The other boots on the ground: embedded press

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It wasn't until the end of Ron Harris's six-week tour with the 7th Regiment that the embedded journalist got marines to open up - and share what they thought about reporters.

"One guy - a first sergeant - told me, 'Ron, when I heard you guys were coming, I was not happy,' " recalls Mr. Harris, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. " 'But,' he said, 'you guys have been great.' He said he really learned a lot about how journalists work and what they are like - and it wasn't what he thought."

As US troops begin to pull out of Iraq, so are many of the reporters who took part in what has been called the Pentagon's most ambitious media experiment. Throughout the war, some 600 journalists have been embedded with various units. They - and, by extension, the public back home - have witnessed the conflict from assorted positions and vantage points on the ground.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

Those on both sides praise the program for giving reporters an unusual degree of access and providing an unvarnished look at the war. Yet many reporters also found the program offered frustratingly narrow views of the action - and some worry that it engendered one-sided coverage.

Still, almost all agree embedding has had a positive impact on one area: military-media relations.

While there should always be some distance between reporters and the subjects they cover, the gap between the media and the military has in recent years become a chasm.

With the rise of an all-volunteer military, and with fewer and fewer journalists volunteering, one upside to embedding is that it essentially offered journalists a crash course in military service. The program gave many reporters a first-hand understanding of how the military conducts warfare, and, many say, a greater respect for service members. Similarly, the troops and commanding officers in the field had a chance to observe the dedication and professionalism of journalists - and see them in a more sympathetic light.

"This was a very valuable experiment, in having the military ... perhaps discover that reporters are people, too, and vice versa," says Chris Hanson, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland and a former Pentagon reporter. "I think this might help media-military relations in the future, and cut back on the mutual stereotyping that has been a problem for so long."

Lessons from Vietnam

Much of that stereotyping first emerged as a result of the Vietnam War. In that conflict, reporters had perhaps the greatest access of any war to date. They moved freely between centralized briefings and the battlefield, essentially embedding (though the term hadn't been invented) for a few days at a time, with whatever unit they chose.

The result, in the military's eyes, was an unmitigated disaster. Not only did the coverage bring the horrors of war into the living rooms of Americans, but reporters also uncovered numerous discrepancies between what was said at headquarters and what happened on the ground.

Many in the military blamed the press for the loss of the war, arguing that the negative coverage undermined public support. Meanwhile, reporters grew far more distrustful of the military over the course of the conflict.

In subsequent wars, such as Grenada and Panama, the military all but shut the press out. During the first Gulf War, the media was forced to rely on a pool system for coverage, embedding just a small number of journalists who then filed dispatches back to the press at large - often days late. "That led to a great deal of antagonism," says Mr. Hanson, who was one of the pool reporters in that war, writing for Hearst Newspapers.

A program is born

By the time the second Iraq war rolled around, it had become clear to both sides that a highly restrictive system like a press pool would no longer work.

For one thing, the military had begun to realize that it might be advantageous to have more reporters on the ground - both to document the heroic efforts of US troops, many of which had gone unnoticed in the first Gulf War, and to counter what they knew would be a strong Iraqi propaganda effort. In addition, the advent of new technology - such as satellite and video phones - meant that reporters would likely find ways to cover the conflict on their own, regardless of approval.

In creating the embedding program, "We said, what is it we need to do, given the type of conflict we're going to be engaged in, the global information environment we find ourselves in ... and the way we knew the war would be covered," explains Bryan Whitman, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for media operations, who was in charge of executing the program.

Many of the embedded reporters had never covered a war before, let alone served in the military. To some, this widespread lack of experience, combined with the reporters' tendency to bond with the units, gave much of the coverage a cheerleading tone.

George Wilson, who covered Vietnam for the Washington Post, and was embedded in this war with a marine artillery unit, saw a lot of the coverage as "looking around and telling the reader: These are magnificent kids, and I'm here in the dirt with them and I'm eating MREs [meals, ready to eat], and I'm sleeping in the sand." There's nothing inherently wrong with that kind of reporting, Mr. Wilson says, but because it was so dominant, the larger story - namely, the near absence of organized resistance - was lost amid all the "purple prose."

Still, other observers note that embedded reporting didn't always follow the Pentagon line, particularly when things went wrong. Early in the conflict, embedded journalists offered a dramatic look at the attacks on supply lines, for example. The Monitor's Ann Scott Tyson, embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division, reported that the Army nearly ran out of food and ammunition, due to poor planning.

A greater level of trust

There was also a handful of cases, according to Mr. Whitman, where embedded reporters violated the terms of their agreement and were ejected. The most publicized incidents along those lines involved nonembedded reporters, such as Fox's Geraldo Rivera, who drew a map on camera indicating troop positions, or Monitor freelancer Phil Smucker, who was accused of revealing troop locations in a TV interview.

But Whitman says his department regards those cases as "mistakes" rather than willful violations, and says he believes the program has led to a greater overall level of trust between the military and the media on the whole.

Most embedded journalists say they felt welcomed in their units from the start, and that the troops generally warmed up to them within a few days. Still, they encountered plenty of curiosity - even incredulity - about the risks they took for the sake of a story.

"They thought it was ludicrous that I would go into a fight without a gun," says Peter Sleeth, an embedded reporter for the Portland Oregonian.

And while some enlistees and, more typically, senior officers were wary of having reporters in their midst, others were pleased at the chance to get their name in the paper. Being written about meant two things, explains the Post-Dispatch's Harris: Their families might read it, and thereby know they're OK; and after all this is over, they'll be able to pick up the paper and say " 'See, I was there.' "

Indeed, most embedded reporters wound up serving as a direct link between service members and their families back home. "A side benefit to all this is that the families of all these soldiers think I'm a hero," says Mr. Sleeth. Families tracked the movements of their loved ones through newspaper articles and TV reports, and many journalists were flooded with e-mails from family members, often asking them to communicate messages. Most reporters also loaned their satellite phones to enlistees for quick calls home.

While military families may have appreciated this detailed tracking of units, many critics, and even some supporters of the embedding program, found much of the coverage myopic. Few embedded reporters, critics charge, were able to give a sense of the war as a whole.

Mr. Wilson of the National Journal compares his assignment to being the second dog in a dog sled, with the ability to see only what lies directly ahead and behind. He says having his own vehicle might have helped somewhat, giving him the ability to pursue certain stories on his own - though he notes that it was impossible to move too far afield without being left behind.

Poor coverage at home

But to many, the fault lies less with the journalists than with their news organizations, for failing to put the reporting in a broader context. The media failed to fully explore the political and diplomatic angles of the war, says Harris. While in Kuwait, waiting for the war to begin, he says, "I was terribly disappointed in the coverage [at home]."

And while the embedded reports were largely positive, observers note that this may in part reflect the fact that the war went so well for the US - as have all conflicts since the Vietnam War.

"Since Vietnam, we've not suffered major casualties - and that has made a big difference in coverage of war," notes Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University. "But what if something terrible happened, like we lost 300 people in one day? What would be the media coverage then?"

The relationship between the media and the military may ride far more on how military operations are going than how much time the two have spent together in tents and bunkers.

"I'd say the military and the press will be somewhat closer [when all this is over]," ventures Sleeth. "But then, we didn't have much of a war."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...