Rules of engagement

Although it is too early to tell, news executives are concerned that the principles for war coverage agreed to by major news organizations and the Pentagon after the Gulf War will not apply in the coming war against terrorism. That could leave news organizations with stricter rules than ever before.

"I think there are going to be guidelines unfolding on this one that none of us have thought about yet," says John Stack, VP of news coverage for Fox News.

The 1991 war-coverage rules say "open and independent reporting will be the principal means of coverage of U.S. operations." They discourage media pools, but recognize their occasional necessity. They also say military public-affairs officers "should act as liaisons but should not interfere with the reporting process." And journalists at the scene of battles are required to carry military credentials and heed a "clear set of military-security ground rules that protect U.S. forces and their operations."

Thus far, the principles still govern, Washington news executives say. But they could be modified. Marcy McGinnis, vice president of news coverage for CBS News, says Washington bureau chiefs are talking with White House officials and each other about coverage guidelines. The Pentagon plans to meet with news organizations in Washington this week.

Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, plans to send a letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld urging the military to "honor the nine principles."

"While we understand the need for national security," Cochran says, "the public has a right to as much information as possible."

So far, the Pentagon has set forth some informal guidelines.

"We're not going to talk about operational details or intelligence. We will acknowledge that a deployment has been given. We will not acknowledge where they are going or what they are doing," says the Defense Department's Torie Clarke.

Reporters may be able to go out with military operations, but it is unlikely they will be accompanying special forces.

The Pentagon will put limits on what can be aired live, Clarke notes.

While no one wants censorship, news organizations say they understand that there is a need to protect national security, particularly in the first time since the War of 1812 that the U.S. mainland has been attacked.

"We don't want to be the one telling the enemy exactly what we're doing before we do it," McGinnis says.

"By nature, journalists chafe at restriction, but we have to understand that the U.S. is in a war that is truly unprecedented," says Eason Jordan, president of newsgathering for CNN's newsgroups. "The fewer rules the better as far as we're concerned. CNN wouldn't say 'that's just fine' to every rule ... but we are understanding about reasonable rules of restriction."

NBC News Vice President Bill Wheatley reminded staffers in a memo last week of the World War II saying "Loose lips sink ships."

He urged news teams to take "great care to make sure that our broadcasts don't inadvertently pass along information that could prove helpful to those who would do harm to our citizens, our officials and our military."

—Additional reporting by Dan Trigoboff