The Public Eye Chat With...Mary Walsh

(Mary Walsh)
We've spoken with National Security producer Mary Walsh before about what it's like covering the Pentagon, which she's been doing since President Clinton was in office. This week, she offers us a look behind the scenes – including the changes that new Defense Secretary Robert Gates has already made in how the Department of Defense interacts with the media.

You can listen to the whole interview by clicking below, or read on for excerpts.

You've covered the Pentagon since 1993. How do you think the relationship between the military and the media has changed since then?
I think there's been a monumental change, first of all, in that what we cover now is very real world. It used to be that we would go out to bases to cover training exercises and there was a lot of coverage of military accidents that would happen… if there was an accidental firing of a rocket that killed or wounded soldiers on the ground or a helicopter crash or that kind of thing.

All of that really pales in comparison to war, where American troops are in combat constantly. In addition, I think that there has been sort of a joining of reporters that cover the military and the military commanders at all levels -- from the generals down to the sergeants because we've spent a lot more time covering them in action in Iraq and in the training centers as they get ready to go to Iraq. We've met their families in a way that we had not before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because of the number of soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors that have been wounded and killed. So we've talked to grieving spouses and we've seen the incredible heroics of family members taking care of wounded military members in places like Walter Reed and Brooke Army Medical Center.

So I always like to say… that the military beat is so rich because unlike other beats in Washington, where if you cover the White House or the Congress you're basically covering members of Congress, you're covering the senators and the representatives in the House.

But in the military you're covering the generals all the way down to the privates. And it's a vertical beat and sometimes the deeper you get down, the more of what we call the ground truth is there.

So there are all kinds of social issues as well as military issues. And I think all of that has come into much sharper focus since we went to war – into two major wars in two huge countries.

What about the way that the press arm of the Pentagon interacts with the media?
I think that there is a night and day difference between the way the Clinton Department of Defense handled the media and the way that the Bush administration's Department of Defense handles the media.

You just have to look at the differences between Donald Rumsfeld and Bill Cohen or Bill Perry to see it at the top level, and a sort of erudite or scholarly press spokesman like Ken Bacon as opposed to Rumsfeld. [Rumsfeld] put together -- I'm going to get myself in trouble here, but I'm going to say it anyway – a sort of rapid-reaction force for stories that he saw that were inaccurate or had the wrong bent to them or the wrong lean to them to try to correct the spin that they were trying to put on their stories.

There's something called the Early Bird that the Department of Defense puts out and it's a compilation of all the major print media stories on defense matters and it's from all different newspapers in the country. During the Rumsfeld years they made a change to the Early Bird … so the first thing you would see were any corrections that ran on any print media. If a name were misspelled or if someone was identified by the wrong title or any mistake that was made in any story. So the first thing you saw were corrections … so now, that is back down on the bottom of the Early Bird.

Now that Gates is in charge?
Yes. Sec. Gates also disbanded the public relations rapid-reaction force.
Wasn't that put into place right before he came?
Well, a couple of months before, yeah. So, he's done away with both of those things. And I think that just in terms of symbolism or the look of things, Gates has gone a far stretch to try to come down, literally, off the pedestal. He doesn't want to stand behind the podium in the briefing room. His first press conference was at a table in the dining room with the reporters sitting all around him.

Some of the reporters who I talked to there were so astonished because the first words out of his mouth were, "I apologize." And he was saying, "I apologize for it being so crowded, but this is the way I wanted it to be…."

Then they closed the briefing room for a couple of days and they re-fashioned it so that when Sec. Gates does his press conferences, he'll be sitting at a table. That's what he's comfortable with, but it also sort of carries its own message I think.

So far, how has Gates' approach to the press impacted coverage directly if it has at all, besides just creating a different atmosphere?
Well, from the reporters I've talked to, there's a feeling that they can just ask questions and the question will be answered on the merits of the subject, as opposed to the first reaction being some sort of pushback against the question itself -- the premise of the question, wrong verb tense or a wrong supposition.

I don't think Sec. Gates is going to go easy on the press in any way shape or form but he seems to take a question and answer it thoughtfully as opposed to parsing the way the question was asked … .

I thought that [Rumsfeld] had several techniques that he used, one of which was humor. If he didn't like a question he'd just crack a joke about it and he'd get people laughing and thereby distracted.

In your years covering the Pentagon, how have you developed sources and kept them?
I think the most important way that you develop and keep sources is by fair reporting. If you do a straight job on a story and report it in an evenhanded way and the person who's worked with you on that story sees that it was fair even though it may have been a "negative" to the subject at hand – i.e., there was a mistake made ... or if there was an accident on a training mission … . As long as you give everybody their fair say in the story and they say that it was even Steven, they'll come back and work with you again. But if you don't do that it's pretty hard to develop sources.

I mean, I give out my card, when I meet people and tell them that if they ever want to share information or tell me about something that they think we should be reporting on, that I've got an open e-mail policy on that. Just get in contact with me.

So I hear from people a lot about stories they think we should be doing. It's not always something that David Martin and I can do, but I share those stories with other CBS News reporters.