As journalists, they're obnoxious. Sometimes they have private agendas. They don't always get the facts straight. They've been known to carom off the topic of the country's two worst chemical disasters and onto queries about flags.
The faces behind those polished words aren't familiar to viewers either. And take that silver-maned TV anchor, Dexter Allen, or the smooth-talkin' interviewer on KGAS radio, Murph Balzac - somehow, they never registered with the public before.Actually, an entire newspaper staff, TV station, FM radio station along with their photographers, producers and sound engineers are actors. In reality, they are military men and women, and civilians working for the military, who are participating in one of the Army's biggest readiness drills, the Service Response Force Exercise-1991.
SRFX-91 is winding down at Tooele Army Depot, where 42.3 percent of America's chemical weapons stockpile is stored (not more than 40 percent of the world's chemical weapons, as the reporters and commentators of the bogus National Network News are fond of saying.) In the exercise, several bad accidents were faked, including the explosion of chemical munitions.
That comment about the stockpile is just one of the misstatements that are thrown in to see if the experts trying to cope with the "disaster" will correct the TV station. So far, nobody has called to point out that other countries in the world also have chemical stockpiles, and TAD couldn't possibly have 40 percent of the world's supply.
Because nobody corrected the misinformation, that is one more item to go down into the report on the exercise, and then analyzed. There are many more.
"The operation that we're doing is aimed at stressing the system. That's what we do," said Col. Doug Rogers, overseeing the "journalists" - who also doubles as that hardened international affairs reporter Don Collingwood.
The results are invaluable, as far as teaching the technicians, officers and others involved how to react in case of a real emergency. "It's like being baptized in fire."
With reporters hammering at them, covering demonstrations, interviewing the tearful wife of a worker killed in the accident, to asking why they didn't put out the fire on the "badly burned" man.
Rogers, with the Army Materiel Command in Washington, D.C., oversees a crew of 20 who simulate the pressure of 200 journalists interested in the disaster. Hundreds of military and civilian experts have been playing out their roles in coping with the accidents - events that seem to come in improbable combinations.
And as Dutch Meier of Picatinny Arsenal, Dover, N.J., - the senior editor of the daily "Oquirrh Echo" - puts it, sometimes they take a quote and "blow it up . . . energize the process."
According to Rogers, realistic stress is exactly what some of the players feel. "We have engendered sheer panic in some people," he said.
One of the most realistic of the TV reports is a series of interviews with Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah. It's really Hansen there, playing along, commenting on the fake accident.
Hansen said he wasn't pleased with the way things were going, referring to containing the "disaster." A worried participant, apparently mixing up reality and the drill, told Rogers he saw Hansen on TV and he wasn't pleased with what was going on out at the depot.
Rogers showed a tape of a local TV "reporter" on the monitor. She was with the National Network News' Salt Lake affiliate, KLDS TV. Then the screen showed an anchorman speaking before a logo that said "CRISIS IN TOOELE - DAY 1."
KLDS TV is typical of the humorous names the players have. For example, one protest group is "South Wind Downers."
Anchorman Allingham, who in real life is a public information officer for the Army at Edgewood Arsenal, Md., said this exercise is a chance "to ask the tough questions we get asked . . . It's kind of like an adrenalin shot."
In an emergency, public affairs people need the news media. "From the time the alarm sounds or that bell rings, or we go into the emergency operations center, our foremost thought should be saving lives," not covering rears.