The Press Goes to War

Wednesday, July 30, 2003
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this is an image

When the Defense Department decided to place journalists alongside troops to cover events in real-time during the Iraq war, it ensured the fulfillment of two goals: the minimization of certain aspects of anti-American propaganda and the simultaneous provision of limited and focused information. What it also did was to bring reporters into the tent. As “embedded media,” soldiers and scribes would travel and suffer together through battles, sandstorms, and less-than-five-star accommodations.

In short, it put them on the same team.

Although not every reporter went along with the program (some covered the war as independent, non-embedded “unilaterals” and some were outright hostile toward the U.S. military and the Bush administration’s policies before troops were even on the ground), the overwhelming response by Pentagon officials to the coverage has been positive: American forces were typically portrayed as professional, efficient, and humane, and “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was seen by most of the viewing public as a triumph. The experiment—the first new approach to military-media relations since the Vietnam War—was a success, and the levels of cynicism, general distrust, and enmity between the two sides were diminished, if not altogether swept aside, by embedding reporters with troops.

 

Learning from History

During World War II, war correspondents braved Nazi bombing raids, hunkered down in foxholes with combat infantrymen, and flew along on bombing runs over Germany. Reporters such as Ernie Pyle, Andy Rooney, and Edward R. Murrow made a name for themselves as they reported on Allied efforts—often glorifying the military’s deeds and celebrating its victories. Their stories and those of their fellow correspondents kept the home front informed, bolstered morale, and built support for the war effort.

But just a little more than two decades later, journalists were covering the conflict in Vietnam, filing reports that many—especially the military—believed were not only biased against U.S. efforts but also playing a significant role in undermining support for the war against communism in Southeast Asia. Television coverage—which brought the horrors of war into the living rooms of America for the first time—was perceived as being particularly harmful to the war effort. Many in the military were left soured on the experience. Reporters had enjoyed nearly free range when it came to access during the war, and many in the Pentagon believed they had abused the privilege. Officials began operating on the premise that the only good media were controlled media.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Defense Department officials kept a safe distance from the press, but they realized the necessity of granting at least limited access during war. In 1983, U.S. forces invaded Grenada to rescue Americans, battle Cuban and other communist soldiers, and restore democracy to the Caribbean island-nation. Because journalists were forced to wait out the fighting on the island of Barbados, accurate—and favorable—coverage was scant. Likewise, in 1989, during military operations in Panama, Pentagon officials generally kept reporters from the front lines. Both the Pentagon and the media again deemed the coverage unsatisfactory.

At the onset of the Gulf War in 1991, journalists hoped there would be a change. To say the least, they were disappointed. The media pool was severely limited, the Saudi government withheld journalists’ visas, and military briefings were conducted days after troops were deployed. Eventually, more than 1,500 journalists poured into Saudi Arabia, but they were held to tight restrictions. The media pool was small, only a few journalists were given access to battlefields, and their dispatches were frequently delayed. Only after coalition leaders realized that Iraq (of all places) was granting access did they acquiesce to some media requests.

“I was astounded by the failure of the system,” Joseph L. Galloway, senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers, said. “The United States fielded the finest combat force it had ever put in the field, and then the commanders turned around and successfully hid that force from the American people.”

A little more than a decade later, in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on America, journalists were again off to a foreign war. This time the setting was Afghanistan, but the situation for many reporters was not much better. Although Defense Department officials made some efforts at improving media relations, most journalists were relegated to military facilities or guided tours. Some reporters did manage to work alongside troops or make their way independently into the hinterlands, but their numbers were small.

Then came Operation Iraqi Freedom.

While trying to garner support for a war that had more than its share of detractors at home and abroad, Pentagon planners saw the wisdom behind getting journalists in on the action. There was concern about a repeat of the visual unpleasantness of Vietnam, but officials believed the possible benefits far outweighed the negatives. So the Pentagon helped create and give credence to a new class of reporters: “embeds.” Being knighted as an embedded journalist—one of the more than 600 assigned to the war—provided reporters and photographers with more than just a certain cachet, it provided them with the coin of the realm: access.

 

The Birth of a Notion

Although a host of people in and outside the military played a role in implementing the program—not to mention President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who signed off on it—Joseph Galloway is credited with advancing the embedment idea (he also is called the father of the newly instituted media boot camp—an abbreviated introduction to military life and the dangers of combat for journalists, many of whom had never covered war). The noted coauthor of We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young and Triumph without Victory: The History of the Persian Gulf War, Galloway’s experiences of reporting under fire date back to Vietnam. Understanding the importance of access and how all sides come up short when it is lacking, he appealed to top brass in favor of more “open and transparent” coverage. He told them, “Let the media through to your troops and they will fall in love with them just as you have done.”

According to U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Larry Cox, who served as chief of the Defense Department’s press desk during Operation Iraqi Freedom, recent experiences in the war on terror certainly gave the idea added impetus. “Embeds evolved from lessons learned, revelations, experiences out of the Afghanistan period,” he told John Lawrence, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review. “We saw in Afghanistan that the Taliban, and to some extent Al Qaeda, made aggressive use of propaganda to get as much momentum behind their efforts as they could, to leverage the fact that we had relatively minimal on-the-ground independent press coverage. We needed to have the maximum possible access of a free press operating on the battlefield, not controlled by U.S. or the coalition, but in position to do third-person objective reporting that we knew would reflect and illuminate lies and exaggerations.”

“It was President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who thought that embedding reporters with military units would help win the propaganda war at a time when the United States seemed to be losing it in the Arab world,” George C. Wilson wrote in the National Journal. “If military leaders let reporters hear and see what they were doing, the resulting stories would do the administration more good than harm in the battle to win over Muslims to the American cause: This was a big part of the rationale behind the mandate to open it up.”

In an interview with Fox News Sunday, General Tommy Franks went beyond the motives and hopes of his bosses, saying, “I’m a fan of media embeds, and it’s for a very simple reason: I believe that the greatest truth that’s available to the world about what’s going on is found in the pictures that come from the front lines where the war is being fought. I believe that every step we remove ourselves from the fact of the picture, we become less precise in our description of what’s happening. And so, if we believe in the First Amendment to our Constitution, and if we believe in the power of having our country know the truth, then the embeds have carried us a long ways in the direction of making that happen.”

Coming from the head of the U.S. Central Command—a soldier who had served on the ground in Vietnam and risen through the ranks of a media-wary military—this was quite a statement. Franks was not only affirming the importance of press access but also in effect signaling that the press had an important role in the overall effort.

 

“A Brilliant Strategy”

“The war has been called the best-covered war in history, and certainly the visuals and reports from embedded reporters have been spectacular. They brought war into our living rooms like never before,” says public relations analyst and former San Jose Mercury News reporter Katie Delahaye Paine. “The embedded reporter tactic was sheer genius. Taking reporters from behind the lines and putting them on the front lines with troops was an offer the media couldn’t resist. This is a brilliant strategy and could well change the face of PR forever.”

Paine, whose father and grandfather were war correspondents during World War II and the Cuban Revolution/Spanish-American War, respectively, had heard and read enough wartime accounts to know the importance of including journalists at the front. And as a public relations expert, she perceived the wisdom of embedding reporters as a solution to a problem that had dogged both sides for too long.

“The sagacity of the tactic is that it is based on the basic tenet of PR: It’s all about relationships. The better the relationship with a journalist, the better the chance that journalist will pick up and report [a desired] message,” she says. “So now journalists were making dozens—if not hundreds—of new friends among the armed forces. And, if the bosses of their newfound buddies wanted to get a key message or two across about how sensitive the U.S. is being to humanitarian needs or how humanely they are treating Iraqis, what better way than through these embedded journalists? As a result, most—if not all—of the stories being filed contained key messages the Department of Defense wanted to communicate.”

An added benefit was that readers and viewers were also given a close-up look at the troops and the way they conducted themselves in the field. This was viewed as an opportunity to help eliminate some of the cynicism toward the U.S. military that has existed since Vietnam, according to General Richard Meyers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At a Pentagon “town hall meeting” reported on by Cybercast News Service, Meyers underlined the notion that U.S. military personnel had presented themselves better than anyone had ever hoped for.

“They’ve held up [microphones] to corporals and to lieutenants and to privates and you couldn’t write a script for them better than their answers to all the questions,” Meyers said. “And you wouldn’t want to and it wouldn’t be right to do that—but you didn’t have to because they knew what they were fighting for, they knew how they were supposed to do their job.”

To be sure, though, not every journalist—embedded or otherwise—was entirely pleased with the Pentagon’s program.

Writing for the National Journal, George C. Wilson was assigned to an artillery unit just behind advancing Marine units. He described the quick movements and tunnel vision that came with being attached to a single group “like being the second dog on a dogsled team. You see and hear a lot of the dog directly in front of you, and you see what is passing by on the left and right, but you cannot get out of the [harnesses] to explore intriguing sights you pass, without losing your spot on the moving team.”

Addressing this issue, a recent report from the Project for Excellence in Journalism said, “One area of concern is whether embedded journalists, with a limited vantage point on the war and without complete control over where they go and when, are always capable of fully contextualizing the news they report. The most common criticism of the embedded reports was that they were only isolated pieces of a larger mosaic, and that relying too heavily on them would thus skew the picture viewers get. A review [of reports] suggested validity to this.”

“Embedment has been beneficial in helping the military and the press each become more familiar with what the other does—under government-controlled circumstances,” Wilson added. “Also, widespread embedment has generated thousands of stories about U.S. military action in Iraq, supporting the Bush administration’s goal of winning popular approval for the war, at home and abroad. But these gains have been more than outweighed by the loss of the press’ auditing function, which has been impeded, if not derailed altogether, by the severe constraints put on the embedded media. Embedment carries the danger of turning journalists into willing propagandists instead of auditors, into cheerleaders instead of reporters.”

Sam Howe Verhovek, who reported on the war for the Los Angeles Times as a unilateral, said, “There’s an inherent conflict built into embedding. From the military’s point of view, when you embed somebody in your unit, they become family. For the reporter, that’s very tricky. You want to keep objective distance from your source.”

Writing for Slate.com, media critic Jack Shaffer noted, “One troubling side effect of the program was that it created a credentialing system among reporters: The embedded were considered official journalists, to whom the military would generally talk, and the unilaterals were often treated as pests with no right to the battlefield. In many instances, the military prevented unilaterals from covering the war, especially in the southern cities left in the invasion’s wake: Basra, Umm Qasr, Nasiriyah, and Safwan.

“And while embedded TV journalists beamed back to the studio compelling footage of battlefield bang-bang, the networks failed to place the action in proper context,” Shaffer noted. “Exchanges of small-arms fire were inflated into major shootouts by television, and minor (though deadly) skirmishes became full-bore battles. Also, the journalistic tendency to put a human face on every story hyperbolized coalition setbacks, such as the ambush of Private Jessica Lynch and her comrades.”

Larry Cox, the Pentagon’s press desk chief, said if there were any biases he thought perspectives from embedded reporters and unilaterals served to even out one another. “Those close and direct experiences of embedded journalists are balanced by the slightly higher level of perspective that the non-embedded journalists have,” Cox told the Columbia Journalism Review. “One of the beauties of being embedded is learning about the personality of the unit, about the color and the depth, the substance that you don’t normally get if you’re not associated with a unit in that way. That said, it is a type of coverage that’s looking through a soda straw at a particular point in time on the battlefield. It would not have been sufficient if it had been the only opportunity for press coverage in this war. But it’s not. It’s one element. The others balance it and broaden it and lead to the overall goal for the military and the journalists, which is to provide an accurate picture of the war. A predictable and beneficial product of independent reporting is providing whatever information, good, bad or ugly, about the war that might exist. It is a goal unto itself to provide that in a free society. The goal of countering propaganda was a byproduct of a larger goal that derives from the operation of a free press in a free society.”

Most reporters in the war zone appear to agree that embedment helped enhance coverage and few reported that they had experienced interference from military officials. Aside from instances when journalists were kept from reporting because of military, civilian, or personal security issues, indications are that they were generally allowed to write about or photograph whatever they desired.

Newsman Ray Quintanilla, who was embedded with the U.S. Army Third Infantry Division, disputed any claims that journalists candy-coated the news. “I didn’t change anything because I was with a unit,” Quintanilla told Editor and Publisher magazine. He also noted that, when military brass asked to review his reports, he turned them down cold. “The first day the captain asked if a major could read my stories and I laughed him off and said ‘You gotta be kidding.’ Nothing ever came of it.”

“In my view the recent media embed program for the Iraq operation was an unqualified success,” Galloway said. “The media had relatively unfettered access to the front lines of a war for the first time since Vietnam—and in numbers that ensured a view of the operations across the spectrum. This is something the media had been demanding ever since Vietnam, at a time when military-media relations seemed to be in a death spiral. There was Grenada where the press was not allowed ashore until the war was over; Panama where the newly created ready reaction pool was flown south but locked up in a warehouse on an airbase until operations were over; the Gulf War where there were combat pools, under escort by military officers who had the power to censor their reports, and often frozen out of the action or unable to get their reports/film to the rear.”

“Compared to the media freeze-outs of the Afghanistan campaign, the Panama invasion, and the taking of Grenada, the embed program is a huge improvement,” Slate.com’s Shaffer wrote. “Never in the history of war have more reporters been able to cover the conflict from the front as it happened. And just because the military ended up liking the embed program, it doesn’t mean the program was bad.”

“The truth is, it’s a win-win situation,” Paine added. “We got more and better coverage of war than ever before, journalists had better access than ever before, and the coalition was able to get more of its messages across than ever before.”

“The biggest winner was the military, which made the biggest leap of faith since they did not generally trust the media,” agrees Galloway. “For the first time since Nam, the American public and the world got a clear view of American soldiers doing what they do so well in a tough combat environment.”

According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, “Americans seem far better served by having the embedding system than they were from more limited press pools during the Gulf War of 1991 or only halting access to events in Afghanistan.”

“It will be interesting when the dust settles to see what the long-term effects are,” said Torie Clarke, the Pentagon spokeswoman who was one of the chief supporters of the embedding program. She was quoted as saying she believes the embed program took the agenda-setting function for war coverage away from Iraq and other critics of U.S. policy and let the United States strut its stuff on a worldwide stage. “It was a good thing to do.”

Gathering from the program’s payoffs—more sympathetic and quicker coverage, as well as better relations between the military and the press—it wasn’t just a good thing to do, it was the smart thing to do.