19 March 2007

I Like Pam

[Full disclosure: I've never actually met Pam Hess.]

Pam Hess is an outstanding Pentagon correspondent. Not the only one, but she's the focus of attention for this post.

I like her candor. I like her passion. I like her modesty and approachability. I like her connectedness to the people that serve in the military.

Some examples (all emphasis mine):

December 7, 2002

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Pam Hess, you recently went through military boot camp for journalists.

HESS: Yes.

KURTZ: Take us behind the front lines. Was this a rough experience?

HESS: It wasn't really physically rigorous, although I did suffer a sprained ankle right before, luckily, a live fire exercise where bullets would have been whizzing over my head. So I...

KURTZ: A live fire exercise.

HESS: ... I took one for the team. Yes, they -- we followed around them -- at some points we followed some Marine lieutenants who were going through their leadership training course and these are brand new officers and they were coming in and learning how to sort of take this field. It was just an empty field with some big white bags on it. But the -- there were Marines on a hill firing over their head to teach them about coordinating fires. It was pretty scary...

KURTZ: What was it like being one of the reporters who was having to carry the weights on the back...

HESS: Right.

KURTZ: ... and do all that stuff at the same time other reporters were there to cover it as a kind of a media event.

HESS: On the last days, when the reporters showed up to cover up and your first question, it was pretty physically demanding the incredible amount of weight that Marines carry and that reporters would have to carry if they embed with them. That is if they go into a combat situation with them, which is why they created this training, because they wanted us to be prepared if, in fact, that happens. We don't know if it's going to happen. It didn't happen in the Persian Gulf War. It didn't really happen in the Afghan War, but there is some hope that maybe the reporters will have a closer access.

KURTZ: But did you feel that you had become the story? In fact, your picture appeared in certain newspapers...

HESS: Yes...

KURTZ: Tell us about that.

HESS: ... I ended up being the cover girl of the media training. There was a day that they did a weapons demonstration for us. We sat for four hours on metal bleachers while we leached the heat out of our bodies, and at the end of it they invited us to come down and take a look at the weapons. I walked down and a Marine handed me a M-16 and showed me how to aim it. We were all -- reporters were there experiencing it and covering it and photographers were there and as soon as I picked up this M-16 with my blue bandana and my braids, the photograph started clicking, and nobody really gave it a thought until Thursday when it appeared in the "International Herald Tribune," possibly "The Financial Times" and it keeps popping up across the country. I keep getting e-mails from people wondering why I'm shooting M-16s.

KURTZ: Brief moment of fame.

HESS: Yes.

November 27, 2005
KURTZ: Pam Hess, you're just back, as I mentioned, from being embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq. Did that experience persuade you that the U.S. is either losing this war or certainly not winning it?

PAMELA HESS, UPI PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: I think it persuaded me that it's far more complicated than that. And we all want to boil it down to we're winning, we're losing, and then move on and go to the shopping mall. But that's really not the case.

Iraq is a patchwork of places that are going pretty well and places that are involved in real war every single day. And the problem with media coverage is it's very hard to capture that in any single article.
KURTZ: Pam Hess, a number of soldiers asked you while you were there, "Why do you guys only report the bad news?"

What did you say?

HESS: A very long and complicated answer. The -- I think the main point is that most reporters are in Baghdad, and there they're receiving the reports from across the nation, there is a car bomb here, an IED there, and there's 15 suicide bombers in Baghdad on a given day.

So that heavily influences the way reporters see the war, whereas the soldiers and the Marines are out there, they're actually acting on the situation. They feel a little bit more power.

One of the problems with the media coverage that I think is pervasive is a lack of understanding about what the enemy looks like, at least as far as the military is concerned. The reporters tend to see every IED and every car bomb as a result of a single enemy.


HESS: I'm sorry, an improvised explosive device. That's what's killing most of the American soldiers over there.

They see these all as part of a coordinated campaign. The military doesn't see it that way at all. They see it as extremely fractured. But the tendency that there is to lump all those things together and attribute them to one single enemy, this insurgency in Iraq, makes it seem more scary.

KURTZ: So are you saying that because many journalists were not embedded, are sitting in hotel rooms in Baghdad -- and I don't want to denigrate, because anybody who goes there...

HESS: No, it's not fair to say they're sitting in hotels in Baghdad, because they're not.

KURTZ: No, but what I'm saying is, they are sort mired in Baghdad...

HESS: Yes.

KURTZ: ... because it is so dangerous to go out. And I have great admiration for anybody who is over there. But that is giving them a distorted view?

HESS: It does necessarily, because Baghdad is the center of where the U.S. government is, where the Iraqi government is, and because where there goes Baghdad goes the rest of the nation. Most reporters are there. But so, too, is most of Zarqawi's efforts.

When you see the coordinated attacks on Baghdad, those are a result of Zarqawi and his ilk, Ansar Al Sunna...

KURTZ: Right.

HESS: ... and the jihadist organizations. To the rest of the country, the vast majority of that violence is focused against Americans. And it's by Sunni insurgents who resent the occupation and all the conditions that come along with it. Plus are fearful of what's going to happen to them if a Shiite majority gets firm control of the country.

KURTZ: Right.

Pam Hess, during Vietnam U.S. officials were often accused of distorting or even lying to the press to try to make it look like the war effort was going better than it was. When you were in Iraq did you feel like you were getting the straight story?

HESS: Certainly from the militarily I did. They have no interest in cooking the books, as it were, they -- they understand that they were blamed for Vietnam and what happened, and they don't want that blame again.

They want people to understand the kind of enemy that they are facing and how long it's going to take. And frankly, most of them said to me, "Please go back and tell them not to pull us out because we are finally at a point where we have enough people here now on the ground between soldiers and Iraqis that we can actually start doing some good and start turning things around. And if you pull us out, we're just going to be back here three years from now."

KURTZ: More optimistic, at least than some of the journalists.

HESS: Yes.

December 11, 2005
KURTZ: Pam Hess, you recently spent nine weeks in Iraq. Why is there such a gap between the way journalists view this war, or report this war, and the views of the soldiers, who you were embedded with?

PAMELA HESS, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT, UPI: Right. It's a huge country, and many reporters are in Baghdad. And Baghdad is the focus of a lot of violence.

Soldiers don't see the big picture. They see their area of operations. And I was in with a lot of units that didn't have any -- any killed in action at all. And so their view of the war is going to be a lot more positive.

There are a couple things that are important to note. The four provinces in Iraq that are the most violent also contain half the population of Iraq. So they have an -- they have an outsized importance.

On the second thing -- and a colonel up in Tal Afar told me this -- don't confuse activity with progress. And I think reporters perhaps are instinctively responding to that, which is the building of a school doesn't necessarily translate to stability. And the reason that the bombings are so publicized is because people feel like they necessarily translate to instability, but I don't think that's the case, either.
KURTZ: When Vice President Cheney says, as he did in June, that the insurgents are in their last throes, and when the Pentagon is slow to get information out about some of these incidents -- they blame the fog of war -- does that contribute to the problem, as well? In other words, not just the journalists, but people on -- people in power?

HESS: It does, actually. And I think that media in general does need to think about how they're covering this war. Is it important to be out on that first day with what has happened, or is it important to wait until more facts are known about it? And for this, I'd give you an example of a story I did this week.

There were -- on Saturday, 19 Iraqis were ambushed and killed in a town of Udaime. And that alone would suggest to you that they're not cutting -- cutting the mustard, they're not doing their job, they can't do it.

But, because I waited a few days and was able to talk to people who were up there, I also found out that another Iraqi battalion fell in behind them and secured the city. And I found out what the -- what the cause of this was.

It wasn't a jihadi. It wasn't a Sunni insurgency. It was an ethnic problem that they're having between Kurds and the Sunnis.

So what we need to think about is, are we reporting -- are we so quick to get out the news that we're missing context and we're missing details, things that actually give you a real understanding of what's going over there?
KURTZ: One last question before we take a break.

Pam Hess, you have covered Don Rumsfeld for years. How frustrated do you believe that he is by the Iraq coverage? And what do you make of this "New York Daily News" report that some White House officials expect him to quit in the coming weeks?

HESS: I've never made any money guessing when Rumsfeld is going to quit. And I think if people think he's going to quit, he might just stay, to be irascible.

I think he's very frustrated, and it actually comes from a military perspective. What's important for people to understand here is that what the military is fighting in Iraq is a counterinsurgency, and that's something -- they'll say it over and over again, "You can't win that militarily."

What it is, is a quest for the will of the Iraqi people to stand up against the people that they're fighting, and the will of the American people to allow our troops to stay there long enough. So media becomes a tool in that.

And I think if there's a criticism to be made of the American media over there -- and there are plenty of them, and I think some of them are outside -- one of the important things to keep in mind is that we are quite vigilant about U.S. propaganda. We are less so about insurgent propaganda. The 24 news -- 24-hour news cycle feeds into that, but we don't quite know what to do with the information that they send us, so it becomes he said-she said reporting.

KURTZ: That is a good point.

January 31, 2006: Some US troops question Woodruff coverage
In Iraq, and throughout the military, there is sympathy and concern for anchor Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt, but there is also this question:

"Why do you think this is such a huge story?" wrote an officer stationed in Baqubah, Iraq, Monday via e-mail. "It's a bit stunning to us over here how absolutely dominant the story is on every network and front page. I mean, you'd think we lost the entire 1st Marine Division or something.

"There's a lot of grumbling from guys at all ranks about it. That's a really impolite and impolitic thing to say ... but it's what you would hear over here."

January 14, 2007
: [Video] UPI’s Pentagon reporter says media is ignoring consequences of withdrawal

March 11, 2007: Pam Hess on Iraq

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