Information Warfare: January 29, 2002

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All too often, war reporting is a case of "the media is the message." Geraldo Rivera, veteran talk show host and television journalist, jumped from his job at CNBC to Fox News when offered the opportunity to go to Afghanistan and report, live, on the war. This involved a 25 percent pay cut, and Fox thought they were getting a high profile news personality to spruce up their war coverage. There was one problem, Geraldo (as he likes to be called), was very unpopular with the U.S. military. Some of it had to do with Geraldo's enthusiastic support for Bill Clinton during the 1990s, and then there was some of the reporting he has done on the military over the years. The troops feel that Geraldo was always too quick with cheap shots (and often inaccurate ones) at their expense. 

When Geraldo arrived in Afghanistan, he found that the American military would not give him the kind of access he thought he deserved. At one point, Geraldo asked former Marine officer Ollie North, whom he had befriended over the years, to intercede for him. North reported back that there was no hope of getting much cooperation, much less enthusiastic cooperation, from the Department of Defense. 

But the Pentagon did arrange for Geraldo to hook up with a small (about three dozen men) crew of Afghan warriors. These guys had three tanks (in various states of disrepair) and, it would appear, instructions to sort of look after Geraldo and provide interesting background as needed. 

Still, Geraldo got close enough to the action in places like Tora Bora to enable him to send back impressive looking reports. In one case, too impressive. It was discovered that one report, portrayed as at the scene of a friendly fire incident that killed and injured U.S. troops outside Kandahar, actually took place in Tora Bora (many miles away from Kandahar.) Major embarrassment all around. Adding to Geraldo's already low standing with the Pentagon and his fellow journalists, he insisted on openly carrying a pistol. Much was made of this. Geraldo also said that if he caught up with arch-terrorist Osama bin Laden, he would personally shoot and kill him. This was another news item that was not always handled respectgully. Now, unknown to most people, and apparently Geraldo himself, it has long been considered a big mistake for a journalist to carry a weapon in a combat zone. The troops consider such a fellow more dangerous to everyone in the vicinity. Moreover, by carrying a weapon, the journalist is more of a target for enemy troops. An unarmed journalist has a better chance of talking his way past unfriendlies. But with a weapon, the bad guys are more likely to shoot first (and with greater effect). At worst, some one will just steal your weapon, along with everything else you're carrying.

Geraldo survived his trip to Afghanistan, although his reputation took a beating. While it's generally true that any publicity is good publicity, one could say that this was not the case in this situation.

 


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