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Embed program worked, broader war coverage lagged

From the Spring 2003 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 4.

From the Spring 2003 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 4.

By Jennifer LaFleur

“Very deep and very narrow.”

That’s how ABC correspondent Tamala Edwards described her experience as an embedded reporter during the U.S. War in Iraq to a crowded room at an American University forum April 21.

The institution of the embed program was a significant upturn for news organizations compared to press access during the 1991 Gulf War or even more recently in Afghanistan.

“I suspect the Pentagon realized that in Afghanistan the only images were from Al-Jazeera,” said Jeff Goldman, a CBS News producer based in Kuwait. “I think the Pentagon decided for the sake of flow of information, they had better have an independent look.”

Indeed, the view from embedded journalists provided a unique perspective on war.

But what many of the more than 500 embedded journalists such as Edwards say they lacked was an overview of the war. Although some of that information came from “unilateral” reporters who were not attached to specific military units, many media experts say coverage lacked a good overall sense of the war.

Long before the war in Iraq, the Pentagon instituted a program to train hundreds of reporters for combat and develop a plan to place the reporters with military troops.

From the perspective of Pentagon officials, not only was the embed program a success, it was a necessary part of the war.

“We were dealing with a trained liar,” Capt. T. McCreary, public affairs advisor to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the audience at American University. “By embedding the press, that would take most of the wind out of the sails of the disinformation program.”

And the program wasn’t the logistical nightmare that some had anticipated.

“I was shocked,” McCreary said. “We had very few complaints from the embed system.”

Most of the problems were solved in the field, he said.

One of the reporters in the field was Ron Harris of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who was embedded with the 7th Marines Division. Harris, one of two reporters and two photographers his newspaper sent to Iraq, said he experienced active combat first hand “in various degrees.”

On the Monday that his unit entered Baghdad, he said, “we were in an all-day shooting match with snipers who fired automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades. The unit killed a number of Iraqi fighters, including seven in a shootout in an empty, yet-to-be completed-high-rise building near the Rasheed Airfield. On the following Wednesday, when the unit took over the Ministry of Petroleum, we took automatic weapon fire and rocket propelled grenades. The unit killed two Iraqi fighters.”

But being that close to battle was not a surprise for Harris.

“I knew the job was dangerous when I took it,” he said. “I was particularly disturbed, however, about the journalists killed at the Palestine Hotel. A tank firing in response to suspected machine gun fire, which in no way could have hurt it, when the tank’s crew knew that there were lots of civilians in the hotel was inexcusable.”

Other journalists did not necessarily expect to see that extent of battle.

“Lo and behold, they found themselves at the tip of the spear,” said Martin Turner, BBC Washington bureau chief, during the American University forum.

For the hundreds of unilateral journalists, the job was even more dangerous. Most of the 14 journalists killed in Iraq were independent reporters, not embeds. Even staying in Iraq was difficult for these journalists. Early in the war, most were kicked out by the Iraqi regime. Some were able to go back later.

“They [Pentagon officials] were much against independent journalists going in there,” said CBS producer Goldman, who worked from the network’s news bureau in Kuwait. The Pentagon warned independent journalist not to go into Iraq, fearing that there would be safety issues as the troops marched forward, he said.

Journalists found that, unless they were attached to soldiers, they were not secure, Goldman said. “You get the impression that if you’re on the ground [in the rear] you’re safe, but there’s a lot of instability. That’s how some of the first journalists were killed — they got caught up in cross-fire.”

And still others saw little action at all. Several reporters were embedded with troops who originally were slated to go into Northern Iraq via Turkey, but the plan was canceled and the troops remained in Kuwait.

But wherever they ended up, reporters such as Harris and Edwards not only reported on military units, they lived with them.

“We lived and ate and slept with the Marines as a unit,” Harris said. “When they dug fighting and sleeping holes, we dug fighting and sleeping holes. We traveled with them and moved with them. So, we were with them all the time.”

“The military is smart enough to know that their best asset is people on the ground,” ABC’s Edwards said. “I was living in a hardened aircraft structure with the search and para-rescue men, and you’re sitting there at night roasting marshmallows with them, hearing about them jumping out of the back of planes on, you know, little ATVs, and what they’d go through to rescue people. You can’t get any better than that, I think, in terms of the military putting forth its story. But again, it’s information in a vacuum.”

Harris said the commanders also were open with the embedded journalists about all of the movements.

“We attended all of their briefings before and after attacks,” Harris said. “We could not report on information that would aid the enemy. For instance, we couldn’t report things that were going to happen, such as assaults or troop movements, but we could report them after they had happened. We couldn’t report that the unit was going to the city of Afak or An Nu’maniyah, but we could report after they had gotten there and done whatever it was they were going to do.”

“My commanders were extremely responsive. They gave us complete access. There were things that we couldn’t report, but we always knew what we were doing and where we were going, if we asked. If we didn’t ask, however, nobody was going to tell us. That was the dilemma of the troops. They rarely knew where they were going. We usually knew more than they did and often told them what was going on.”

Harris said he could not report specific troop numbers “because it was believed that would give the size of units to the enemy.”

The role of technology

The position from which journalists reported this war — from among troops — changed the way people heard about the war’s progress. But another key factor to how this war was covered differently was the ability of the press to file stories from the middle of the desert using satellite phones, laptops and other technologies.

CBS’s Goldman, who covered the Gulf War in 1991 and has covered military action in Somalia, Bosnia and Panama, saw a “sea change of technology use” in this war.

Goldman said that CBS, which had about 15 embedded staff in Iraq and two unilateral reporters, used a variety of technology to transmit stories: small satellite dishes, video phones and laptops.

“In 1991, we could have never covered the war this extensively,” he said. “The technology and the compact technology that is now available made it possibly literally to go live anywhere. It made coverage of this war totally different from 12 years ago. To be able to go live anywhere on the battle field is astounding.”

Goldman noted that several television networks transformed old military-issue vehicles into mobile satellite trucks. The best-known of these vehicles, the “Bloom-mobile,” was designed by NBC New’s David Bloom, who died April 6 from a pulmonary embolism.

The vehicles used by U.S. broadcasters were never officially sanctioned by the U.S. military, according to the Pentagon’s embedding guidelines. But, Goldman said, they were not turned away when television networks arrived with them. British media, however, received official permission for equipment and vehicles. They were given more leeway, Goldman said.

But the very technology on which some reporters in Iraq relied was cited as a potential security threat by the military at one point.

Thuraya brand satellite phones became an issue with the military, Goldman said.

“They took them away from journalists because they were afraid Iraqis could track the satellite signals from those phones,” he said. “For some that relied exclusively on those, they were greatly hampered. . . . Fortunately we had a variety of telephones sent with each group — all three different types.”

Information gaps

One concern among journalism groups before the war was that openness would decrease if there were any problems, such as a friendly fire incident.

Harris described one incident in which, ITN journalists, including correspondent Terry Lloyd, were caught in crossfire.

“The Marines would not let us go and check the car that they had shot up,” Harris said. “A sergeant major specifically told us that if we went to look, he would leave us at the site.”

But for the most part, embedded reporters were “fairly free to report as long as they weren’t reporting operational security,” Goldman said. “People like Geraldo found out that was unacceptable.”

Although he was not an embedded reporter, Geraldo Rivera was told in late March that he could no longer accompany troops in Iraq after he allegedly revealed information on the air about troop locations.

And at least one embedded reporter was removed because of allegedly violating rules against reporting security information. Brett Lieberman of the Harrisburg Patriot-News in Pennsylvania was asked to leave in late April because his commanding officer thought a story reported too much military detail. Patriot News editor David Newhouse defended Lieberman’s reporting in an April 29 report by the newspaper.

On March 26, military officials kicked freelance journalist Philip Smucker out of Iraq. Smucker, who was working for the Christian Science Monitor and The Daily Telegraph of London, allegedly revealed “too much information” about troop positions in a live interview with CNN. Monitor editor Paul Van Slambrouck backed Smucker in a posting on the newspaper’s Web site: “He is an experienced war correspondent who understands the gravity of such situations and not one who would knowingly put U.S. troops — and himself — in jeopardy. Even during his short time in Iraq, he gave Monitor readers valuable insights into the campaign.”

Before they began their embed assignments, reporters were required to agree to a list of Pentagon ground rules, which outlined restrictions, such as limitations on use of flashes, described embargo guidelines, and listed information deemed “releasable” and “not releasable.” The 14 categories of releasable information included: approximate friendly force strength figures, confirmed figures or enemy personnel detained or captured, and names and hometowns of U.S. military units. Among the 19 categories of information that is not releasable was specific numbers of troops, aircraft or units, information regarding future operations and medical information about wounded.

The guidelines also emphasized “security at the source.” Military personnel should protect classified information and inform media when information is sensitive. Media guidelines “would not be subject to security review,” the guidelines stated.

But it was not the embeds who criticized information flow from the U.S. military.

“The big picture issue was the biggest frustration,” Goldman said. “The flow of information in real time at the public affairs level at the bases in Kuwait was way too slow.”

Even for embeds, there was little ability to confirm information with CENTCOM, Edwards said. “You could only report what was right in front of you.”

“The flow of big-picture information was so closely controlled at the Pentagon on a daily basis, there was not a lot of information from central command,” Goldman said. “American PIO’s were handcuffed from giving out information. They had to refer to CENTCOM or the Pentagon — even if things happened there.”

On the other hand, Goldman said, their British counterparts were able to give on-camera briefings and could answer most journalists’ questions.

“I think they [U.S. officials] were frustrated that they wouldn’t be more helpful to us in the sense that this was a very well-choreographed ballet of information flow and they were not the lead players in this operation,” Goldman said.

Because of that, many U.S. journalists relied on British officials.

“They were extremely helpful to getting information on Basra. We initially thought it would be quick and it wasn’t. They [British officials] took journalists there if they could and to Um Qasar. Americans were never able to facilitate movement north for the longest time for security issues,” Goldman said.

As many reporters traded cramped space in military vehicles for newsroom desks, they have had some time to reflect on their experiences as reporters covering the war in Iraq. Most say the embed program worked well, but that independent reporters who are not embedded are necessary to provide readers with the whole picture.

“We may have been covering our unit, but there was no way that we could know what was going on in other units in our own battalion. So, we certainly couldn’t know all of what was going on with each unit in regiment, and that’s only 6,000 men,” Harris said.

“The problem with the embed process,” BBC’s Martin said, “[is that] I wonder what would have happened if it had gone long or if it had gone wrong. Until that happens, we won’t get a clear idea of how this works.”

Goldman called the embed process “a worthy admirable project. It was not unprecedented. There have been reporters with troops in the field in the past, but it was a welcome change from the recent past, that the press is included in the battlefield now.”

And now, there is immediacy to it, he said. That has “created a tremendous difference in the way wars in the future will be covered.”