By Chris Adams
You’ll never run out of story ideas covering the Pentagon.
That was the consensus of four military beat veterans, who have covered troops on the battlefield and bureaucrats in Washington. In a session with Paul Miller fellows, the four laid out what makes the beat engaging – as well as some of its pitfalls.
Lolita Baldor of The Associated Press, a former Paul Miller, talked about the unusual level of access the Pentagon gives reporters: Once they’re cleared into the building, they are allowed to walk hallways at will, talking with people face-to-face; there’s no need for the escorts common in so many other federal departments. She detailed how reporters can use the global reach of the Pentagon to find information at any time of the day, since there will always be some Department of Defense installation open somewhere.
Aaron Mehta of Defense News, and also a former Paul Miller, described the very different audience of Pentagon insiders he serves. “The person watching NBC News doesn’t really care” about some of the stories he covers, he said. He also finds the Pentagon press corps to be exceedingly collegial: trade reporters will help mainstream media reporters understand the intricacies of Pentagon procurement, while reporters will help fill in the details of breaking stories for their competitors.
Courtney Kube of NBC News explained the different ways reporters can cover the military: from inside the Pentagon, to embedding with combat units overseas, to traveling within the bubble of the secretary of defense.
And David Martin of CBS described the changes he has seen in more than three decades on the beat. While the Pentagon is “by far” the most open of federal agencies, it’s also less open than it was. Impromptu hallway conversations are far less likely than they used to be.
The nature of the beat, he said, has also changed, and in recent years it’s gone from “24/7” to “24/7/60/60” with the demands of Twitter and other forms of instant news. He starts his days answering emails about any number of overnight developments worldwide.
And while CBS and other networks have a lot of opportunities for young people, there are also traps to taking those kinds of jobs. “It’s easy to find a job in journalism that has nothing to do with reporting but has to do with transcribing,” he said.
Paul Miller fellows also heard from Capt. Jeff Davis, director of Defense Press Operations, about how his office interacts with the media on a regular basis and how to gain day access to the Pentagon.