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For Pentagon and News Media, Relations Improve With a Shift in War Coverage
WASHINGTON - The anguished relationship between the military and the news media appears to be on the mend as battlefield successes from the troop increase in Iraq are reflected in more upbeat news coverage.
Efforts from the new Pentagon leadership, as well as by top commanders at the headquarters in Baghdad, have also eased tensions between reporters and those in uniform. Positive or negative, the troops' view of the news media is set as much by the tone of commanders as by the tenor of individual news clips.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior American officer in Iraq, and his subordinates have worked hard to convey the rationale for their strategy and the evidence that persuades them it is succeeding. Adm. Mike Mullen, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has engaged reporters in a variety of venues: at the Pentagon, on travels across the United States and overseas, including the Middle East.
And, perhaps most important, their boss, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, has stated a view never heard from his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld. "The press is not the enemy," Mr. Gates tells military audiences, including at the service academies, "and to treat it as such is self-defeating."
At the start of the Iraq war, decades of open hostilities between the military and news media dating from Vietnam were forgotten, if only for a brief and shining moment. One reason was the embed program for the Iraq invasion that placed hundreds of reporters from across the journalistic spectrum into combat units. Soldiers and correspondents shared tents, meals and risks, and both sides said that perhaps their differences were not irreconcilable after all.
Then, however, the success of the lightning-quick invasion became not the full story, but merely the early chapter of a frustrating and deadly narrative of war in Iraq.
As insurgent violence rose in 2003, echoes of that earlier conflict in Southeast Asia could be heard. The downturn accelerated with the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in 2004. The credibility of the armed forces fell even further in the eyes of reporters when it was disclosed that military contractors in Baghdad had paid Iraqi reporters for stories in the local news media.
In return, the military's familiar complaints resumed: There is no coverage of the good news from Iraq, officers said. The focus is on violence and daily casualty counts, and not progress. Reporters cannot or will not get out and about in Iraq to tell the whole story. Editors and reporters are biased.
As recently as October, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, who had served as the first commander of the Iraq occupation, came out of retirement to condemn coverage of the war.
"The death knell of your ethics has been enabled by your parent organizations who have chosen to align themselves with political agendas," General Sanchez said in comments that earned far less coverage than his equally harsh statement that the Bush administration had mismanaged the war.
"What is clear to me," General Sanchez told a media group, Military Reporters and Editors, "is that you are perpetuating the corrosive partisan politics that is destroying our country and killing our service members who are at war."
Just days earlier, in his valedictory address as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace used his final minutes as the nation's highest-ranking officer to describe how his interactions with Congress and the news media had soured him on both.
"In some instances right now we have individuals who are more interested in making somebody else look bad than they are in finding the right solution," General Pace said.
Yet, as the tone of news reporting from Iraq has shifted in recent months, so have the views commonly heard from officers in Iraq.
Recent interviews with dozens of military officers in Iraq found a sense of frustration that the war was receiving less coverage than they would like - but a sense nonetheless that the coverage was forthright and balanced.
"The media in general is doing a pretty good job portraying the situation," said Lt. Col. Rodger Lemons, operations officer for the First Cavalry Division's Fourth Brigade Combat Team.
Interviewed last month in Mosul as he was completing a 15-month tour, Colonel Lemons said: "Spectacular attacks still get the big media attention. I would like to see more good news. Who wouldn't? But the reporters who have embedded with us have been fair."
In a study of last year's published news reports conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Pew Research Center, more than half of all coverage of Iraq was found to be pessimistic. The view of American policy and military progress was mixed over all, with 4 in 10 pieces offering a mixed assessment, one-third a negative view and one-quarter more optimistic.
The troop increase ordered by President Bush in January began to show results over the summer, and improving trends in security have received commensurate coverage. The Pew researchers found that positive assessments of the expanded American military operations began to rise in November.
"It is obvious that many of the stories in print and television now have a more positive tenor; it ties directly to what is happening on the ground," said Lt. Col. James Hutton, public affairs officer for Multinational Corps-Iraq and the spokesman for Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of day-to-day military operations.
"I'm satisfied that the majority of reporters on the ground want to get the story right and are responsive when their reporting is seen as less than accurate and we call them on it," said Colonel Hutton, who is nearing the end of his second tour of duty in Iraq.
Setting the tone from the top, General Petraeus decided that managing the military's media mission required a high-ranking career public affairs officer, and he assigned Rear Adm. Greg Smith, previously chief of information for the Navy, to be director of communications for Multinational Force-Iraq, the top military command structure in the country.
Admiral Smith, the first one-star public affairs officer in Baghdad, acknowledged that troops who had previously served in Iraq "may have lived through a time when it seemed that all that was being reported was negative news, even though they were doing so much good on any given day that was not being reported."
"I think there was a period time in the past in which reporting was behind reality," Admiral Smith said. "Today, that gap between perception and reality has closed, if not completely."
Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, public affairs officer for Multinational Division-Baghdad for the past 15 months, described one concern heard often from officers in Iraq - the lack of reporters covering the war as it entered another decisive period during the troop increase.
"In general, I thought the majority coverage was very accurate and fair," said Colonel Bleichwehl, who has served twice in Iraq. "There were not always enough reporters there full-time to provide the complete story of what was going on in a city with seven million people, much less the rest of the country."
© 2007 The New York Times