• U.S.

Press: Anybody Want to Go to Grenada?

10 minute read
Otto Friedrich

Angry reporters finally get to a story after it is all but over

“Suppose I told you,” the Pentagon briefing expert boasted to a roomful of officers, “that on this raggedy clump of hills and beaches, we are going to humiliate one of the most arrogant powers in the world today …”

“You don’t mean . , .?”

“Yes, gentlemen, I do mean—the American press.”

That was New York Times Columnist Russell Baker’s fantasy version of the state of conflict between U.S. military authorities and the press last week. But for many of the 400-odd American reporters and photographers trying to get a firsthand look at the invasion of Grenada, it was hardly a fantasy at all.

To evade the U.S. military’s ban on all reporters during the first days of fighting, ABC-TV Correspondent Steve Shepard and Producer Tim Ross spent $5,000 to hire a fishing boat that would carry them the 160 miles from Barbados to Grenada. “It was awful,” said Ross. “We spent 30 hours on a 35-ft. boat in 15-ft. seas.” As they neared Carriacou, a small island just north of Grenada, the Navy forced them back.

“This Navy jet came over and made a couple of runs at us,” said Ross. “First it just waggled its wings. Then it made a lateral pass. Finally it opened the bomb doors, and the pilot dropped a buoy about 30 ft. ahead of us just to show what else he could drop and how close he could drop it.”

Another fishing boat chartered by ABC Correspondent Josh Mankiewicz halted when a U.S. destroyer cut across its bow. “I got a good look at that gun on the foredeck and decided that we were simply outclassed,” said Mankiewicz. “I know force majeure when I see it.”

The commander of that force majeure, and of the Second Fleet, was Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf III, Annapolis-trained (’51) and a recipient of the Legion of Merit. He made no secret of the fact that he was responsible for the censorship—and made no apologies either. Said Metcalf to protesting reporters: “I’m down here to take an island. I don’t need you running around and getting in the way.” And to anyone who tried it, he added a personal shot across the bows: “We’ll stop you. We’ve got the means to do that.”

NBC Correspondent Richard Valeriani ruefully recalled waiting in Barbados: “We couldn’t cover the story. You can’t cover a story unless you’re there. All we could cover was what we were being told about the story.”

Since only a small handful of journalists, including TIME Correspondent Bernard Diederich, had managed to get onto Grenada as the Marines landed, the vacuum caused by the censorship was quickly filled by amateurs telling their stories over ham radios to eager ears in the U.S. Notable among these was Mark Barettella, 22, of Ridgefield, N.J., a student at St. George’s University medical school. While U.S. military communiques were reporting relatively light resistance, Barettella throughout the first two days of the operation broadcast vivid accounts of combat around his room at the school; he included descriptions of heavy firing by U.S. planes and Cuban antiaircraft and even the caliber and types of weapons used.

Doubts have been raised about the accuracy of Barettella’s reports. “I’m afraid there was a tendency by ham operators to embellish a little bit during the heat of the moment,” says George Naft-zinger, who runs an international amateur-radio network based in Miami. Barettella now acknowledges that he never actually saw any troops in action but “relayed what I heard from firsthand witnesses on the roof.”

If information was sketchy during the military blackout, pictures were hardly better. TV tapes provided by the Pentagon were “lifeless and nondescript,” according to NBC Executive Jeremy Lamprecht. “No fighting at all.” The TV networks ran the military film anyway. When the Sygma photo agency offered film of the U.S. landing, taken by a French photographer who had arrived earlier in Grenada, it demanded $400,000—and got $100,000 from NBC—for pictures of what the network’s Sunday evening show First Camera billed as “the first exclusive uncensored” footage.

Despite the sharp words between press and military, the invasion succeeded so quickly that the blockade against reporters was soon phased out; the story was virtually over by the time the press reached the scene. The ban, in fact, lasted only two days. Then came one day of limited pool coverage by 15 reporters. After the press clamored for more, there were two days of two-hour guided tours for press groups, ranging in size from 27 to 47.

These controlled visits, complained Los Angeles Times Foreign Editor Alvin Shuster, were “insufficient, much too short and too limited in scope.” Freelance Photographer J. Ross Baughman, working for Newsweek, broke away from a military-conducted press tour on Friday for an unchaperoned personal sortie.

As a result, the magazine’s photographers were barred from inclusion in further press-pool trips for 24 hours.

In New York, Newsweek Editor Maynard Parker later condemned Baughman’s behavior, calling it “unacceptable and absolutely not condoned by the magazine.”

Early this week the military lowered all barricades.

The brass in Grenada evidently did not know it at the time, but President Reagan had telephoned Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, ordering him to loosen up press restrictions. By 7 a.m. on Sunday, some 200 correspondents milled around in the sweltering trash-littered terminal of Barbados’ Grantley Adams International Airport, jostling for places on the first plane. All those who finally got aboard the C-130 Hercules signed a standard release that waived any claim on the U.S. in case they were killed or injured.

There was little danger of that. When the swarm finally landed in Grenada’s capital of St. George’s, the cadres of Cuban guerrilla fighters, rumored to be in the hills, were nowhere to be found. Grenadians, who cheerfully underwent interview after interview, all seemed to think the invasion had been a splendid show, or that liberation from Marxist rule was a good thing. Each of the networks had a dozen or more staffers on the scene, and more than 150 news organizations had at least one, but there were no scoops to be had. Even if there had been, it would have been no easy trick to get them swiftly back home. The U.S. bombing around St. George’s knocked out a transmission center, severing cable and tele phone facilities. In order to send their stories, reporters had to hop a military plane back to Barbados.

The end of the fighting by no means ended the conflict be tween the Federal Government and the U.S. press over the mili tary’s refusal to let reporters cover the invasion. Complained the American Society of Newspaper Editors, in a telegram to Defense Secretary Weinberger: “We object to the Defense Department’s failure to honor the long tradition of on-the-scene coverage of American military operations.”

Prominent newspapers agreed.

The liberal Washington Post denounced the restrictions as “inexcusable.” The conservative Chicago Tribune was hardly less angry: “Freedom was badly served by banning journalists from Grenada during those crucial days.”

Such protests won support gress. Michigan’s Democratic Donald Riegle formally proposed, and the full Senate agreed by a vote of 53 to 18, that “restrictions imposed upon the press in Grenada shall cease.” At a House com mittee hearing, NBC Commentator John Chancellor said that the censorship was not based on military need but “got into the area of politics.”

Chancellor disclosed to committee members one unsettling fact, though: let ters sent to NBC on the Government-press conflict had been running 10 to 1 in favor of the Administration. Reaction at other networks and newspapers was much the same. “The media need to listen to the public on some of these issues,” observed Republican Congressman Carlos J. Moorhead of California.

Indeed, the press was by no means of one like mind on the blackout. “Rather than mount ing a constitutional soapbox,” said the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “the press might better spend its time contemplating why it was not informed and in vited.” The St. Louis Globe-Democrat volunteered a blunt explanation: “… the television networks’ antidefense bias.” Declared conservative Columnist Patrick J. Buchanan: “If senior U.S. commanders running this operation harbor a deep distrust of the American press, theirs is not an unmerited contempt.”

Some of the Caribbean cor respondents who resented the restrictions that kept them out of Grenada also disapproved of the scene they helped create. Said Liz Trotta of CBS: “Viet Nam was a real war for real correspondents. This is ridiculous, to see the press becoming part of the main story. Why should anyone expect the U.S. military to take 400 reporters with them on an invasion?” Commented Jim Minter, executive editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “A military operation like this is not the World Series.”

At least one White House official shared the concerns of the press. He was Les Janka, 43, a six-year veteran of the National Security Council staff who last summer became President Reagan’s deputy press secretary for foreign affairs. Like his boss, Press Secretary Larry Speakes, Janka had not been told in advance about the Grenada operation; thus when White House correspondents asked them about rumors of an impending invasion, they both denied the story. Janka drafted a candid letter of resignation, but before he could send it, White House officials accused him of telling the Washington Post that Speakes was also thinking of quitting. After the press secretary demanded Janka’s resignation, Janka released his letter of protest: “This week’s events in the Caribbean have damaged, perhaps irreparably, [my] credibility.”

Janka was a relatively junior official and his departure a minor matter, of course.

But to TIME White House Correspondent Laurence I. Barrett, assessing the state of relations between press and presidency, the incident pointed up “the tension and friction generated by the Administration’s very poor handling of the press-coverage issue. Since the early days of the Administration, the White House has suffered episodic difficulties in establishing and maintaining its credibility, and it has a consistent history of attempting to impede coverage of national security affairs. Friction between the White House staff and the press corps is usually fleeting, but this time the damage may be lasting.”

Back at the airport in Barbados, one sweltering day last week, Air Force Captain Keith Graham leaned across the counter before him. He was wearing camouflage fatigues that looked as though he had slept in them. In his best parade-ground voice, Graham bellowed, “Anybody want to go to Grenada?” An old Barbadian woman who was trying to sweep up the debris of pizza crusts and paper cups gave Graham a toothless smile, but she offered no answer.

Neither did anyone else. For the first time in a week, the press room had no more reporters in it.

“Well,” said Graham, “I guess everyone who wants to go to Grenada is there.” —By Otto Friedrich.

Reported by Thomas McCarroll/New York and Peter Stoler/Barbados

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com