Journalists traveling with units gain better understanding, officials think
April 8, 2003
Bob White, a retired Army colonel, remembers a friend wounded in Korea, a friend who was on his way to getting the Silver Star.
The infantryman, injured at one of the battles for Old Baldy hill, found himself shipped to Japan for treatment alongside CBS correspondent Lou Cioffi, who had been wounded by a mortar round. The soldier was honored for gallantry. Cioffi, though a civilian, was awarded the Purple Heart.
This sort of sharing of hell by soldier and reporter “builds a rapport between the serviceman and the press,” said White, a veteran of Korea and Vietnam now living in Naples, Italy. “And it creates a mutual respect and appreciation.”
Though the United States is unlikely to decorate correspondents covering the war in Iraq — and the media less likely to welcome such gestures — the Pentagon says its policy of “embedding” reporters and allowing live coverage is working. While there is a risk of reporters leaking operational secrets, or the partnership of warrior and scribe sanitizing coverage, the military says such problems are rare in Iraq.
“The reporters who have been integrated with the units and getting to know the units and forming relationships are abiding by the ground rules,” said Army Maj. Tim Blair, the Pentagon spokesman managing the embed program.
Though some 600 journalists and crew are embedded with the military, only about five have been sent back from the front for violating ground rules. And though Geraldo Rivera caused a flap last week for drawing a map in the sand showing where troops might advance, Blair pointed out that Rivera was not part of the embed program.
Not everyone is so optimistic. Some critics claim embedded reporters chiefly serve to circulate propaganda and that they become too much part of the campaign, even to the detriment of reporting on their own exploits instead of the troops.
In a study released last week, the Project for Excellence in Journalism found 60 percent of TV stories from embedded journalists were aired live and unedited. Ninety-four percent of the stories were just the facts, as opposed to analysis. But 80 percent of stories featured the reporters alone and contained no troops or secondary sources.
Still, the study concluded the Pentagon’s embedding policy vastly improved coverage when compared with the reporting of other recent conflicts.
Blair also denied the military is manipulating coverage, though reports may be delayed so that they don’t give the enemy advance notice of a strike or movement.
“They’re going to see things before they happen that are of serious operational concern,” Blair said of journalists. But in the end, he maintains that the reports are being filed.
What the military does hope to do is keep a lid on speculation and rumor: Reporters will see what happens themselves. And though the military denies it wants to spin coverage, it does want “informational dominance,” in Blair’s words, meaning a massive number of reports filed from units, as opposed to reports from roving or outright hostile media.
Blair’s only caution is that viewers and readers get just a slice of the battle when they follow one particular reporter.
“That journalist has one perspective,” he said, “and it’s only the perspective that’s in [his or her] line of sight.”
Not everyone believes embedding reporters is good. Lewis MacKenzie, a retired Canadian major general and commander of U.N. troops during the Bosnian war, is livid. In a recent commentary for the National Post, a Canadian newspaper, he wrote of his outrage at coverage of the landing of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in northern Iraq:
“I came close to trashing the television I was watching when the reporter explained to the world that his unit was extremely vulnerable as they had not been reinforced overnight and only had light weapons,” MacKenzie wrote. “I mean, why not just say: ‘Hey Saddam, come and get us, we are very lightly armed — is there anything else you would like to know?’”
One Special Forces veteran is also skeptical. He believes operations are sometimes televised before it’s safe to do so.
“I don’t think it’s malicious, but it’s immediate,” said Bill Kalmus, a retired Army lieutenant colonel living in Würzburg, Germany. During his days in Vietnam, he rarely came across reporters by nature of his covert job.
“I don’t think I’d want to have some reporter tagging along,” Kalmus said. And even if one did tag along, back then the report wouldn’t be available to the world, or the enemy, at the speed of satellite.
One analyst believes that, really, is what’s new with the news.
“What’s new this time is the fact that the military has allowed journalists to file and broadcast directly from the combat area,” said Jay Farrar, a retired Marine colonel and vice president of external affairs for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
That isn’t so much a change in policy, Farrar believes, as it is a change in technology: People now live in a cell-phone and e-mail world.
“What you’re seeing coming out of the Gulf now is in line with what the American public has gotten used to in their daily life.”
Farrar, who dealt with reporters during the first Gulf War and in Beirut as a public affairs officer, said he found that cooperating with the media helped the mission.
“I thought it was great having the press with the Marines. It was probably 80 percent positive, and 20 percent things that weren’t necessarily good, but just facts of life . ...
“The old saw that the media lost the Vietnam war is bogus.”
The new era of streaming coverage, Farrar believes, poses little threat to security — and likewise he believes the media are getting information to the public without interference.
“The military and the media made an agreement that they couldn’t put out certain kinds of information, and in the heat of battle they may not be able to transmit immediately,” Farrar said. “But in reality, we’re seeing real time or near-real time.”
Despite his belief that working under fire bonds reporter and gunner, White remains pragmatic about security. Specifically, he criticized Rivera as well as Peter Arnett, whom NBC fired for criticizing U.S. strategy on Iraqi television.
“They didn’t distinguish themselves, for sure,” White said. Unfortunately, the Rivera incident reminded him of the old days.
“I had experience with the Korean War, with the 2nd Infantry Division … one [reporter] was looking over my shoulder reading classified material, an after-action report. And we had to put a stop to that.”
“It’s given birth here,” White said, “and it will last them the rest of their lives.”