Thursday, July 8, 2010


Reporters Heated over DoD’s Press Policy


Justin Fishel
July 8, 2010 - 6:00 AM
by: Justin Fishel

WASHINGTON -- After signing a two page memo last week, entitled, "Interaction with the Media," Defense Secretary Robert Gates set off a firestorm of objections within the Pentagon press corps and pushed journalists to further question promises of increased transparency within the Obama administration.

The memo, released in the immediate aftermath of General Stanley McChrystal's downfall after a disastrous interview with the Rolling Stone magazine, says the DoD has "grown lax in how we engage with the media." It demands that the Pentagon's public affairs unit be notified "prior to any interviews or any other means of media and public engagement with possible national or international implications."

Reporters argued with defense officials in an on the record gaggle on Wednesday morning that almost every story they write has "national or international implications" and questioned just how far the Pentagon plans to take this rule. At the very least, Pentagon reporters said they fear that already reluctant military officers or commanders will be less likely to speak to the press, and that it could send a "chilling effect" across the military leadership at a time when the country is engaged in two wars.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said it's the responsibility of his office to review interview requests for any "potential mine fields" ahead of time. "Just to return a phone call... even if it's just a background interview?" one reporter asked. "Absolutely... if it is of national or international significance we would need to have visibility on that," Morrell said.

The obvious concern among the press is that the Pentagon public affairs office will be quickly overwhelmed with requests, delaying the amount of time it takes for military officials to respond to reporters.

Morrell said "the bottom line is if we do this properly you will hardly notice the impact." But, he conceded, "there are going to be some growing pains."

Pentagon Spokesman Col. Dave Lapan says the memo is just reinforcing old rules and that the Pentagon will be able to handle the increased flow of requests. "It is making what is ad-hoc today more solidified in practice and in policy," Lapan said.

Defense officials say the Pentagon memo was in the works as early as this spring and did not result from General McChrystal's firing. In a press conference two weeks ago (before the memo was released) Gates said of the McChrystal incident, "I think that to let it impact the relationship I have with the press would be a mistake."

The memo also comes after the Secretary expressed concerns that the press has become too negative when covering the war in Afghanistan. In a June 20th interview on "Fox News Sunday" he said, "I think that the narrative is perhaps overly negative in part because it's incomplete."

Secretary Gates has not commented on the memo publicly, but on Thursday at 1 p.m. Geoff Morrell is expected to address the issue from the podium in the Pentagon briefing room.

Gates is often quoted among defense journalists for saying repeatedly over his tenure, "The press is not the enemy and to treat it as such is self-defeating."

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