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The media’s war

Grenada marked perhaps the lowest ebb in military-media relations since the Revolution.

Reporters were barred from the island for the first two and half days of the operation—the first time in American history that reporters were deliberately prevented from observing the overt combat operations of the US military on foreign soil.

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When a group of reporters chartered a boat to reach the fighting, a Navy jet was ordered to twice fire warning shots across its bow, finally forcing the boat to turn back.

The invasion commander, Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf III, was later asked at a press conference by one of the reporters what would have happened if the boat had not turned around. “We would have blown your ass right out of the water,” he growled.

On reflection, the Pentagon came to see that enforced exclusion of the media was not a winning strategy for gaining public support.

“The huge mistake at the national level was failing to find some way to take the press along,” General John W. Vessey Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Grenada, later declared.

Vessey appointed a panel of civilian journalists and uniformed military public affairs professionals called the Sidle Commission to come up with workable solutions for military-media relations in future military combat operations.

The first pass at reform after Grenada by the Pentagon was the creation of a national media pool in 1985. A rotating group of experienced military affairs journalists was formed to respond on short notice to join American troops whenever fighting broke out. Pool reporters got logistical help from the military but agreed to share their stories with other reporters and abide by security regulations.

The pool system of covering combat was used in the 1991 Gulf War with ultimately unsatisfying results for both sides. Reporters found moving in a herd to be cumbersome and unresponsive to their journalistic needs, and the military found shepherding pools of reporters overwhelming.

In the 2003 Iraq War, pool reporting was largely supplanted by the “embedded” reporter system that has become the standard for coverage of live-fire combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 2008, the official Pentagon press policy has been that “open and independent reporting shall be the principal means of coverage of the US military operations.”

Phil Kukielski

Correction: Because of a production error, a map of Grenada is misprinted in some editions of the Sept. 8 Ideas section. The complete map appears here: http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2013/09/08/how-grenada-reshaped-military/IZDvWwlt9Ed1chAJufkrvJ/story.html.

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