BROOKE GLADSTONE: The American military trains its troops to win wars with elaborate and expensive combat simulations. The same war games also give the military a chance to work on winning the media war too -- one reporter at a time. WNYC's Fred Mogul reports. [OFFICER BARKING ORDER: CONTINUE TO TRACK CURRENT OPERATIONS]
FRED MOGUL: The First Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division is planning an assault on Shugard-Gordon, a 30-building village in the mythical Republican of Cortina. Reporters and news crews prowl for interviews at the brigade headquarters -- a cluster of tents covered with camouflage netting and surrounded by steep berms of mud. A team from WNN, the World News Network, is looking for a senior officer to lay out the attack plan. Instead, they get a junior enlisted man.
DOC MOUTON: What is an "intel- analyst" and what do you do?
ERNEST STEIH: Mostly my, my job is to keep the commander and the 3-Shop informed of what's going on, on the battlefield, sir.
DOC MOUTON: Okay, what's a 3-Shop?
ERNEST STEIH: 3-Shops are operations shops, sir.
DOC MOUTON: Okay, so--
FRED MOGUL: Acting reporter Doc Mouton is interviewing Specialist Ernest Stieh, a tall 21 year old intelligence analyst from Orlando, Florida.
DOC MOUTON: What's it like to be in the Army, learning all this new stuff and then suddenly you're deployed thousands of miles away to a third world country like Cortina?
ERNEST STIEH: Only thing I think is: Accomplish the mission; the faster I can get my mission done and help my unit get their mission done, the sooner we can get back home, sir.
FRED MOGUL: Off to the side stands Major Michael Indovina, an Army public affairs officer or PAO. He's taking notes, and after the interview, he gives Specialist Stieh an after-action review.
MICHAEL INDOVINA: I always like to start with the positive. Did a good description of what your job was. You told him without worrying about going into operational security and getting into major details. You started going with a lot of the jargon -- just remember the reporters have no idea what the S-3 is, so you have to explain all that stuff to them.
FRED MOGUL: Reporters generally don't want supervisors watching them do interviews, but the WNN team doesn't mind at all. That's because they're not really a news crew. They're part of the Army Public Affairs Office. And Cortina isn't really an American ally besieged by insurgents. It's a large swathe of forest, field and swamp otherwise known as The Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana. What WNN is really covering is a sophisticated million dollar a day game of laser tag involving more than 5500 soldiers. [SOUND BITE OF OFFICER SPEAKING WHILE DRIVING]
MICHAEL INDOVINA: Public Affairs is an important part of the battlefield.
FRED MOGUL: Public Affairs is an important part of the battlefield, Major Indovina says, driving a humvee across bumpy dirt roads. In wartime, the media keeps a lot of people informed - the soldiers, the public back home, and even the enemy. Still, the media and the military do operate at cross-purposes, and they often skirmish. Gil Meyer, a retired two-star general, was the Army's top public affairs officer during the late 1990s.
GIL MEYER: The skepticism between the military and the media is always going to be there. We have two diametrically opposed organizations! The media wants freedom; the military wants control! And my answer to both sides is: just get over it!
FRED MOGUL: A certain amount of hostility is healthy, says the Washington Post's veteran military reporter, Tom Ricks.
TOM RICKS: It should be an adversarial relationship. The founding fathers, in their wisdom, set up an adversarial system in which parts of major American institutions go at each other hammer and tongs. That's why you have three competing branches of government. The American media is uniquely powered under our Constitution and also engages in that kind of adversarial conduct. Now you do it respectfully; I like and admire a lot of the people I cover, but I am constantly aware that it is and was structured to be adversarial.
FRED MOGUL: Ricks concedes that some reporters are sensationalistic and unsophisticated, but he also thinks the military's training encourages anti-media paranoia. Some of the fictional news crews he's seen are absurdly, unrealistically aggressive. That's not a problem at Fort Polk where today's WNN crew is more Larry King than Mike Wallace. More lap dog than pit bull. Here's Doc Mouton trying to wheedle information out of Command Sergeant Major Francisco Apontortiz.
DOC MOUTON: So how many soldiers have you lost in this conflict so far?
FRANCISCO APONTORTIZ: In this conflict? I can--I cannot discuss that at this time.
DOC MOUTON: Why is that?
FRANCISCO APONTORTIZ: You have to be with my PAO-- where's my PAO at? Back there? He'll be able to give you more information on that.
FRED MOGUL: Afterwards, Apontortiz congratulates himself for evading the mock journalist.
FRANCISCO APONTORTIZ: I know he tried to slick one in there about the number of personnel's-- casualties -injured - and of course I caught that one a mile away.
FRED MOGUL: Sometimes he's good about giving the WNN crew canned statements from the official mission guidelines.
FRANCISCO APONTORTIZ: We're doing well over here. The soldiers are very motivated. We're doing just fine and looking forward to go home for Christmas.
FRED MOGUL: And other times he surprises with a candid critical comment.
FRANCISCO APONTORTIZ: I believe the old soldiers back in 1979 when I actually came into the service were actually more motivated, better disciplined.
FRED MOGUL: The stories are legion of soldiers and officers speaking their minds to the media and putting their career at risk. Captain Cheryl Vermilion, a Blackhawk helicopter pilot, says she learned the value of reticence the hard way.
CHERYL VERMILION: I went on a deployment to Central America and I actually -- we had media down there, and some of the answers that some people gave got a whole bunch of people in trouble, so--
DOC MOUTON: What happened?
CHERYL VERMILION: We were joking around and media was there and they caught it, and so we got in trouble with command at home, so no, I am very aware of the media; I am very cognizant of what they can do.
DOC MOUTON: You say "cognizant." Are you concerned that we can manipulate or--?
CHERYL VERMILION: Yes. [LAUGHS] I, I think the media is very important; and I think it's great - I mean that's - I watch CNN News like everybody else; that's how I get a lot of my own information, [LAUGHS] so I think it's a wonderful tool. It's just always in the back of my mind -- be careful of what happens because we've been burned once before. So.
FRED MOGUL: The officers of the 110th Aviation Battalion stand well away from the microphones, watching their peers interview with the World News Network. They joke among themselves about how they'd really like to answer the questions. For many reporters, this sort of unrehearsed scene would be the whole point of the story -the place where you find out what's really on the minds of the soldiers who will fight the country's next war. For the media trainers of WNN, though, the point is 10 second sound bites, and that's what they're here to help the soldiers deliver. For On the Media, I'm Fred Mogul. [MUSIC]