- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 23, 2002

On Media

Forget the dangers of investigative journalism in wartime: It is all that well-meaning, positive press that may eventually prove to be a negative for the Pentagon, according to a new analysis.

Taciturn spokesmen have wrangled for months to keep persistent journalists clear of security matters while still feeding the 24-hour news cycle. But the Defense Department's biggest media problem is not necessarily the traditional press appetite for clandestine information, "gotcha" stories or brassy headlines.

Paradoxically, it's exuberant but often exaggerated reports of military prowess that are at fault, according to George Friedman of Stratfor, a Texas-based provider of global intelligence forecasts. He says he believes the old roles of press and military have been reversed.

"I realized what was happening after broadcast reports described a 'massive, deadly bombardment' of Tora Bora which turned out to be only six aircraft," Mr.Friedman said yesterday.

Mr. Friedman turned his observations into an analysis that appeared online at www.stratfor.com on Jan. 15.

"Abandoning the hypercritical coverage of the past, the media have become cheerleaders portraying that war as an unalloyed success." The war was cast as a series of "stunning and replicable victories," Mr. Friedman wrote.

That might seem like a public affairs officer's dream come true. Not quite.

"The reversal of the roles between media and military creates public expectations that can affect the prosecution of the war," he continued, converting spokesmen into "scolding nannies" who must constantly remind journalists that the war against terrorism is long-term, diffuse and atypical.

"Why have the media tended to disregard the cautionary notes in favor of triumphalism?" Mr. Friedman asked. The media, he wrote in the report, "could not cope with the subtleties of war."

It is all part of what Mr. Friedman calls the "Geraldo phenomenon," referencing the colorful but oft-disputed Geraldo Rivera, foreign correspondent at the Fox News Channel. The press simply does not understand the war, its operations or intelligence issues, often bolstering weak or speculative conclusions with a parade of "experts" or retired military or intelligence officers.

"Knowledge is fungible," says defense reporter Ed Offley in his new book, "Pen and Sword," a guide for journalists covering the military. "Most reporters today have never had any previous contact with the military. That is a recipe for frustration, bewilderment and error."

National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld already have called for a reinvention of press relations, advising journalists that this is not a convenient, sequential war and that discretion is in order.

Mr. Rumsfeld himself has been affected. In November, USA Today created a global hubbub with blockbuster headlines reading, "Rumsfeld: Bin Laden may get away," based on a casual comment Mr. Rumsfeld made during a visit to the paper.

The media, meanwhile, have benefited somewhat from their new role as cheerleaders. A recent Pew Research survey found that 69 percent of the respondents felt the "press stands up for America" and another 60 percent said "the press protects democracy." These perceptions are in the eye of the beholder, however.

Liberal press critics often are ideologically insulted by the star-spangled press coverage; providing endless reports of victories, they say, is just plain "warmongering."

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