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The Media’s War in Iraq

April 21, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: In the popular lexicon of the war in Iraq, they are known simply as embeds, or embedded reporters, the 600-plus journalists authorized by the Pentagon to train, travel and share the dangers and discomforts of the battlefield with U.S. military units.

CORRESPONDENT: There was such a concern that it might have been booby-trapped.

TERENCE SMITH: Embeds use state-of-the-art technology, including satellite telephones, videophones and mobile satellite uplinks to transmit their stories and images often in real-time.

DAVID BLOOM: They call this “hurricane route”.

TERENCE SMITH: NBC modified a tank and shipped it to Iraq to enable the late correspondent David Bloom to report the Third Infantry’s drive towards Baghdad. His “Bloom Mobile” came to symbolize the immediacy of embedded reporting before the 39-year-old suddenly died of a pulmonary embolism in the desert. Later, Bloom’s cameraman at NBC, Craig White, captured a firefight against Iraqi defenders in Baghdad.

CRAIG WHITE, NBC News: You can never feel by looking at pictures what it’s like to be in a battle like that. When large artillery go off, live shells, RPGs go off. Fire came from all sides, 360 degrees.

TERENCE SMITH: Martin Savidge of CNN provided a riveting first-hand account.

MARTIN SAVIDGE: This is Baghdad University and it is warfare on this campus.

TERENCE SMITH: As the first brigade of the seventh marines fought their way into Baghdad. In all, three embedded reporters were killed during combat, including the columnist Michael Kelly. Seven other journalists who were not embedded also lost their lives. Top military leaders were initially skeptical about the embedding process, but commanding General Tommy Franks became a convert.

GENERAL TOMMY FRANKS: It permits the viewership and the listenership and the readership of the various countries on this planet to be able to get a sense, to be able to get a take of what’s going on on this battlefield. I’m a fan of it. I think it was a very good thing to do.

TERENCE SMITH: The public reacted positively as well.

CORRESPONDENT: We just heard an incoming… what the hell?

TERENCE SMITH: A recent poll done by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that eight in ten respondents described the reports from embedded journalists as fair and objective.

TERENCE SMITH: Joining me now are two reporters who were embedded with different units. George C. Wilson, military writer for the “National Journal,” who was with the First Marine Division. And Mark Strassmann, a CBS News correspondent who was with the army’s 101st Airborne Division. Welcome to you both.

Mark Strassmann, one of the early stories that you had to report as an embedded reporter with the 101st was not a pleasant one from their point of view. That was the story of the… when a soldier rolled a grenade into the officer’s tent. Were you able, as an embedded reporter, to report that the way you wanted to and felt you should?

MARK STRASSMANN: You’re right. It was a very bad story from the military’s standpoint, not only because it was a sneak attack in the dead of night. Two soldiers would end up being killed as a soldier tossed three grenades into three adjoining tents, apparently targeting the senior officers of the brigade I was with.

But the story behind the story was that as the first real test of the embedding process, it did work. I mean, our access was great. The communication from them to us in terms of what was happening was great. The colonel, the senior commander there, a guy named Ben Hodges, told me fairly soon after and before they actually made the arrest of the soldier, that he believed that a soldier was missing, that grenades were missing, and that they thought that the bad guy was actually one of their own.

So from my standpoint, there was great information flow, there was great access, and it sort of showed the value of building up a relationship of trust with somebody before it really got to a point where that relationship would be tested.

TERENCE SMITH: Right, and Mark… Mark, were there any restrictions placed on you, on what you could report?

MARK STRASSMANN: They were sensitive about a couple of things — about releasing his picture, because we did have video of that, and they were also sensitive, very sensitive about the fact that he had converted recently to Islam. But in the end, both those details got out simply because there was nothing about the embed’s rules of engagement that prevented that. So no, there was no attempt to really restrict anything, just a sense of concern about the one detail about the soldier’s background and about getting out his picture.

TERENCE SMITH: George Wilson, what was your experience? You were with an artillery unit. How did it go for you?

GEORGE C. WILSON: Well, I thought the unit was moving all the time and we stayed behind the front line troops, so you had a sense of what was going on in the battle you were involved in. But the view is too narrow. You were somewhat like the second dog on the dogsled team, and you saw an awful lot of the dog in front of you and a little bit to the left and the right. But if you saw an interesting story to the left or the right, you couldn’t break out of the dogsled team without losing your place because we were moving all the time. Also, the smaller the unit, the more action you saw, but also the less of a chance of getting your story transmitted.

So I had to go the old-fashioned way of dictating a lot of stories through the satellite phone, and then the military, in its wisdom, confiscated my satellite phone for reasons that I never really understood. So then I was at the mercy of finding a larger unit which had the transmission capability to get rid of my story.

TERENCE SMITH: I think the military maintained that that particular brand of satellite phone, and there were many others, had a GPS, Global Positioning Satellite capacity, might give away the location of the unit?

GEORGE C. WILSON: They gave me three different reasons, none of which made sense to me.

TERENCE SMITH: But did you encounter restrictions of, either for security or any other reason, George, that made it a problem for you to report what you wanted to report?

GEORGE C. WILSON: Not direct restrictions, but the higher up you went, like if you went to the First Marine Division headquarters, you couldn’t sit in on the command briefings. But if you went to smaller outfits, like the regimental level, they were much more cooperative and you could sit in on the briefings and they kind of trusted you not to give away the store. So I have to say it depended where you were.

I did talk to other reporters who were told that they couldn’t sit in the command briefing unless they agreed to show their stories that were resulted from those briefings to the command before it was transmitted. So that was indirect censorship.

TERENCE SMITH: Mark Strassmann –

MARK STRASSMANN: Terry, my experience was just very different. I mean, we were allowed to sit in on every single briefing, of course with the understanding that we weren’t going to give away the game plan before the game started. But I was allowed to sit in there and see all the war strategizing and the war gaming.

I mean, there were times when I sort of felt like, you know, a character in some Tom Clancy novel in progress. I mean, I wasn’t Jack Ryan, but I was definitely somebody sitting in there listening to what was the battle plan and how it was all going to take shape. And there was never any attempt by anybody there to sort of restrict us. Now that said, we were at a brigade level not a division level, and perhaps the experience there would have been different.

TERENCE SMITH: Mark…let me ask Mark this. You got to know these soldiers. You were traveling with them, spending every day with them, and I’m sure there was some empathy for them. Did that compromise your objectivity in any way?

MARK STRASSMANN: You can’t spend that much time with that many guys – mostly men, a few women – that many guys who are genuinely good guys and being asked to do a tough thing at a tough point in history and not develop some affection for them. The story there, though, from my standpoint, was this. There really weren’t that many instances when it went badly for them. Once we left Camp Pennsylvania where that grenade attack happened and a couple of soldiers were killed, nobody with my brigade was killed, especially around the city of Najaf, which is the main mission these guys had, which was to liberate that city. So there were not that many tests of that.

What we had was a series of very one-sided battles, because in the end, as we all know, Saddam Hussein was essentially fighting well above his weight class. And so this was never really an issue where whatever affection and empathy we might have for the soldiers around us was going to get in the way of a story.

That said, I don’t really think it was going to be an issue for me. I mean, there have been lots of situations where, covering events in civilian life and you know people reasonably well, because they’re contacts of yours or whatever, and sometimes you have to do tough stories on people. It’s not personal, it’s business.

TERENCE SMITH: George Wilson, you wrote last week in the National Journal that you felt some pressure to be a cheerleader for the units you were with.

GEORGE C. WILSON: Well, I think the Pentagon set it up that way. I enormously admired the grunts, the marines and the conditions they put up with and the junior officers. But if you couldn’t get out of the dog sled team and investigate something on your own because you had no mobility, you had no wheels of your own, and you had to wait in line basically for vehicles to become available, I felt that my auditing function and my responsibility to my reader to give some accountability was very much restricted by the logistics of it and the positioning of the reporters. And in contrast to my colleague’s experience, if you know…if you remember the marine generals spoke a good game, but they didn’t play it. For instance…

TERENCE SMITH: You also wrote, George, that you felt you were something of “a willing propagandist.” What did you mean by that?

GEORGE C. WILSON: Well, I think it was set up that way. That you were put in a position where you would certainly not be antagonistic to the kids that you were involved with and admired and you went in, in those conditions without having the ability like I had in other wars to check things out for myself. So in effect I was putting myself in a position to be a propagandist, which was great for the Pentagon, but not so great for the readers.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. Mark Strassmann, we’re almost out of time, but I want to ask you both very quickly. Would you do it again?

MARK STRASSMANN: I would definitely do it again. I might not want to do it again tomorrow, especially because my wife is eight months pregnant, but, yes, I would definitely do it again. I mean, I had never had such an immersion into a culture like that. I got to see a part of history that I otherwise probably would not have been able to see. So, yeah. I mean, there were things I might have changed about it, but clearly I would do it again.

TERENCE SMITH: And George Wilson.

GEORGE C. WILSON: Not under those conditions. I think I couldn’t do my auditing job under those restrictions, and I needed mobility to serve the reader well. After all, the Iraqi army basically did not show up. It wasn’t much of a fight, and yet you wouldn’t know that from reading most of the press.

TERENCE SMITH: George Wilson, Mark Strassmann, thank you both very much.