U.S. military finds way around the press corps
KUWAIT CITY The U.S. military will launch its own news service in Iraq and Afghanistan to send military video, text and photos directly to the Internet or news outlets.
The $6.3 million project, expected to begin operating this month, is one of the largest military public affairs projects in recent memory, and is intended to allow small media outlets in the United States and elsewhere to bypass what the Pentagon views as an increasingly combative press corps.
U.S. officials have complained that Iraq-based media focus on catastrophic events such as car bombs and soldiers' deaths, while giving short shrift to U.S. rebuilding efforts.
The American public "currently gets a pretty slanted picture," said Army Capt. Randall Baucom, a spokesman for the Kuwait-based U.S.-led Coalition Land Forces Command. "We want them to get an opportunity to see the facts as they exist, instead of getting information from people who aren't on the scene."
The project, called Digital Video and Imagery Distribution System or DVIDS, will also give the Pentagon more control of the coverage when calamities do happen.
Army camera teams will be able to use their access to battle zones or military bases to film the aftermath of rebel attacks on U.S. troops or U.S. raids on insurgent targets and then offer free pictures to news outlets within two hours.
At times civilian media are kept away from such events.
"We have an unfair advantage," Baucom said. "We're going to be able to get closer to the incident and provide better spokespeople to give the right information. The important thing is that we provide the public with accurate information."
But media analysts argued that the military has a vested interest in making sure its viewpoint is heard.
"The Army wants to get their view across and they are using a technique as old as any public relations maneuver ever devised," said Aly Colon, an ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, the journalism research and education center in St. Petersburg, Fla.
"I would view the Army's decision, in the same way that I would view OPEC creating a communications system to help the American public understand what it means when prices go up."
"This is the kind of news that people get in countries where the government controls the media. Why would anybody here want to buy into it?" said Mac McKerral, president of the Society of Professional Journalists.
The Army is in the midst of contracting to outfit five mobile public affairs detachments with a suitcase-sized reporting kit containing digital video and still cameras, a laptop computer and a Norsat NewsLink 3200 satellite broadcast terminal. Four teams will be based in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
Much of the effort is aimed at packaging and shipping locally focused stories to small and medium-sized newspapers and TV stations in the United States, said Army Col. Rick Thomas, who heads the effort.
Most small U.S. media outlets can't afford to send a reporter to Iraq to cover a local military unit, Thomas said. Since the ongoing troop rotation involves several Army National Guard and Reserve units from communities across the United States, some small media outlets might never get news of their neighbors' work in Iraq.
"The vast majority are dependent on other news organizations to get their products," Thomas said. "We think we can give them some more focused copy. We can shoot video of someone from, say, Tupelo, Miss., and they've got what looks like a very good hometown piece."
The military brass was surprised and impressed with the speed and immediacy of the coverage of journalists embedded with U.S. combat units during the war, and wanted to develop the same capabilities, Thomas said.
TV crews demonstrated their equipment for Army public affairs teams, and Thomas said his staff compiled a list of equipment needed to cover breaking news.
The Army has dozens of its own reporters in Iraq and Afghanistan writing for internal newsletters and magazines. Thomas said he hopes civilian media can reuse the same stories, or at least the Army's photos and video.
The military's reporters will transmit their stories and video to servers at Third Army headquarters in Atlanta, and allow access to them over a password-protected Internet site, Baucom said. Accredited news organizations will be allowed to register for free access, he said.
Thomas said the military also plans to use the equipment for internal video, such as beaming pictures from an aircraft's gun camera to a Pentagon briefing.
The DVIDS units will also make it easier to get positive stories published, Thomas said.
"There are numerous good news stories that aren't told that do provide a better balance on the overall successes we achieved in Iraq," he said. "We'll be able to provide the option for those types of stories. They're not going to lead in a major daily newspaper, but they'll play well in smaller daily papers and especially weekly papers."