May 04, 2003

Journalism and War

Phil Carter at Intel Dump points to this fantastic article by David Zucchino, who was an embedded reporter in the war. (use laexaminer/laexaminer to read the article) The article makes a few interesting points:

Not since the Vietnam War have journalists worked so closely with soldiers in combat. The embed, in which reporters live 24 hours a day with their assigned units, was instituted on a limited basis in Afghanistan after the heaviest fighting had ended. Expanded, it was to be the grand journalistic experiment of the Iraq war

Actually, it was pretty rare in Viet Nam for reporters to work closely with units in the field. Instead, the reporters would usually drive out from Saigon or wherever they were based (at least some were in other cities) to find a firefight to report on, then drive back in the evening. Obviously, there were exceptions to this rule.

The coverage of the blatantly anti-war reporters in Viet Nam (possibly it would be more accurate to note that there were decent reporters there as well, who frequently were edited out by the newsrooms back in the States) led to the military deeply distrusting the media. Of course, the military had been in a position of lying to itself through much of the Viet Nam war, because of political pressures from the Johnson White House, and so the military also lied to the journalists. There was bad blood both ways. In the end, though, it was the American people who lost out. There were no reporters at Desert One, or with the troops in Panama or with the troops in Desert Storm or with the troops in Mogadishu. Because of this, the American citizens lost out on the ability to really see what our military was doing. I think that a huge amount of credit has to go to Secretary Rumsfeld for overturning this long-established animosity and integrating journalists into the forefront of combat operations.

During seven weeks spent with half a dozen units, I slept in fighting holes and armored vehicles, on a rooftop, a garage floor and in lumbering troop trucks. For days at a time, I didn't sleep. I ate with the troops, choking down processed meals of "meat, chunked and formed" that came out of brown plastic bags. I rode with them in loud, claustrophobic and disorienting Bradley fighting vehicles. I complained with them about the choking dust, the lack of water, our foul-smelling bodies and our scaly, rotting feet.

Frankly, I think that this is the genius of the program of embedding journalists. It will be more true in the future than in any generation since WWII, that our journalists will empathize with the troops. While those journalists may disagree with some future policy, it will be very hard to get someone who has served alongside the troops to criticize those troops themselves unless there is serious cause. This can only be a positive for our nation.
Most important, I wrote stories I could not have produced had I not been embedded -- on the pivotal battle for Baghdad; the performance of U.S. soldiers in combat; the crass opulence of Hussein's palaces; U.S. airstrikes on an office tower in central Baghdad; souvenir-hunting by soldiers and reporters; and the discovery of more than $750 million in cash in a neighborhood that had been the preserve of top Iraqi officials.

Yet that same access could be suffocating and blinding. Often I was too close or confined to comprehend the war's broad sweep. I could not interview survivors of Iraqi civilians killed by U.S. soldiers or speak to Iraqi fighters trying to kill Americans. I was not present when Americans died at the hands of fellow soldiers in what the military calls "frat," for fratricide. I had no idea what ordinary Iraqis were experiencing. I was ignorant of Iraqi government decisions and U.S. command strategy.

Embedded reporters were entirely dependent on the military for food, water, power and transportation. And ultimately, we depended on them for something more fundamental: access. We were placed in a potentially compromised position long before the fighting began, and we knew it.

This is a tradeoff of course. The viewpoint that the embeds brought to the public was one which most of us hadn't seen before, hadn't even in most cases read about. The thing to remember is that there are still reporters who are not embedded, who are capable of reporting on the broad sweep, on policy issues and so forth. And if the journalists are skilled and resourceful, there will be journalists reporting from the enemy trenches as well. Reporters have proven that they will take risks to get the story. It is surely a greater risk, and also a rarer story, to be in the enemy positions under American attack. Such an enterprising reporter could find stories about civilians after being caught in a fight, or of the defeated (or even victorious, in some cases) enemy.

The US military has provided reporters with that which the military can provide: access to US military operations. It's a bit of an overstretch to ask the US military to provide access to the enemy military operations. It's also possible to cover the grand sweep of the story - but not while you are embedded. That viewpoint brings home the immediacy of operations, not the sweep of vision of the war planners or the civilian strategists. The article points this out, in fact.

This newspaper, like many, also assigned reporters and photographers to Iraq who were not embedded with U.S. troops. They covered what we could not -- the Iraqi government, civilian casualties, humanitarian crises, military strategy, political fallout and everything else beyond our cloistered existence.

I think that, as we begin to unravel the unprecedented access journalists had to cover this war, we will find that we have the most personal story we've ever before had of a war. I believe that this can only be for the good.

Posted by Jeff at May 4, 2003 07:31 PM | Link Cosmos
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