eminently successful in the public’s estimation this past time?

Boccardi: Well, there are several things that need to be said about this past time to understand, I think, what happened. First of all, from the Allied side the war was prosecuted so successfully and so swiftly and I think the public euphoria, especially in the wake of the nation’s last experience with a war, in Vietnam, the, the public euphoria about the outcome of the war has served to, to overcome some of these other issues. In talking with the Pentagon, we are making the point that there are some fundamental values of the public’s right to an uncensored flow of information, the impropriety of the degree of government control of information that took place in the Gulf. We’re making some points that there were some pieces that were simply not, not within our system; “Our” meaning the system of the United States of America, not within the press system. You know a fundamental premise is that the government does not interfere with what the press reports or how it reports it. Now you…in a war situation obviously you’re not dealing with a mayor calling a press conference and everybody trooping in and then going and doing what they want. You have some very real security issues, logistical issues, a host of serious concerns that have to be addressed and that’s what these conversations that are taking place in Washington are attempting to do. This is not a discussion or a debate between the brave, patriotic military and a rag-tag group that doesn’t understand…of press people…that doesn’t understand anything about security, doesn’t care about security, doesn’t have any sense of the enormity of, of what a nation at war faces. It’s not like that at all. We understand that national security, that the security of those troops in the filed, or, or at sea is of the utmost importance to those military commanders. Wheat this effort is trying to do is explore whether we can’t find ways to accommodate that that don’t also bring with it the kind of, of military interference with coverage that we saw in the Persian Gulf, the, the fact that these pools so restricted coverage, the interference by some of the military escorts, who we call “minders”, and they call “escorts”. And the interference by some of them, not all of them, some of them in the news gathering process, we think that there is lots that can be done with that process in the Gulf that will not endanger the security of anybody in that zone or endanger the nation’s security. That’s what these conversations are seeking to explore. When we met with…I’ll, I’ll wind up…but…

Heffner: You don’t need to wind up, I love to listen to you.

Boccardi: …when we met with Secretary Cheney a few months ago, he said that he felt that this was the best covered war, ever. We demurred. But he also said that he would endorse the effort by Bureau Chiefs of major news organizations in Washington, and his own Public Information staff to look at what happened and to see if we could devise a better way. We take him at his word. He said he would…he did endorse that effort and he said he would look at the result of it. And that’s the process that’s underway now.

Heffner: Could you possibly convince the Secretary of Defense or any military person that it was not the war that was covered best in terms of the interests of those particular parties…the military, the Secretary of Defense?

Boccardi: They, they certainly think, and I, I can’t put these words in the mouth of any particular individual in the Administration, but I think broadly speaking what I’m about to say is true. I think many of them think that this war went just fine…in many, many respects, not the least of them the one we’re discussing at your table today. We are trying to show then that there was a degree of, of military and, therefore, government control asserted in this situation that is simply impermissible. And, you know, if this war had gone on any length of time, and if there had been an issue of the credibility of what was being said…there was absolutely nothing to fall back on, in terms of…there’s a certain believability, a reservoir that one…that the Administration might have had to draw on. You know looked at from the perspective certainly of the broader perspective of, of the nation’s interest in being there, the war was prosecuted magnificently, the outcome was swift, the loss of life, as General Schwarzkopf said the loss of even one life pained him, but the loss of life was, was far below what had been feared and indeed, predicted by some commentators in the military and in, in…

Heffner: …the press…

Boccardi: …yes, those Generals who seemed to come out of retirement by, by the dozen to appear on, on television. So it, it went very, very well. And I think that served to obscure some of the issues that have some of us so concerned. You know you think about when there’s a coup anywhere, you think of the way those stories emerge. And I don’t care if it’s a coup from the Left, a coup from the Right…makes no difference. What are the first couple of things that happen? Inevitably the tanks go around the, the building that is the center of power, whether it’s a Parliament or a version of the White House, or what ever it is, and what’s the other thing that happens, almost in tandem, sometimes even maybe a bit before the tanks arrive there…

Heffner: Must I say television and radio?

Boccardi: Television, radio and the newspapers. That’s…there’s relevance there to what we’re talking about.

Heffner: And you want to argue with success, which I think is quite noble on your part.

Boccardi: (Laughter)

Heffner: And that’s what you’re doing, isn’t it?

Boccardi: Well, I, I’ve, I’ve acknowledged and I’ve tried to be clear about it, that in so many respects this was a successful war. The debate is going to go on forever in some of the military and political issues, but I think one can say that it…at the point when the war ended and for some months afterward, the perception in the, in the Administration is that this was a successful war. So to the degree that we’re saying “well, wait a minute, maybe there was this piece of it that wasn’t quite right”, we are arguing against success. But we’re arguing on some fundamental Constitutional principle as well. And we think that it is possible to, to have the military needs protected, the security needs protected and still not have the kind of control that was asserted in the Gulf. We know this is complicated, we know…you’re a historian, you go back to the Civil War…and it, and the literature that I’ve looked at since then is full of this problem. And it’s been approached and, and “solved”, not, not really, but solutions have been invoked in…of many different colors. In World War II there was a formal censorship. In Korea it started without any censorship and the rules were so confused, so difficult for the reporters to understand, that some of them went to the military and said, “look we don’t…we can’t understand what you’re demanding of us in terms of security. Why don’t you just institute some sort of review so we can do what we’re supposed to do, and the security responsibility will be yours”. So Korea sort of had it both ways at different times. In Vietnam, of course, there was no security review. And now in the gulf we have gone from…well in between we had Grenada and Panama, but they were so small they don’t really belong in the same conversation…and now we have, have had in the Gulf the process that began with pools and stayed with pools all the way through.

Heffner: Well, you…

Boccardi: So you’ve had many flavors of this thing.

Heffner: But you don’t want to overlook…I know that you don’t…the fact that of all the wars you’ve discussed, the one in which we did not win was the one where “no holds barred” for the press.

Boccardi: Yes.

Heffner: And…you smile as I say that…I mean…

Boccardi: …I smile because…

Heffner: ….you didn’t think that I wasn’t going to say it?

Boccardi: No. I…no, I smiled because I brought up Vietnam with a theory that I ought to bring it up before you did, and I saw the flash in your eye as I said the word. Implicit in, in your question, or in your comment is the notion that the press lost the war in Vietnam.

Heffner: No, no, no.

Boccardi: You know I don’t accept that for just for a second.

Heffner: You know, you know that’s not true. Implicit in what I say and explicit in my smile, or the other way around…

Boccardi: Yes.

Heffner: …is the fact that you know that that’s the argument. That that was the argument that was offered by those now senior military officials, who were junior military…

Boccardi: Yes.

Heffner: …persons in Vietnam, because they do believe that the press did lose the war for America.

Boccardi: There are many…

Heffner: Lyndon Johnson practically said that in, in 1968.

Boccardi: There are many people in decision making places now in the Pentagon who do carry that feeling and I think that’s a major piece of what we, in the press, have to deal with. The fact is thought that the, the most rigorous studies of coverage of the war in Vietnam turn up only a few relatively minor instances of any kind of security problem. So, you know, the Vietnam problem is a much larger political issue, and I don’t think you can use that as precedent to argue that what was done I the gulf was right. It doesn’t work.

Heffner: Lou, I’m all in favor of what you and your colleagues in the press are saying…I am, but I have to remember Lyndon Johnson’s speech the day after he withdrew from the Democratic campaign for the nomination of his party in 1968, when he went up to the National Association of Broadcasters and said, “can you imagine what the impact would have been of your machinery, unbridled, if it had been around during World War II, the last really great, good war”? And the…again, going back to that matter of the dynamics of the situation…I think you want to pose us always as being, as being philosophically at different ends. We’re not. I think in that instance, Johnson, whether one agreed with him or not, was making a good point. More to the point…in the program we just taped, you…I was going to say “resorted to”…and I don’t mean that…you referred to focus groups, you referred to what the press has learned about what people think about he nature of, of coverage. When you go to the Pentagon now, when you go to the Secretary of Defense, are you satisfied that you are giving expression to, to the sentiment of the American people in asking for a shift in the rules relating to coverage?

Boccardi: I think the polls are clear and you…you’ve read them, that the polls taken immediately after the war and some more distant from the war find that a lot of the public feels that the war was, was well covered. I think that goes, again, as I said before, to factors such as the, the shortness…short duration of the war, the fact that it was so resoundingly successful from the American side, the skill of the military in its briefings and its public relations efforts where they were able to create the impression of this immense, intense coverage. So I…you know, I think we have some work to do both on…on, on both sides of, of our boat with the folks at the Pentagon and then the folks on the other side.

Heffner: The folks at home.

Boccardi: Oh, exactly…yes. I mean on either side of our ship. But it’s not all as some of the polls might have suggested. You know, of course, you recall, of course, Peter Arnett’s being in, in Baghdad and the great controversy over that when he stayed behind. When he came out he appeared on the “Donohue” program, which I watched with interest. Peter used to work for us, and I was prepared for an awful lot of Arnett-bashing, or press bashing. Instead, to my surprise, maybe I shouldn’t have been…to my surprise, many of these people in the audience, a lot of them women, which is a typical audience that, that…at that show, stood up and said to him “Thank you”. One of them said, and I recall it distinctly, “Mr. Arnett you’re a hero for what you did. Because of what you did, we had some idea of what was going on over there”. A few nights ago I appeared at, at a local discussion of the press, and this issue, of course, came up…and I chatted afterward with a couple of people there, and they made the point that “you know it was so swift, and went over so quickly”, that…and there seemed to be so much on the television that we seemed to know what was going on that we heard what you said bout some of the interference and some of the ways that you, you found obstructive in trying to get information, so I don’t think we ought to assume that here is this little band, little band of press people. Again, I…we, we on the press side and in this effort that was begun by our Washington Bureau Chiefs and is being prosecuted by them, by them…we need to be very careful not to let this be portrayed as an argument between the, the good guys on the military side, the patriots, the people that everybody can identify with, and then these crazy people over here who, who have some idea about reporting some of this stuff without the military telling them what they can report and where they can go. It’s not…that’s not the term at all.

Heffner: But you se you have not been particularly successful, if you’ll forgive me, in prosecuting this effort and explaining what you’re just saying at the, at the same time…you have not made it one of the objectives of our society, what role does freedom, what role does the coverage by the press in any instance play in a free and open society? I don’t think there are terribly many people who know that this, this discussion is really going on at this time.

Boccardi: Well, I’m here.

Heffner: Okay, you’re here, and that’s fair enough and here is the statement of, of principles. But you know, I looked back at the transcript of the program we did so many years ago on FROM THE EDITOR’S DESK…

Boccardi: Yes.

Heffner: …with General Sidle, and now, of course, I can’t find the transcript…but you had said something particularly interesting…you raised the question…here it is…”Boccardi: I’d like to ask you quickly about the problems of battlefield television which is, I think, something for the future”…

Boccardi: Yes.

Heffner: …now my…the hackles went up for me when you mentioned that…

Boccardi: Yes.

Heffner: …because the picture I had was television on the battlefield with satellite broadcasting which has certainly come into its own…certainly came into its own in Desert Strom…satellite broadcasting, letting the enemy know, and this was one of the charges that was made at the time of the Arnett coverage, exactly what was going on in the battlefield. What are you going to do about that?

Boccardi: Of course, Arnett was on their piece of the battlefield…that makes it a little different issue…

Heffner: I know…showing what our…what, what we were achieving.

Boccardi: that’s a real problem. And I’m…I was afraid you were going to quote something that would embarrass me…I’m relived to see it’s a, a quote that raised an issue that’s now come, come into the fore. It’s a real problem. And part of this effort with the Pentagon is to find ways to address this. And it’s not just now the fact of a television picture, a reporter can walk around with a cellular telephone…and, and violate…if he’s going to be irresponsible about it…violate blackout radio…blackout security…I’m forgetting the precise military term, but I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. So there are lots of technological issues, technology-driven issues that have to be resolved. And I think that with some effort on both sides we can resolve some of them. What we confronted in the Gulf though was not the, the…these kinds…not just these kinds of problems, but we confronted some many, much more basic kinds of issues. The simple question of, of access…the…a pool is a press device for getting a small number of reporters to a place where large numbers can’t immediately get. It’s a time honored system and this…in principle, nothing wrong with it. But, when the only way you can cover a war, a battlefield that stretched something like half the size of the United States, that’s roughly correct, and the only places you can go are in these confined pools where…where you go, when you go, how your copy moves are all dictated, and you can’t follow the story…something is fundamentally wrong with that. And that’s the level of issue that this conversation with the Pentagon starts with. Not the hi-tech, what are we going to do about live television…that’s there, but that’s …that’s another plain, part of the conversation, but there’s a lot before you get to that that needs to be fixed.

Heffner: Sure, granted, but the plain seems to me to be fairly level…it has to do with responsibility. It has to do with our government’s, our military’s decision as to what needs to be maintained for our security, what secrecy, what privacy needs to be maintained for our security. And you say let’s trust to the sense of responsibility of individuals…your sense of the nature of human nature seems to be rather different from the sense that the military has.

Boccardi: Well, Dick, you know a lot of the reporters in the Gulf knew about this big sweep around to the left that was so instrumental in the successful and swift prosecution of the war. It was never reported.

Heffner: But, but, Lou, I’m not talking about somebody who decides he’s going to do us in, he’s going to do damage. I’m talking about the possibility that…let’s use…maybe I shouldn’t use the word ”irresponsible”…

Boccardi: Inadvertent.

Heffner: Unknowingly.

Boccardi: Inadvertently.

Heffner: Inadvertently…

Boccardi: Yes.

Heffner: Someone makes use of the hi-tech devices that you refer to and that you referred to all these years ago and their potential…

Boccardi: Yes.

Heffner: …and inadvertently does us damage. Isn’t that what the military is equally concerned about, aside from its grumpiness over what happened in terms of its translation, interpretation in Vietnam…that it can be concerned with this matter of security…legitimately.

Boccardi: There are legitimate concerns that the folks in the military bring to these issues. And I speak for myself when I say this, but I know that I speak for others as well. Some of those concerns are legitimate, and, and we have to find ways to deal with them. What we don’t need to have a lot of patience with is a, a military “minder” who goes along with a reporter and reads a kind of Miranda warming to the GI before he’s interviewed. Or the, the minder who, who insists that a reporter take out of his story what it is that some Iraqi soldiers were eating before they were captured, on the ground that that’s too specific. Well, whose food was it? I mean that’s the sort of thing that at the bottom was going on out there, and that’s just silly and that should stop.

Heffner: The trouble with silliness is that it becomes a substitute then for a larger policy question when the issue immediately at hand may not be silly. And that’s of course the point at which I get the “cut” sign, and which I wish we…you would have been willing to sit for a couple of more programs, but Lou Boccardi, thanks for joining me today…

Boccardi: You’re welcome.

Heffner: …we’re going to hash this out some more.

Boccardi: Fine.

Heffner: Thank you. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.