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Barack Obama's presidency

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WikiLeaks Filled a Journalistic Void

By Mort Rosenblum
August 2, 2010

Editor’s Note: The Obama administration is condemning the leaking of some 92,000 classified documents on the Afghan War – with many in the mainstream news media joining in the chorus against WikiLeaks and the suspected leaker, Pfc. Bradley Manning.

However, in this guest essay, veteran foreign correspondent Mort Rosenblum offers a different perspective on the importance of the American people learning more about the almost nine-year-old conflict despite the risks:

"Vietraqistan," the chapter on war reporting in Little Bunch of Madmen, explains why is so dangerous and yet - given the Pentagon's news management - also so necessary. It starts like this:

"In the humbling aftermath of Vietnam, many Americans missed the lesson they paid so heavily to learn: in war, journalists are as vital as medics, and they need similar access to frontlines.

“People back home have to know how, and why, blood is spilled in their name. When war ends, generals can fade away and write their books. But an entire nation must face the inevitable global consequences.

"Armies are made up of individuals, many good, some bad, and a few downright evil. Officers study Clausewitz. Reporters would do better with Lord of the Flies; even decent young soldiers go rogue.

“With the best of intentions, things can get horribly strange. Commanders and grunts alike must be held to account.

“Generals, understandably, resist such scrutiny. Journalists littering their battlefields can be a major pain.

“More than that, military commanders need an esprit de corps to keep troops jazzed under life-and-death circumstances. Dispatches that reveal failed missions and low morale, let alone atrocities, weaken public support."

Since Vietnam, the Department of Defense has packaged and sanitized war simply by not letting real reporters get too close for too long. But as physicists have known since Aristotle, nature abhors a vacuum.

Hence WikiLeaks. Julian Assange, the Australian behind it, defines his own rules. His favorite T-shirt is emblazoned with the watchword of a Norwegian journalists' association: "Dig down in time."

Those 92,000 purloined dispatches cut through war fog with searing detail and raw human texture. They show why resentment and humiliation push people to terrorism.

Of course, some expose U.S. field tactics and endanger Afghans who oppose the Taliban. But for that, blame the Pentagon and complacent U.S. news executives who don't push back.

In Vietnam, we hitched rides into the worst of it. We all knew what was too sensitive to report. Anyone who signaled troop movements risked losing credentials.

But we wrote what we saw. My Lai was only the most dramatic case. Eventually, up-close reporting stopped the war.

Today, "endangering national security" includes shielding the inept and the murderous. Generals treat war as their personal purview. And a whole nation pays the price.

In response to WikiLeaks, the Pentagon has imposed even stricter controls on access to reality, making the United States more like hard-line states it opposes.

To counter this, independent journalists should dig hard where they can. But, mostly, we need the much-maligned mainstream. This is how I put it in Little Bunch of Madmen:

Traditional news organizations are equipped to cover war from three essential vantage points. We can call these Big Picture, Soda Straw, and Free Range.

Big Picture is obvious and inevitable. Most of us see only those choreographed "news conferences" in Washington or at command headquarters, with misleading imagery to engage a wider public.

So many reporters crowd in that briefers can focus on friendly ringers and stonewall the over-informed and obstreperous. Remember how Donald Rumsfeld mocked those who questioned his Iraq optimism while a sympathetic claque chortled?

Off camera, however, serious journalists dig deep. Their sources include top officers with private doubts, and staff people who leak crucial data.

Those scorned "hotel journalists" in Kabul and Iraq play a vital role, smoking out hidden strategies and nailing official lies. They can follow up on field reports and make contacts within the factions around which conflict turns.

Soda Straw reporting allows a close-up look with a narrow range of vision. It is the most popular type, ranging from the vivid vignettes Ernie Pyle wrote in World War II to today's flow of Hi-Mom puff pieces beloved by media executives and Pentagon flacks.

They sell papers, boost ratings, and engage citizens who pay for the war. They guarantee footage, photos, and quotes. For strategists who studied Vietnam, embedding is a perfect soda straw.

It offers the access a democracy demands while corralling hordes of journalists who might otherwise clutter up the battlefield. Officials can vet candidates and direct their line of sight.

Some soda-straw reporting is deftly done, adding insight we would otherwise miss. Good journalists know when they are being conned, and they find ways to elude the watchful eye.

In the heat of battle, no one bothers with them. But the limits are severe. When you race forward in armored vehicles, you cannot stop to interview people in the bloody wreckage you leave behind.

Free Range reporting is the hardest to do and the most difficult for readers to evaluate. And it is, by far, the most important. What the Pentagon called "unilaterals" in the first Gulf War are now "non-embeds."

These are synonyms for journalists doing what they should be able to do in any story: finding action as it happens, staying long enough to talk with people, and returning to headquarters to demand answers to what they know to be the crucial questions.

This can be extremely dangerous work, as the (Iraq) video shows. Nervous kids with serious weaponry, committed to "force protection," fire freely at anything that seems out of place. Gunners and pilots make mistakes.

"Media personnel" roaming around loose are a major nuisance to commanders. To some, they amount to the enemy. The Pentagon has yet to convince Al Jazeera or Reuters executives that casualties their people suffered in Iraq were not in some way deliberate.

War is hell not only for people who fight it but also for everyone else it touches. If free-range reporters cannot get that across to people back home, we can expect to add yet more senseless syllables to "Vietraqistan."

Mort Rosenblum is a reporter and author who has covered stories on seven continents since the 1960s, including the war in Biafra. He was editor of the International Herald Tribune; special correspondent for The Associated Press; AP bureau chief in Africa, Southeast Asia, Argentina, and France. His new book is entitled Little Bunch of Madmen.

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