For better or worse, embedded journalists are bringing the war home
April 3, 2003
It’s almost like being there without getting dirty.
Thick gray-yellow dust obscures the images of troops as they sleep, eat or cradle their weapons against the omnipresent sand. It’s desert war, harsh and unforgiving.
And now, it’s daily fare on your television.
Servicemembers live it, and their friends, families and fellow troops see it — the dirt, the grime and the pain. That’s because the Department of Defense’s journalism embed program has 500 reporters and associates traveling and living with troops around the Persian Gulf.
“It’s very important the American public sees the realities of what their sons and daughters risk on the ground out there,” said Army Maj. Brian Maka.
“It’s like ‘The Osbournes’ with guns,” David Hunt, a retired Army colonel and a military commentator for Fox News, told Stars and Stripes.
Advocates say the program helps troops feel appreciated and gives viewers and readers unparalleled and constant access to war’s reality. Except when security might be threatened, it’s no-holds-barred coverage.
Military leaders and many journalists have lauded the system for giving battle a real and human face.
For instance, Maka — now a public affairs officer for the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea — was an infantry officer in the first Gulf War. He returned to an American public that thought blood barely had been shed because they didn’t see a ground war on CNN.
Journalists, too, find a formerly antagonistic relationship with the military has warmed into cooperation. Jason Bellini, a CNN correspondent embedded with the Marines’ 15th artillery unit, told The Associated Press he’s found the troops and their leaders to be obliging.
“So far, the embedding seems to have gone very well,” Victoria Clarke, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, told the American Forces Press Service.
But between praise and approval for the new media-military cooperation are voices of concern about accuracy, scope and analysis.
Embedded journalists see a microscopic view of the war, they say — a detailed look at only one unit among many. “We’re not getting enough of a general feel of the war on a whole,” said retired Army Brig. Gen. David Grange, a military analysts for CNN.
“You’re just seeing slices.”
The Pentagon should provide more information from headquarters, he said, so one setback doesn’t cast a pallor over public sentiment — or one success create unwarranted optimism.
Critics also fear some journalists go too far with their personal take on events they see. “They can screw it up trying to assess,” Grange said.
Maka agrees that war experience doesn’t prepare a journalist to provide analysis. “It does not make him set up to be the expert,” he said. Close coverage works only “as long as he’s not editorializing.”
That job falls on military analysts — like Hunt and Grange — hired by networks to put the war in context.
“I’m always on eggshells because I’m concerned about getting someone killed,” Grange said, adding that avoiding such a tragedy “is my responsibility as an analyst.” He said he believes some military experts get carried away on air. “You can’t let it go to your head.”
Embedding has raised concerns that the drama of televised warfare is getting in the way of actual warfare. “We’ve got pilots getting back and giving interviews before they do a debriefing,” Hunt said.
Still, Hunt said, despite a few criticisms of embedding, “I think it’s working. But you’ve got to be careful, very careful. We have really to think this thing through. Right now we’re just in awe of this.”
“It’s going to change the nature of warfare, not just reporting,” he said.