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We all benefitted from embeds

From the Spring 2003 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 3. I have a clear recollection of…

From the Spring 2003 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 3.

I have a clear recollection of participating in a panel discussion at a journalism conference in October 1991. It unfortunately was a familiar scenario: Journalists had assembled to discuss the media's performance covering the Persian Gulf War. There were bitter complaints from journalists who had covered the war from hotel rooftops and air base briefing rooms.

As national and foreign editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press during that war, I had been frustrated with the lack of access to real live stories. In fact, ever since the U.S. military action in Grenada, the Defense Department seemed to have gone out of its way to prevent the media from covering wars.

Reporters and photographers during the first Gulf War had been penned up in Saudi hotels and briefing rooms. Only a select few were allowed to participate in "pools." At the 1991 conference, a veteran Knight-Ridder war photographer issued an astute warning: The Pentagon had better figure out how to cooperate with the media, he said, because the next time there was a major war, advancing technology would prevent the Pentagon from sequestering and censoring. The next time, journalists would have satellite phones and cameras that could bypass the military censorship apparatus. Journalists, he predicted, would simply ignore the restrictions and wander on to the battlefield to observe the action first hand.

As CBS News producer Jeff Goldman explains in our cover story, the 1991 prediction was right on.

"In 1991, we could have never covered the war this extensively," said Goldman, who covered the first Gulf War and wars in Somalia, Bosnia and Panama. "The . . . compact technology that is now available made it possible literally to go live anywhere. It made coverage of this war totally different from 12 years ago."

As much as I'd like to think the Pentagon had altruistic reasons for embedding more than 500 reporters with American troops during the recent war in Iraq, I think the deciding factor was control. For the first time, a television reporter would not have had to rely on military communications equipment to send stories back to the newsroom. Censorship would be a practical impossibility. Can you imagine a bigger nightmare for the Pentagon than hundreds of journalists swarming over the desert in converted Humvees and Bradleys, getting in the way of advancing troops?

Embedding was not a novel idea when it was announced earlier this year. In 1992, acting on bitter complaints from journalists and after months of negotiations with a group of Washington news bureau chiefs, the Pentagon signed a statement of "principles" that called for embedding journalists with troops in the next major war. The Pentagon ignored the agreement during the action in Afghanistan in late 2001.

The Washington bureau chiefs, some savvy military reporters and a few realists inside the Defense Department worked hard to improve military coverage once it was clear the Bush administration was intent on invading Iraq. In the end, the Pentagon did the right — and pragmatic — thing. And the public benefitted.

The "boot camp" and embedding programs have been repeatedly analyzed: Were journalists able to act independently while traveling with soldiers responsible for protecting them? What didn't we see? Could we rely on embedding to get the big picture?

In the end, the embedding program worked better than I expected — mainly because the Defense Department seemed reluctant to obstruct coverage. A new generation of journalists understands how the nation's armed services operate. Taxpayers saw that they were supporting a competent, diverse and conscientious fighting force.

The biggest beneficiary of open access was the military. What's amazing is that it took the Pentagon so long to figure that out.

–Lucy Dalglish