BACK TO : MILITARY-MEDIA RELATIONS
The Military Press Today by E Offley
Pen & Sword Chapter 2 (The Military Press) and 3 (Organizing the Beat)
The Military Press Today
Know an F-16 from an M-16? You'll succeed.
Ten years after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when print and broadcast journalists became the butt of sitcom jokes for their incompetence, arrogance and lack of preparedness to cover a major military operation involving hundreds of thousands of American troops, the state of military reporting has changed little, and if anything, has declined further. What happened a decade ago when war broke out on Jan. 16, 1991, remains a model of how the American print and broadcast media cover the military even today. It is also a grim harbinger of what may come as the United States moves against the terrorists and their sponsors in the wake of the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
At the opening of the allied air campaign against Iraq, the cadre of several dozen fulltime military reporters still working at the Pentagon (many of their Pentagon colleagues had already deployed to Saudi Arabia) climbed aboard a specially-assigned C-141 military transport jet that flew them to Dhahran and Riyadh. The next morning, senior officials held the first of what would become daily press briefings at the Pentagon televised live worldwide as the rush of events in the Gulf continued.
But who was there to ask the questions? With the deployment of most of the Pentagon press corps, the Defense Department issued temporary credentials to a mob of stand-ins hastily impressed for military coverage by their Washington bureau chiefs and station managers. From my own direct observations via satellite television (later confirmed by hair-curling anecdotes from press colleagues and military contacts), the fill-in reporters were universally unfit for the assignments they had been given. They knew nothing about the allied ground, air and naval force that had been assembled by the U.S. Central Command over the past five months in the Persian Gulf region; they knew nothing of the strategies and tactics that the military had honed throughout the 1980s to carry out multiservice and multinational military operations; they knew nothing about the weapons and armaments assembled in the region - except that, of course, none of them were going to work; they had neither contacts nor sources to help them identify and hone any inquiries that would have helped inform the American people as to how their sons and daughters were girding for battle. And most revealing of all, they seemed oblivious to how stupid they looked when attempting to hector the Pentagon briefers on worldwide television. One veteran colleague contemptuously referred to them as 'the invasion of the food editors.'
In the Gulf region itself, a similar situation devolved. An estimated 1,300 reporters - of whom at most a hundred had any military coverage background - swamped the press center in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
In 1991, retired Associated Press Pentagon correspondent Fred Hoffman - a veteran at that time of 28 years of military coverage - watched the newcomers perform, and came away nauseated: 'I listened to the (Pentagon and Riyadh) briefings and I watched the briefings every day ... This is going to set back military relations with the press, way back because of the impression it gives to military officers that the press is a collection of ignorant dodos and hip-shooters.' Reporter Henry Allen of The Washington Post, appalled at what he saw in the Pentagon briefings, indicted the military reporter wannabes as a pack of 'fools, nit-pickers and egomaniacs.' He went on, 'They don't seem to understand the military, either. Meanwhile, the military seems to have their number, perfectly.'
During the frenzied, high-pressure weeks of the air and ground campaigns, the U.S. military leadership manipulated the stand-in reporters at the Pentagon while strictly controlling access and information to the press contingent in the Gulf. Their control effort was strongly aided by the dog-eat-dog competition among the major news outlets - who had established a standing committee (read 'cartel') to control which reporters would be allowed into the small number of combat pool slots available. Thus, during one week at Dhahran, a senior editor for The Army Times newspaper - an independent publication that covers the U.S. Army fulltime - was informed by the committee that his staffers would not be given access to the print media combat pool on grounds that The Army Times did not meet the committee's definition of a newspaper, while at the same time a lifestyles writer from the fashion magazine Mirabella was handed a pool slot so that she could write about sexual tensions between male and female soldiers.
The same situation was likely to reoccur in the fall of 2001 as the United States assembled an international coalition to retaliate against terrorist organizations worldwide in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon that left more than 6,000 people dead or missing: A stampede of ill-prepared reporters rushed to a story lacking the basic background or experience to cover it effectively.
Lessons learned - the PAO revolution
As has been documented elsewhere in after-action reports compiled by several media research foundations, in 1991 the military succeeded in manipulating and controlling the unruly and ill-informed press contingent in the Gulf. And the initial feeling among senior military leaders was that the harsh treatment was justified. One Navy report from 1991 concluded that the Gulf War briefing fiasco deeply impressed military officials thinking about coverage in the next crisis or war: 'We were in a "win-win" situation,' Marine Brig. Gen. Richard Neal, the well-recognized Central Command briefer in Riyadh, told the PA Communicator, an internal Navy PAO newsletter. 'Due to the nature of their (reporters') questions, everything the press did was wrong in the mind of "Joe Six-pack" out there in the public.' The PA Communicator article explicitly cited a now-famous Saturday Night Live parody of the Pentagon press briefing as evidence that the military, and not the media, had won the hearts and minds of the American public.
It did not take long for the military leadership to discover that its Persian Gulf War triumph over the news media had been a Pyrrhic victory, that the story of American heroism and military competence in the Iraqi desert had largely gone untold because of the access restrictions and the early collapse of the communications system for transmitting stories from the field. Navy and Air Force officials would later privately admit that they had shot themselves in the foot by preventing in-depth coverage of their operations. The Marine Corps, which has a long tradition of pro-active press relations, was a major exception to the rule, and welcomed the press to its field command centers and combat units as it mounted the flank attack into Kuwait.
In the aftermath of the war, the Pentagon scrapped the onerous system of pools and press controls, and the military services individually went through their own versions of what has been called, a 'revolution in public affairs.' In part, this reflected the honest realization that, in one admiral's phrase, the news media 'is not the enemy, but rather the battlefield' for the peacetime battles over force cuts, budgets, weapons procurement and other vital issues.
How the U.S. Navy succeeded in transforming its relations with the press is a textbook example for the military as a whole. Under the public affairs leadership of Rear Adm. Kendall Pease, who served as chief of naval information under three separate chiefs of naval operations in the 1990s, the Navy underwent both an internal and external transformation of how it works with the news media. Internally, Pease expanded the service's own training program to prepare upcoming leaders to work effectively with the press (including how to survive ambush interviews). Externally, Pease and his staff won the Navy leadership's support to embrace a pro-active press stance and to open up previously closed areas (such as submarines) to coverage.
While this reflected in part a gradual relaxation of operational security that had long characterized naval operations during the Cold War, it also stemmed from a cold-blooded assessment by Pease and his colleagues that the Navy needed to reach out to an American public that was becoming less familiar with the military each passing year. The consequences of the end of the draft in 1973, coupled with the inevitable shrinking of the U.S. armed forces by 40 percent during the 1990s, made such outreach essential if the Navy (or any other service) was to retain its political and budgetary support in Congress and each administration.
The Army (and NATO) innovated in press relations during the 1995 intervention on Bosnia.
When Task Force Eagle deployed from Hungary into Bosnia, the Pentagon launched what one subsequent report would term 'a bold and innovative plan in military-media relations.' Journalists were 'embedded' in the Germany-based Army units earmarked for deployment. They traveled with the units and remained with them in Bosnia for two or three weeks after their arrival.
This constituted a full reversal from the earlier pool arrangements in the Gulf that allowed only brief and transitory visits with deployed units. Now, the journalists were considered to be part of the military unit itself, a concept that had not been seen since World War II. A total of 33 journalists, including 24 Americans, took part in the plan.
'The rationale for embedded media was to foster familiarity on the part of the journalists with the unit and its soldiers,' one participant later wrote. 'The assumption was that as the reporters grew to know the unit and its soldiers, there would be a more positive attitude on the part of the soldiers toward the military's mission.' Except for one incident where a brigade commander was quoted alleging that Croats were racist, which sparked several days of intense press scrutiny, the media deployment was deemed a success by all parties.
It was within this context that the sudden explosion of the Internet and widespread availability of powerful computers added an entire new dimension to the relationship between the generals and the journalists.
Two personal vignettes further underscore the immensity of change that the Navy and other military services implemented in press relations between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s:
In In 1987, when the Pentagon ordered a squadron of Navy Reserve minesweepers to duty in the Persian Gulf (during the height of the Iran-Iraq War), officials imposed a total ban on information about the impending deployment. The squadron happened to be based about a half-mile from one newsroom in Seattle and while no one would confirm the wooden ships were preparing to sail, reporters could watch the working parties loading supplies from the newsroom window. Still, when they were invited to 'cover' the departure, the Navy invited the press to the pier where they locked us up in a fenced-in area too far from the scene to record any questions and interviews. The story was replete with phrases such as 'declined comment' and 'tight-lipped officials.'
In 1996, when mainland Chinese ballistic missiles began bracketing the island of Taiwan, the Pentagon was ordered to rush two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region. One of them, the USS Nimitz, was based in Puget Sound, Wash., and constituted a major local impact to a growing international crisis. It took only one phone call for Navy public affairs officials to arrange a direct interview via satellite telephone of the carrier group commander, ship's captain and carrier air wing commander, all of whom had been briefed that it was acceptable for them to discuss the broad outlines of their upcoming mission with a reporter. Thanks to the revolution in Navy public affairs - and, admittedly, the Navy's political interest in getting the story out rather than suppressing information - a reporter was able to construct a lead sentence in his article that read, 'When combat aircraft from the carrier USS Nimitz appear on mainland Chinese air-defense radars tomorrow night....'
Lessons unlearned - the news media
The issue of press competence in military coverage has been sidestepped in many of the after-action critiques that have circulated between the nation's news executives and Pentagon officials in the years since the Gulf War. The major newspapers and TV networks, who have professional military reporters in their ranks, have turned a blind eye to the overall industry weakness, preferring to focus their efforts on getting access and stories to their own military specialists.
One media study concluded - in carefully understated tones - that the news media had failed to prepare in advance for the Persian Gulf War: 'While most reporters (and editors) assigned to this conflict had little or no prior experience with war coverage on the scale of the Persian Gulf conflict, they knew instinctively that this was likely to be "the story" of the decade and they wanted to be there,' the Gannett Foundation (later Freedom Forum) study noted. 'The organizations they worked for were also committed to covering the war and, in fact, some media outlets that rarely send people abroad committed resources to cover this story.'
In 1992, representatives of the news media and military formally hammered out a post-Gulf War agreement to govern coverage of future military operations. The Pentagon agreed to scrap the controversial pool system and to direct field commanders to provide reporters maximum access subject to specific operational and logistical constraints. For its part, the news media pledged to send experienced military reporters to cover future conflicts. This latter promise has been a shamefully unmet pledge.
Both newspapers and broadcast outlets have for the past decade struggled with severe economic pressures that have resulted in fewer fulltime international news bureaus, a reliance on third-nation journalists for initial coverage in a foreign crisis, a decimation of the number of fulltime military reporting specialists, and a continued decline in budgets for in-depth coverage and travel.
Moreover, the national security and defense beats have declined in prestige within the journalism profession since the end of the Cold War even while the pace of military operations and the number of international crises involving U.S. military forces have continued unabated.
For a brief period in the late 1990s, it appeared that the 'dot.com' revolution might create the opportunity for specialized online news sites dedicated to military and defense coverage, but the subsequent collapse of the NASDAQ stock index and widespread bankruptcies in that business sector in 2000 have delayed the emergence of such a journalistic capability.
As we saw in Somalia in 1992-93, Haiti in 1994, Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999, coverage of military operations again and again fell to a dwindling number of fulltime specialists and an outsized mob of untrained general assignment reporters unprepared for the story they were about to meet. This stems from two parallel trends that have taken hold in the journalism profession during the last decade: (1) An unwillingness or inability for many news organizations to invest in and sustain the relatively high cost of a fulltime military beat, and (2) a disinclination by many news executives to provide dedicated coverage to the armed forces out of an unspoken consensus that military affairs in the post-Cold War era simply did not justify the effort, expense or newshole allocation.
While the U.S. military has been trimmed about 40 percent in size since the end of the Cold War and Operation Desert Storm, the roster of fulltime military journalists dwindled even more. A 1995 study by the author found that the number of fulltime military reporters had fallen from around 120 in 1989 to as few as 65 just six years later. At the Pentagon, officials say the fulltime cadre of television network, wire service and military trade publications regularly covering events has shrunk to only 20 or so.
Military leaders today assume that in event of crisis or major news event, they will be confronted by reporters who are unschooled in the specific details or technological background of the military story they are covering. For their part, military officers don't mind. 'A blank slate doesn't have much of a comeback' to military-provided information, one senior public affairs officer said.
The technological revolution
The reporter entering the military beat for the first time - or even merely covering a specific military event - has one advantage his colleagues a mere decade ago did not enjoy: access to information via cyberspace. (For specific tactics on how to use the internet and other digital applications to cover military stories, see Chapter 12.)
The explosion of digital computer information technology (IT) that is transforming American society and the military is also revolutionizing the way in which the journalism industry is able to cover military operations. It has already sparked countermoves by the Pentagon both to exploit the new technology for its institutional interests while attempting to preserve operational security. Some aspects include:
As internet and e-mail capability continues to spread throughout the news media to include smaller, community-oriented publications and broadcast outlets, the Pentagon is able to expand its grassroots public affairs presence using computerized "home town" news releases, feature profile news releases and even digital imagery.
Coverage of peacetime military subjects has become easier -especially for news organizations outside Washington, D.C. -because of the Pentagon's commitment to use its internet websites to promulgate timely information ranging from briefing transcripts to unclassified publications. A similar profusion of other federal and non-governmental websites such as the General Accounting Office, Congress' Thomas system, and scores of policy think-tanks and research institutes, have expanded the scope of rapid information-gathering possible for reporters assigned to military and national security subjects.
News media organizations versed in 'omputer-assisted reporting'have also been able to increase their quality of reporting on issues employing DoD computer databases for information on important issues.
The profusion of new IT devices -from ultra-light laptop computers to 'ideophones'that can pump a digital image over a telephone line -is providing journalists with more powerful tools to conduct field coverage independent of the military, including direct uplinks from portable laptop computers to commercial communications satellites that avoid any dependency on military communications networks. This is particularly true in crisis areas where American journalists already have an established presence before the arrival of American forces.
Both the military and media are learning to cooperate and effectively work together under a news cycle that is even more intense than the 24-hour-day-seven-day-week pattern that began on cable television and now also exists on the internet. Both institutions will have to learn how to manage the enormous strains to 'et it right'while avoiding release of information that could threaten the success of the operation and the lives of American service people.
In the absence of a particular TV image, news organizations have an arsenal of computer-driven graphics at their fingertips, including actual satellite imagery from commercial satellites, animated simulations and static visual depictions to serve as gap-fillers during coverage of a critical military operation.
The administration and Pentagon will find themselves competing with outside experts and analysts in the diplomatic and public relations aspects of a conflict. Even the enemy, whether a hostile state or sub-national ethic group, will be able to wage a public-relations campaign in cyberspace as the battlefield struggle proceeds. The Pentagon will learn to use cyberspace as it previously used live television to send its message 'round'the news media directly to the American people and global bystanders.
The Pentagon will likely expand its use of the internet to provide information in event of specific incidents or crises, though it also is being careful to remove sensitive information that could help terrorists. After the terrorist bombing of the destroyer USS Cole, the collision between the submarine USS Greeneville and the Japanese vessel Ehime Maru, and the collision between a Navy EP-3 and Chinese F-8 fighter, public officials created dedicated websites linked to the main military news portals that provided a continuously updated flow of text, still and video imagery as the military responded to each event.
Technology and a pro-active military public affairs strategy will in the end help to offset the institutional barriers preventing print and broadcast reporters from mastering complicated military stories. But the final result will still depend on the reporter' commitment to become literate in military subjects and not rely on a smile or a sneer to mask a gaping ignorance.
Organizing the Military Beat
Three strategies to get started
So you want to become your newspaper or TV station's military reporter. Where to begin? If the experience of numerous military reporters interviewed for this manual is a guide, you, your line editor and management superiors should first devise and implement three separate strategies:
A strategy for defining your beat coverage
This is a formal 'harter'for military coverage, defining the scope of military activities on which you will concentrate, the geographical boundaries of primary coverage, and an initial outline of topics and story subjects that you intend to monitor in the first 12 months of your beat. It should address editorial management issues such as a beat budget and travel.
A strategy for personal preparation
This consists of the personal steps you need to take to obtain entry-level knowledge of military organization, particularly focusing on the bases, commands, military leaders and issues of direct local interest.
A strategy for beat organization and sustainment
From the outset, maintaining your beat will be as important as opening and expanding contacts with the military commands you will cover. This strategy encompasses the 'ogistics'of the military beat, including your file and desktop organization, schedules, tickler files and time management.
How to begin
For illustration' sake, let' assume that you are a reporter with a daily newspaper that is planning to open a full-time military beat. You are interested in the job, but have little or no experience in working with the military on stories. Your experience as a reporter has given you the confidence to tackle challenging new assignments, but in moments of candor, you realize that you don't know a colonel from a corporal. Still, you and your editors have decided that local and/or regional military activities warrant full-time coverage and you have tentatively agreed to take a crack at it. Let's do it, your editor says. Congratulations! You are now a military reporter, following in the hallowed footsteps of Richard Harding Davis, Ernie Pyle, Homer Bigart and Charlie Aldinger.
Now what the hell do you do? Strategize!
Coverage strategy for the military beat
Writing your 'charter' for the military beat, a formal memo setting out your priorities, areas of coverage and - equally important - limits of coverage, is one of the most important tasks you will undertake at the outset of creating the position. It will provide a structure of understanding between you and your editors that will minimize conflict and confusion during the initial months when you have to devote as much effort toward backgrounding and source development as to article writing itself. Some elements of this should include:
Institutional coverage: What are the bases and military commands that you will cover? Will you shadow only the major base in your city or region? All military organizations located within your state? Or the entire U.S. military establishment? Will your beat focus on the uniformed military (e.g. bases, commands and personnel) or will you also cover the defense industry, veterans groups, and quasi-military organizations such as the NOAA, Maritime Administration or Army Corps of Engineers? When subjects on the military beat intersect with other beats (e.g., environmental stories), which reporter will get the assignment?
Geographical boundaries: What are the physical boundaries of your beat? Will you stay close to home, monitoring military activities in your region alone? Will you follow local units as they travel out of state or overseas for maneuvers, training or actual operational deployments? Will you chase Pentagon stories from afar (it can be done), and monitor congressional issues from your hometown? Can you expect out-of-country assignments to cover military crises such as Operation Desert Storm or Kosovo?
Budget and travel: The military beat can be one of the most expensive beats on a newspaper (just ask editors who shipped reporters and photographers to the Persian Gulf War where inhaling and exhaling easily cost $500 per day). What will be your expenses and travel costs to create the military beat? For the first 12 months of activity? You should budget for specialty publication subscriptions, other reference materials, any special gear you'll use in the field (see Chapter 14); you should plan on at least two or three out-of-town coverage trips per year, including a backgrounder visit to Washington, D.C. for source development. Use your company's travel agency to cost out several "notional" trips (e.g. two weeks to Europe, 10 days at the National Training Center in Southern California) to present a fine-grain travel budget estimate. Press hard for emergency contingency travel funds in the event of that unexpected major incident that comes out of left field to consume your publication's time and energy.
Product: What do your editors expect from you once the military beat is up and running? Will you appear only in the front and local news sections, or will you also be asked/invited to write features, or even op-ed analysis pieces? What is their expectation on general assignment work from you? Are you available for general assignment emergency coverage only, or can any assistant city editor hijack you on request? What is their anticipation on the mix of spot daily stories, longer enterprise articles, or long-range investigative projects? Will you have formal staff backup support for the beat while you are out of town on assignment or on vacation?
Professional development: What can you expect from your newspaper in the way of opportunities for increasing your knowledge about the military as you continue in the beat? Will your superiors guarantee you an annual backgrounding trip to the Pentagon and other Washington, D.C. institutions? If there is a major military command headquarters out of your region that heavily impacts local bases, do you have a green light for a fact-finding trip there as well? Are occasional military war college seminars or other confabs something you can plan on - or something only to dream about?
Tenure: How long will your appointment as a military reporter run? Is it an open-ended assignment, or will you anticipate transfer and relief after two or three years?
Personal strategy for the military beat
Your personal preparation for writing and covering military topics should include:
A self-organized course in basic military concepts, organization, history and current issues primarily through reading and local backgrounders.
A step-by-step task list to organize the military beat to conform to the strategy on coverage which you and your editors have agreed to, including a compiled roster of bases and commands you will cover, their public affairs representatives, and military and non-governmental contacts elsewhere that can provide entry-level information for you.
A detailed canvass of local, regional and national-level experts, academic contacts, think tanks and other non-military organizations that monitor military issues and can serve as independent sources on military stories.
A clear timetable for your organizational efforts. If you are organizing a full-time beat from thin air, you should give yourself at least four weeks "off deadline" to identify your immediate coverage area, make initial contact with military officials, receive briefings and study background materials.
Military beat maintenance and sustainment
This is actually a strategy for maintaining the military reporter's sanity. Based on my own experience, the military beat is the most paper-pile and megabyte-creating position in the newsroom (the environmental beat and medical beat draw a close second, but their reports seem more neatly bound and covered, therefore stack more easily). Every reporter learns from his or her mother to be neat and tidy, but I cannot overemphasize the need for controlling from the outset what will be a continuous river of materials terminating in your mailbox. Two weeks into your new job, you will already be inundated with wire report printouts, faxes, junk mail, news releases, subscription publications and your own growing mountain of notes. I took two weeks off work to conduct the first interviews for this manual and came back to find a 37-inch hillock of mail on my desk (I measured it with a yardstick). Now, if you are the type of reporter who flourishes in a sea of loose paper, fine; I'm not. Your initial concerns on the beat (source contacts, backgrounders, etc.) should not divert you from immediately setting up mechanisms that will enable you to route, file, archive and retrieve pieces of paper quickly. Essential desktop tools include:
A calendar and tickler file to track your schedule.
A business card notebook that can hold and alphabetically file cards, or a large Rolodex, and a digital version in your computer such as Microsoft Outlook or some other contact manager.
A telephone log (8 x 11 spiral notebook is okay).
Enough filing shelf space to create your own beat/subject archive. I have found it useful to create a file on every military unit and base, co-located with a file on the local facility's parent command. But in a separate drawer I create individual subject files, stored alphabetically. When a subject file is no longer needed, you can cull it for whatever permanent stuff you want to keep and then re-file that under the base/unit file that applies.
A suitable collection of desktop manuals, reference books and almanac editions of military magazines for that quick look-see.
An ironclad schedule for clipping, photocopying and filing, and tossing material - at least once a week - or you can kiss this particular strategy goodbye.
And one item of gratuitous advice (colleagues think me obsessed, but it works): Decide once and for all whether your filing system will be 8 x 11 or 8 x 14, and photocopy to that size only. Not only does this make the physical act of creating and organizing files easier, it facilitates neatness, which facilitates a more pleasant environment. There is a need for pleasantness in a job with so many unpleasant moments just ahead.
How others survived
Do you still find the prospect of being tossed into the military beat terrifying? If you say yes, you are in good company.
Several experienced and distinguished journalists and public affairs officials interviewed for this manual found themselves thrust into the military specialty with little warning or preparation. Somehow, they survived, endured, and prevailed.
Louis A. 'Pete' Williams, currently a senior reporter for NBC News, became a household name as assistant secretary of defense/public affairs for then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney during 1989-93, specifically for his calm, professional TV press briefings during the 1990 U.S. invasion of Panama and Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm less than a year later.
Williams, as press secretary to then-Wyoming Rep. Cheney, found himself promoted from a one-person congressional spokesman to command of more than 120 military public affairs specialists (with a protocol rank of four-star general, no less) when President George H. W. Bush tapped Cheney to lead the Defense Department in early 1989. The downside, Williams said, was that he had less than two weeks to prepare for an intense, crisis-driven job speaking on behalf of an organization that spans the gamut from nuclear weapons to MRE rations, and where press statements are forged in committees whose members battle over the placement of a semicolon.
Named chief Pentagon spokesman at the age of 37, Williams readily admitted he had scant military knowledge and no direct background dealing with military topics when he moved with Cheney to the Pentagon.
'I just knew, I had a cold sweat every night, that I was going to be in a (Pentagon press) briefing and George Wilson (the longstanding Washington Post military reporter) was going to be sitting in the front row eyeing this young guy who just came in and he was going to say, 'WHAT ABOUT THAT PROBLEM WITH THE M-93?' and I'd say, 'It's a great tank,' and he'd say, 'It's a rifle, kid.'
So Williams set out to do what his journalistic counterparts have to do: Cram study. He volunteered for what the military calls 'the firehose treatment' of briefings, background sessions and other ways in which information is imparted.
'One day you are talking with a guy who knows that there is a left-handed thread on every bolt of the AIM-9 missile, that's his life, he speaks to you in that level of detail, and it's just absolute gobbledygook,' Williams recalled with a laugh. 'This building does not speak English.'
Williams said he can sympathize with new military reporters, especially the ones tossed onto the beat at the Pentagon level, where they must not only handle day-to-day military crises, but master the nuances of defense politics, procurement issues and congressional defense committees.
'I think first of all covering the Pentagon is very hard, it's a huge organization, it's doing so many things,' Williams explained. 'Certainly you can't depend on the meager gruel that we handed out from our office, that's a starvation diet.'
Veteran military reporters recall the same sense of bewilderment and shock.
'It was terrible,' recalled Washington Post reporter Molly Moore, who covered the Defense Department during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when asked how her first days on the Pentagon beat had gone. 'It has the reputation of being one of the hardest beats on our paper.'
'This is a beat reporters run away from,' said former Associated Press Pentagon reporter Fred Hoffman, who held the post for nearly 30 years before retiring in 1984. 'When I was getting ready to retire, literally people were running the other way so as not to be tapped for that beat. This is not a beat that a lazy reporter can thrive in despite the mythology about the great (military) propaganda machine. There is less 'news' generated by the Defense Department than State or the White House. But it is a reporter's beat.'
Moore agreed: 'At my paper, most reporters are terrified of the military beat. It's viewed as so mammoth and impenetrable that most people don't even try.'
Jack Dorsey thought he'd give it a try when the military reporting slot opened up at his newspaper in the Hampton Roads naval complex in southeast Virginia. Given the concentration of military bases and commands in the Hampton Roads area, The Virginian-Pilot (at that time operating in friendly competition with its afternoon sister newspaper, The Ledger-Star), deploys a team of reporters and editors to handle military subjects.
Having covered most of the standing beats, Dorsey said he was ready for a challenge. And, as a former police-beat reporter, he had experience with uniformed government officials who tend to mistrust the press.
The hardest lesson to impart for new military reporters is that it will take years - not months, not an occasional splash of a story - for the hard work, dogged research and continuous reporting to pay off, veterans like Hoffman and Dorsey contend.
'A new reporter on that beat can't just jump in there and think he's going to whip the world and be a Jack Anderson,' Dorsey said. 'You just can't do it. You need the public affairs officers and you need the blessings of the admiral because ... you can't get on a Navy ship or a Navy plane or an Air Force plane if they don't like you.'
The correct strategy, Dorsey said, is to earn their respect while maintaining your reputation as a tough but fair - and independent - journalist. Dorsey's advice - geared toward a long-term strategy of establishing mutual confidence between military institution and reporter - is for the novice to consciously avoid arrogance or 'a chip on your shoulder.'
'Go into that beat with a positive attitude,' Dorsey suggests. 'You'll find out soon enough whether or not they are crooks or dishonest.'
Peter Copeland, who held famed World War II reporter Ernie Pyle's job as military reporter for the Scripps-Howard News Service, suffered culture shock on his first day at work covering the military.
Copeland entered the Pentagon for the first time in January 1989 with little knowledge of the military and a personal belief that it was a dead-end job. 'The Cold War was winding down and the story was going to be "How does the military get smaller?" he said. 'It turned out that I had two wars in two years,' he said, referring to the 1990 U.S. invasion of Panama and Operation Desert Storm a year later.
Copeland's first deadline assignment was the equivalent of a dive into the deep end of the pool with lead ankle weights. Six thousand miles away, a pair of Navy F-14 fighters had just shot down two Libyan warplanes that had made threatening moves toward them as they patrolled above the Mediterranean Sea. A Pentagon press briefing was announced to explain the encounter.
'I was totally lost, didn't even know where the Pentagon was,' Copeland recalled. 'I got into the briefing room and they started talking about jinking the bogeys and the Sparrows left the rail. I didn't know anything, but I saw everyone taking notes so I wrote it all down. Afterwards I went up to this older reporter and I said, 'I'm Peter Copeland from Scripps-Howard and I don't understand any of this.' The experienced journalist - George Wilson of The Washington Post - patiently led his novice colleague through the twists and turns of military slang (a bogey is an unidentified aircraft, a Sparrow is a radar-guided air-to-air missile, and the rail is the fuselage or wing attachment where the missiles are mounted.) 'Forever grateful' to the older man's help, Copeland filed his story and went on with his apprenticeship, which matured with his on-scene reporting from the Desert Storm ground war in February 1991.
That Copeland, Moore, Dorsey, Williams and others managed to survive their first encounter with the military is obvious. And the way they did it is no mystery - hard work, taking the work an assignment at a time, not being afraid to tell a source that they didn't understand some of the terminology or concepts, an open mind, and plenty of empty notebooks.
That three of the four had no prior military experience (Dorsey had a brief stint in the National Guard), or prior formal training in military subjects, did not present an insurmountable obstacle to their indoctrination.
'You attend these (explanatory) briefings with the overhead projectors and you get this 'tell you two things at once' syndrome,' Williams reminisced. 'You're trying to read that (overhead slide) while they talk to you about something entirely different. You think, 'Am I supposed to read this or listen?' I was feeling particularly lost at one of these briefings one day and I leaned across and said (to a general),'What is C-cubed-I?' and he said, 'I don't know either.'
'It's sink or swim,' Copeland agreed.
Williams overcame his night sweats to become an eloquent government spokesman whose daily work required him to coordinate Pentagon policy announcements with Cheney, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell, as well as White House and State Department officials.
Moore and Copeland flourished in their respective military beats and turned out distinguished stories from the Persian Gulf War, subsequently rising to become a foreign news reporter and Washington bureau chief, respectively. Dorsey continues to anchor the military reporting of his Norfolk newspaper, and in his second decade at that slot continues to break military stories of national significance