A Day In The Life Of A Pentagon Correspondent

(CBS/AP)
To report on the Pentagon you need "a press pass and a good pair of shoes," David Martin told me last Thursday in CBS's booth in the complex (which, compared to the tiny White House booth, is the equivalent of a large sports arena.) Indeed, by the end of the day, I was glad I didn't wear heels.

From the inside, the Pentagon looks relatively sterile and almost museum-like (historical military objects in various glass cases and portraits of past presidents, past generals, past defense secretaries, etc., on the walls.) Still, "it's an incredibly open building," for reporters, Martin said. "You can really roam this building at will … it's not a hostile place. They don't treat you like an intruder." There are, of course, spaces you can't just waltz on into. But I was pretty surprised that we walked right through the corridor outside Secretary Rumsfeld's office and right through the hallway between the offices of the Joint Chiefs.

"Over the years, you learn that 95 percent of the good stories you get in the hallways. The more you're out in the hallways the more likely you are to stumble on a story or pick up on vibes," said Martin. When you read or hear something attributed to a senior defense department official, said Martin, it's probably from a conversation that took place in the hallways.

The war in Iraq "changed the way information moves" around the building, said Martin. A lot of information "is much more closely protected," which "makes it a little harder to cover the building." In addition, he added, "Rumsfeld is 'death on leaks'…which has somewhat of a chilling effect."

"It really is a beat," said Martin, who spends a great deal of his time walking through the building, checking in with public affairs officers and sources. A lot of the time, he's wandering around hoping to run into someone who might be useful. Doing that every day is almost like being a beat cop, he said. "You become very sensitive to what's out of order."

Martin starts his day catching up on clips from the previous day's broadcast and print stories, then heads to the morning gaggle. He echoes what most reporters tend to feel about press gaggles: "It's usually not very helpful, but you've got to start your day somewhere," he said.

That morning, the 10 a.m. gaggle was pushed back to 10:30 – likely because of the news that dropped at around 10:10 – the Supreme Court ruled that the president does not have the authority to set up military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay without congressional approval. That story would end up dominating the rest of the day's work.

This gaggle is very different than the one that's held at the White House – it's only a handful of reporters gathered in Pentagon spokesman Brian Whitman's office. It's also pretty casual -- people are cracking jokes and chatting while everyone saunters in.

It became clear fairly quickly that the meeting wasn't going to be of much use on the big story of the day. Questions about the ruling were greeted with Whitman's response that the Pentagon had no response yet, because the ruling was released 20 minutes ago and lawyers were just beginning to read it. (Whitman did respond to a question about the necessity of the Guantanamo prison facility – comments that ended up in this wire report shortly after the gaggle.)

With that, the questions became more of a strictly factual nature – how many prisoners are there at Guantanamo? How many will this ruling directly affect? – Whitman didn't have all of that info on hand, so with that, the party moved across the hall to the Secretary of Defense's press office, where Martin and a handful of others gathered the numbers from a press officer. A statement from the Pentagon on the ruling later that day was "a big maybe," according to one spokesperson, but the Department of Justice would be holding a background conference call for reporters at 2 p.m. and at 1 p.m., Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty was expected to make a statement on the ruling.

Martin expected that he might be doing a bounce piece – a story to follow up on Wyatt Andrews' report on the ruling itself – but at around 11 a.m., "Evening News" Senior Producer Jim McGlinchy called to let Martin know that the piece would come from Jim Axelrod at the White House. The president was scheduled to make a statement on the ruling at 11:30 a.m.

So, Martin shifted his focus to two other stories that might be news that day – a potential new tape from Osama bin Laden and the possibility of missile tests in North Korea.

Much of the next hour was filled with Martin on the phone with sources about the status of the North Korean missile launch and the existence of the bin Laden tape. One source told him that the tape wasn't likely to come out that week (although, as it turns out, the tape came out Friday.)

Martin then heads out to do what can probably best be described as "rounds." He checks in with all the press offices in each military branch, walks the halls hoping to run into his "favorite general" or someone else who might offer a useful bit of information.

He doesn't generally expect these run-ins to generate any immediate groundbreaking news. Instead, their value lies mostly in the small clues and innuendos that he might pick up.

Martin also keeps track of who's in the building by keeping an eye on little indicators. If a limo is parked in a certain area outside, he knows Rumsfeld is in the building. Pizza delivery trucks parked outside used to indicate some sort of crisis was brewing.

By around noon, plans for the "Evening News" had changed. By now it's been confirmed that the Pentagon won't have a statement on the ruling and McNulty's appearance has been canceled since the president has made a statement on the ruling. Instead of a bounce piece from Axelrod, Andrews' piece will be followed by a three-way conversation between anchor Bob Schieffer and Axelrod, Andrews and Martin about the story, to be pre-taped at 5 p.m. That means Martin's focus is back on Guantanamo.

After a phone interview for a future story, Martin spends the next few hours reading portions of the court's opinion, the wires and the charge sheets of the detainees who are currently facing military tribunals at Guantanamo. At 2:30 p.m., he checks in to a conference call between reporters and several Defense and Justice Department officials (the transcript is available here.) Most of the questions are centered on the scope and implications of the ruling, much of which the officials won't comment on. Early in the call, an official cited a number of people directly affected by the ruling that was different from the number Martin obtained from the Pentagon press office, so he asks a question about the discrepancy:
QUESTION: You used a number that I hadn't heard before. You said 40 or so prisoners at Guantanamo are designated for war crimes trial. The number that the Pentagon has used is 14 designated for war crimes trial. Where does the 40 or so come from?
It's worth checking out the whole exchange in the transcript (it starts about a third of the way down the page) to get a sense of how numbers can change from one source to the next. After the call, Martin went back to public affairs to get a clear answer on the numbers again, since he'd be using them in his report.

For the three-way conversation for the broadcast, Martin has written out about 40 seconds' worth of information to share in the exchange. He doesn't know exactly what questions anchor Bob Schieffer will ask him during the conversation, but the information he's provided will give Schieffer an idea of what Martin has to offer. "He could ask something different," said Martin, who said he's never been caught in a situation on the "Evening News" when he didn't know the answer to an anchor's question. In breaking news situations, however, there have been times when he simply doesn't have enough information to answer an anchor's question, and has said as much.

At about 5:15 p.m., Martin goes to his standup location outside the Pentagon to tape the segment, and he's able to fit just about all the information he intended into his 40 seconds on the air. After the pre-tape, he heads around the building one more time to see if anyone interesting is floating around, then heads back to the booth to catch up with Pentagon producer Mary Walsh ("I call her about 100 times a day," he said) on some future stories and watch the broadcast. (Click on the image above to watch the three-way discussion).

"It wasn't a typical day," Martin told me, "but it was a day." And today was probably not one of the more grueling that he encounters. "The hardest days are doing stories that you don't know much about," he said, mentioning his recent report (click on the image to watch) on the U.S.'s missile defense program. Finding the right people to explain that story, then understanding it and explaining it for the audience was "more pressure than the news that Zarqawi was caught," said Martin. The Zarqawi news was breaking, but Martin was already very familiar with the facts. With a subject like the missile defense program, he had to become an expert on a complex subject on which he didn't often report.

"Ninety percent of the challenge around here is knowing where to go to get the information," said Martin. "You save a lot of time by not going down blind alleys when you know where to find the information."
  • Hillary Profita

Comments

CBSN Live

pop-out
Live Video

Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.