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The other boots on the ground: embedded press

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 23, 2003


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.

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"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.

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.