Assessments of the military’s embedding of journalists in Iraq often vary based upon the lens through which the program is viewed
From the Spring 2004 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 21.
In the year since President Bush’s May 2003 declaration that major combat in Iraq has ended, there has been much post-operation analysis of America’s successes and failures in capturing Baghdad.
But it is not just the military that has been collecting and dissecting intelligence from a war the Pentagon dubbed “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Journalists and media pundits alike have also been taking an introspective look at the war, namely at what worked and what did not in the U.S. military’s embedding of 775 reporters with coalition troops.
From March 16 to 18, prominent journalists, military spokespersons, human rights investigators and diplomats gathered at the University of California-Berkeley to take part in a conference titled “The Media At War: The U.S. Invasion and Occupation of Iraq.” Similar fact-finding events have been held throughout the country, and the U.S. military has even come out with a pair of its own reports that include sections on the embed program.
Like the war itself, however, the truth is often shaded by the interests of those who tell it.
“Nobody ever suggested that the story of the war would only be told though [the embeds’] inherently limited perspectives,” says Katherine Skiba, Washington, D.C., correspondent for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Trust me, war is a big enough story for many voices and vantage points.”
Seeing Through the Sand
One of the most glaring examples of differences in perspective occurred during a sandstorm near Najaf, where U.S. Army and Marines soldiers were stopped in the early weeks of the war.
According to the Army’s Third Infantry Division (Mechanized) “After Action” report, publicly released last fall (www.globalsecurity.org), the division deliberately paused for 48 to 72 hours to “rearm, refit and refuel.” Embedded journalists wrote the most accurate stories about that situation, the report says, because “embedded media had a more realistic understanding and were more optimistic in their accounts” than their counterparts in Washington, D.C., and Central Command in Qatar.
The embedded reporters were kept abreast of the pause, which was put into context in their stories, despite unexpected fighting nearby, the report says. “Media outside Iraq immediately began suggesting a ‘quagmire’ and flawed plan,” it concludes.
San Diego Union-Tribune writer Jim Crawley, an embed who worked alongside the First Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion of the First Marine Division in Iraq, was at the scene. It occurred about a week and a half into the war, he says, and the Marines were stopped at the same time to allow Army supply trucks use of the highways. Corroborating the Army division’s report, Crawley says the embedded reporters were aware of the operational pause and able to report on it.
Pentagon correspondents, however, were not told about the pause at briefings because, according to Crawley, officials did not want Iraqi soldiers to know how long U.S. troops would be stopped.
“Editors had to decide who was right,” Crawley says. “Do they believe the reporter talking to the Pentagon, or do they believe the reporter on the ground being shot at?”
Those who reported from Washington and Qatar say bureaucracy and spin by military spokesmen often hampered their ability to effectively cover the war from afar.
“Pentagon correspondents . . . said they were stonewalled by military officials who promised to get back to them in a few hours, or even a few days, about a skirmish just reported by an embedded colleague,” writes Alicia C. Shepard, in her February 2004 report “Narrowing the Gap: Military, Media and the Iraq War,” which was drawn from the McCormick Tribune Foundation’s seventh Cantigny Conference, held last August in suburban Chicago.
“Pentagon reporters were highly critical of the slow response time,” she reports.
Jessica Guynn, who covered the Pentagon for Knight Ridder during the first phase of the war, agrees with that assessment, calling Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s press briefings “the antithesis of being embedded.”
“The idea of the Pentagon is not to give you access,” says Guynn, today a staff writer for the Contra Costa Times. “I somehow had to report fully on what was going on, with no real ability to inform people. You have to develop sources, but there’s no door in the Pentagon that says, ‘Unnamed Senior Defense Official.’ ”
Halfway across the world, some 600 other journalists felt similarly stymied. Like their Pentagon counterparts, “Narrowing the Gap” reveals, reporters were often frustrated during daily briefings at Central Command in Qatar by the unwillingness of Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, a U.S. military spokesman, to elaborate on details embeds were reporting from the battlefield.
“Eventually,” says Mark Seibel, managing editor international at Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau, “we developed a policy where we published nothing from Washington that couldn’t be vetted as true from people in the field.”
Some Access, All of the Time
The beauty of the embed program was that reporters in Iraq had direct contact with the people they were covering 24 hours a day. What’s more, they were permitted to speak to soldiers and sit in on official planning meetings without the presence of public affairs officers. The Army division’s report explicitly states that “the reporter is authorized open access to all sections of the unit and is not escorted by public affairs personnel. Rather, the unit is the public affairs escort.”
According to Crawley, the absence of public affairs chaperones in Iraq allowed soldiers to speak more candidly and give more in-depth interviews than the sailors he encountered 18 months earlier on a Navy ship off the coast of Afghanistan. Those relationships with sources in Iraq even carried over to the United States, he says.
In writing a follow-up story on the battalion he was embedded with, Crawley says a public affairs officer “hung around” to observe his interview with a soldier. Another officer Crawley came to know personally while embedded offered to monitor the interview himself. After the public affairs officer left, the other officer allowed Crawley unrestricted access to the soldier.
Skiba, of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, is in the process of publishing a memoir about her experiences as an embed with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, “Sister in the Band of Brothers: Bringing the War in Iraq Home to America.” Recalling an incident in which she went to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., with a photographer to interview a soldier who had lost both legs, she says reporters don’t realize how good they had it in Iraq.
“The public affairs staffer announced that we had 30 minutes, which I found an unreasonably short period of time,” says Skiba, via e-mail. “He ended up giving us 60 minutes, but never left the tiny hospital room as the soldier spoke. When I left the hospital, I could only say to myself, ‘Oh, to be back in Iraq.’ There I could speak to soldiers freely without worrying about a clock . . . or a chaperone.”
Yet for all of the praise the embed program has gotten for allowing reporters unprecedented first-hand access to the war, there remains a considerable amount of criticism from both sides.
In its discussion of media embedding, the First Marine Division’s “Lessons Learned” report echoes hostilities between the media and military during the first Gulf War. It is far more disparaging of journalists’ reports of the sandstorm in Najaf than the Army report is, referring to media accounts as “Chicken Little reporting.”
“According to many pundits in the press, we were bogged down, stopped cold by the Fedayeen,” the Marines report says. “Nothing could have been further [from] the truth. The myth was quickly dispelled by our success against the Ba’ath Party and paramilitary fighters, but never forget how quickly the press jumped on the bandwagon of doom and gloom.”
Having teams of reporters embedded with different branches of the military sometimes resulted in contradictory reports, Seibel says. “The Marine reporter would be saying one thing, and the Army reporter would say another,” he recalls.
Contrary to the Army division’s report on the operational pause, Seibel says he received stories from reporters embedded with the Army who wrote that soldiers were surprised by the gunfire they were taking along the supply route and “found the whole thing to be incredibly complicated.”
Taking a Big Picture
Those problems possibly stem from one of the most repeated criticisms of the media: their inability to put the war into a greater context for the public. What the media lacked in this case, Dean Orville Schell of Berkeley’s School of Journalism says, were lengthy pieces that combined vignettes by the embeds with information concerning where the war was going. More importantly, the media needed to provide a historical and cultural context to the war, complemented by a variety of views from international media, he says.
“The American media,” Schell says, singling out broadcasters, “is very global, but very provincial.”
Seibel agrees that many of his embedded reporters lacked the “altitude” to create meaningful pieces for the public. He says the inability of his 43 embeds to relay any information on where the military was strategically headed hurt “big picture” coverage.
“None had the foggiest notion what was going on 100 miles down the road,” Seibel says. Because the embeds could only report dramatic accounts of isolated incidents, editors were at the mercy of reporters in Washington to give stories context.
“Next time, we’re going to work really hard to make sure some of our reporters are embedded with command units for altitude on our stories,” Seibel says. With the commanders giving insights on the military’s strategy, as well as explaining what embeds on the front lines are witnessing, Seibel says stories would be more meaningful for readers.
According to the Army report, journalists from media companies owned by the same corporation were evenly distributed throughout brigades to provide the broadest opportunities for coverage. For example, four newspapers owned by Tribune News Corp. — the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and The Orlando Sentinel — were assigned to different brigades and battalions within the Third Infantry Division. The wire services and major news services — such as Knight Ridder, Reuters and The Associated Press — were each assigned to different brigades as well. A major network or cable broadcast station was also assigned to each brigade, according to the report.
“On any day during the operations, a wide variety of articles about different [division] units could be found across the various news media,” the report says.
However, Seibel says the broad coverage did little to help produce meaningful stories that put the war into context. There were more embeds in the field than were “strictly useful,” he says, because none could give the overall scope of the war that he was looking for.
If there were more reporters than necessary covering the war, the same has not been said about the coverage of the war’s aftermath. “Narrowing the Gap” reports that only 52 of the 775 embeds remained in Iraq as of August 2003. Two weeks into April, more U.S. soldiers had already been killed that month (at least 83) than in any full month before it. As a result of the increased violence and instability throughout the nation, major broadcast news networks decided to trim back their resources in Iraq and b egin sharing footage from a media pool that would travel with the Marines, TVweek.com reported on April 12.
Despite their differing agendas and viewpoints, both the media and the military seem to agree on one point: they need each other’s cooperation to do their jobs successfully. Both sides are offering suggestions for improvement, signaling positive changes in a relationship that was tenuous after the end of the first Iraq war. To many of the embeds, like Knight Ridder’s Drew Brown, a successful stay in Iraq was marked by his ability to fulfill his duty.
“My job was to not write propaganda, but to write accurately about what I saw,” he says. “And that’s what I did.”