Don't mistake micro for macro with news 'embeds'

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NEARLY A WEEK into the fighting, the coverage of the war in Iraq is largely as advertised. It is closer to the action than ever. It is bringing the dangers into the living room. And it is simultaneously more interesting and more confusing than ever.

A year ago, as US troops went about their business in Afghanistan - with few reporters doing on-scene reportage - Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld held a briefing at the Pentagon, where he criticized the press for treating that conflict as if it were a sanitary, controlled exercise. War, he chided, is a dirty, complicated business.

The 500 or so reporters who've been "embedded" with US troops in the Gulf, have helped bring home Mr. Rumsfeld's message. Depending on what network you're watching, and which reporter they're focusing on at that particular moment, you might think the war is going extremely well, or US troops are facing unbelievable danger, or the war is just complete chaos.

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In these first few days of coverage, the only certainty was that the words "shock and awe" were almost surely being overused. In case you haven't noticed, these words have now officially entered our national lexicon as a singular noun, as in "shock and awe is under way." They used to be words that might describe one's reaction to learning that Fox News had embedded Ollie North as a journalist with a Marine unit.

In the coming weeks and months, there will be a lot of talk about how embedding has changed the way we view war. But early on, the simple truth is this: Embedding has made "the fog of war" something we experience communally in the conflict in Iraq.

As the war began, reporters called in reports that they were moving into Iraqi territory and later had to retract what they said, or amend it to say they had gone in on reconnaissance but come back out again. And as the days progressed, one "embed" would announce that the troops were moving with lightning pace on Baghdad, while another reported they had taken position in one location and were staying put.

Both reports may have been right, of course. It simply depends on which unit a particular "embed" was embedded with.

It's long been said that football is a metaphor for war. Teams push through enemy territory, try to break through defensive lines, throw "the bomb." But ironically, in a postmodern age, football game coverage may be the best metaphor for war coverage.

Watching war coverage by simply watching embedded reporters is a bit like trying to figure out what's going on in a game by watching the action through a camera isolated on one player. It's like trying to understand a game by looking through the "helmet cam" of a linebacker. It's nearly impossible.

That's not to say embedding is bad, or worthless. It is valuable and useful. It is an important aspect of coverage because it helps get at the most difficult parts of war to see, the day-to-day life of the men and women who put their lives on the line, but it's only one aspect. To understand what's actually happening, one needs to step back to grasp the larger picture. And that's where things get tricky.

Since the first Gulf War, the news culture of the US has changed dramatically. Where there was once a single 24-hour news network, there are now three, and each is looking to be the first to break the story.

Embedding means that whenever they get live audio or fresh footage from a battle scene full of descriptive tidbits, they are in a hurry to air it. And if one has five minutes to catch up on the news and clicks by one of the 24-hour networks, that audio or footage may be mistaken for "the war." It's not. It's a series of snapshots taken from around the war.

Going into the conflict in Iraq there was some concern among journalists that television news divisions might try to use embedded reporters to create a new kind of reality television - a nightly, live, high-stakes drama.

Those fears have largely turned out to be unfounded, however. By this weekend even as fighting raged in Iraq, the networks went back to their regularly scheduled programming - sports, movies, and the Oscars.

That's because, in the end, live embedded reports aren't like reality television at all. They're more like reality - sometimes dull, sometimes exhilarating, usually confusing. For them to get the context they need to be compelling and useful, they need those two other elements critical to reality television: Time and an editor.

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