Media: So who needs censors?

The US press pool has privileged access to the American war machine in Albania. Can their reporting possibly be objective?
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The Independent Culture
IN TIRANA, Albania, the media hotel of choice is the Austrian- owned Rogner. For abstemious Americans it has the only Diet Coke in town. Weirdly, at night, Albanian musicians dressed up like Austrian peasants play loud Germanic folk music in the restaurant. The place is overrun with hacks, spooks, flacks, the officers of a dozen armies, and an Albanian in a shiny suit, who turns out to be the information minister.

Not all journalists at the Rogner hotel are equal. Most have credentials issued by their own news organisations, some have collected, as souvenirs, passes issued by the KLA. A handful have a special status, as members of the American press "pool", the only journalists regularly allowed through the security cordon at Tirana's Rinas airfield, into the heart of the putative American war-fighting machine.

If there is to be a big military move, members of the pool may be "embedded" and taken somewhere in a helicopter. This way, they may get a close-up look at the war which will be denied to most of their colleagues. In practice, the press pool has become a channel by which American military press officers are able to influence what is written and even by whom.

The pool system trades privileged access to the American fighting machine for a certain implicit obedience. In Albania, you don't get on a chopper without an escort and you can talk to nobody without permission. "We've got a lot more sophisticated since Vietnam," one American officer told me. "We see the media as an essential part of the team." There are, of course, some journalists who do not wish to be part of the team.

The pool does not get too many scoops. Instead, in the absence of real information, it occupies itself collecting "hometown" quotes from American servicemen and women, along the lines of: "Gee, shucks, we're just here to do our job." These are then fed to grateful provincial newspapers in Ohio and Oklahoma.

In Tirana, the pool is taken three times a week to the Task Force Hawk headquarters at Rinas air field, a sprawling military encampment guarded by surface-to-air missiles and armoured vehicles, which is the operational base for the 22 notoriously remaining Apache attack helicopters.

But today, something has gone wrong. The pool escort has become confused. The pool finds itself at the back of the briefing room. It has stumbled into an unclassified but detailed briefing of a visiting American congressional delegation led by Dick Armey, a Republican from Texas. The subject is a previously undisclosed military plan called Operation Victory Hawk.

For several minutes, nobody official seems to notice the journalists. For the reporters, it is a surreal dream. And then, suddenly, the briefing is terminated as the cock-up dawns. An officer twigs that the two tour groups, of journalists and congressmen, have been inadvertently commingled. There are wan, embarrassed smiles. The journalists are hurried out. A senior military press officer takes aside Joe Albright, a veteran correspondent for Cox Newspapers and the pool coordinator, for a word.

Finally, for the pool, a genuine scoop, and on Topic A: Apaches. Yet when Albright posts the pool report in the lobby of the Rogner, he has omitted the most telling details. Not included is the "meat" of the briefing, believed to concern the doctrine of attack that the Apache battalion and related forces might employ. Instead, Albright promises to "negotiate" a possible future release of this information with themilitary spokesman "so that we wouldn't possibly do anything to endanger the troops".

Who needs censors?

Albright is a decent journalist and he has worked hard to negotiate access to the American military machine in Albania, believing that some access is better than none. Being a pool co-ordinator is a thankless task, like herding cats. But it is not always clear who is getting the best of the bargain.

At the beginning or end of most reports from the Serbian side of this conflict, we are warned that reports are subject to restrictions. As the war in the Balkans appears to be moving to a potentially more dangerous military phase, readers and viewers need to know that in the news-managed circumstances of correspondents working in Albania, the controls are merely subtler.