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Terence Smith assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the Pentagon's "embedding" program and its effect on news coverage of the war in Iraq.
For the first time in decades, since Vietnam, American journalists are traveling side by side with U.S. troops in combat.
GREG KELLY, FOX NEWS:
The enemy continues to fight, but they also continue to die, according to unit commanders.
Using state-of-the-art technology, some 600 embedded print and broadcast reporters are sending back real-time reports. As a result, the American public is getting an up-front and personal view of the war around the clock.
TED KOPPEL, ABC NEWS:
As they moved towards their first target, and I'm not in the position to tell you what that is…
Under the embedding guidelines, journalists agree not to disclose exactly where they are or everything they see.
MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN:
We've basically been in a communications blackout for three days.
Many reporters say the conditions are difficult, but the access so far, good.
COLIN SOLOWAY, NEWSWEEK:
I certainly haven't had the problems that other people were concerned about in terms of being restricted in what you can learn, restricted in what you can report.
The initial embedded coverage has been broadly favorable to the U.S. military, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says the images come so thick and fast that…
DEFENSE SECRETARY DONALD RUMSFELD:
We have seen mood swings in the media from highs to lows to highs and back again, sometimes in a single 24-hour period. For some, the massive TV — the massive volume of television — and it is massive — and the breathless reports can seem to be somewhat disorienting.
But at the National Press Club last night, there were questions about how the arrangement will work long-term.
BILL PLANTE, CBS NEWS:
I don't think this has been put to the test just yet. I don't think you've yet had the case of a reporter, who is present with gear — maybe television, maybe not, but let's say television — when a terrible mistake is made, a stupid order is given — things which the American military would rather not have the American public see may happen.
A list of very detailed coverage ground rules governs the relationship. So far, no embedded reporters have been sanctioned for violating the rules.
But at least two reporters traveling alone have: Philip Smucker, a reporter from the Christian Science Monitor, who disclosed the location of a Marine unit; and Geraldo Rivera of Fox News. Rivera is being withdrawn from Iraq after the military contended that he had compromised security by drawing a battle map in the sand.
Joining me now to assess the war coverage so far are: Geneva Overholser, columnist and a professor at the University of Missouri, School of Journalism; Bryan Whitman, deputy assistant secretary of defense for media operations; and Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University. Welcome to you all.
Bryan Whitman, you're one of the people who helped organize and establish this really very different new program to embed and place these reporters in military units and give them a first-hand look and an opportunity to report back.
From the Pentagon's point of view, how is it going?
Well, it is a very ambitious and aggressive program that we embarked on. But I think by all accounts even at this very early stage, indications are that it's working rather well. I think it's working rather well for the media who are out there covering this conflict and I think from the military's perspective we haven't had any serious incidences in which we have compromised the mission or endangered personnel out there.
Geneva, from the news consumers' point of view, the public, how is it going?
Well, Terry, I think it's a phenomenal amount of access. I'm grateful for it. I think the public can be grateful for it. What we're getting is a dazzling array of kind of splinters of reality though. And I worry some about what we're not getting. I worry that we may not see these splinters in any kind of whole.
I worry that we need to be mindful that for very good reasons these journalists who are embedded are not report in a completely independent way. This is not a criticism of the Pentagon, but there are 19, I believe, "unreleaseables" categories, most of them quite understandable, but some a little worrisome to me, about ongoing engagements and so I think it's important that we recognize that.
I also worry a little bit that in our kind of phenomenal "gee whiz" feelings about this new embedding and the new technologies and the video cameras that bring it all home that we may be forgetting that there's an awful lot else going on about the war.
We shouldn't be too dazzled by what we have here.
Alex Jones, too "gee whiz"?
I think I'm more on the "gee whiz" side than Geneva is.
I compare it to what happened in Grenada, what happened in the first Gulf War, what happened in Afghanistan and I find it such a breath of fresh air to have this access that the worm's eye view and the splintered aspects of it don't trouble me very much.
I think that the embeds so far have been something of a truth squad. They've done what they were supposed to do, which is give confirmation or challenge to what's being said from headquarters. I think that's very important.
I think it's important to remember that the first, you know, sense that things were not going to be a cakewalk came when embeds a week ago, over a week ago, made a kind of analysis about the Apache raid on the Republican Guards that was very different from the one that was expressed at headquarters and turned out to be a much more realistic one. I think that was their job and they did it. So I'm — on the balance of things, I'm very much on the pro side.
Bryan, what about that example that Alex Jones just cited or other examples where the firsthand reporting from the front may not square precisely with the version that is being described at Central Command headquarters?
Well, one of the things that we've actually learned is that the media have the same problems that we do when dealing in information in the fog of war.
Getting it right.
And that the first reports quite frequently are not completely right and so we have to take those reports and those slivers of combat life that you're seeing out there and the conflict and we have to be able to put them in context. I don't think anyone professed from the beginning that embedded reporting should be the only way in which this conflict would be covered.
But I think that the embedding gives the American people a very important view of what's going on in near real-time on the battlefield. When we sat here a few weeks ago, I said that truth needed to be an issue in this conflict, if there was one. I think that what we're seeing out there with some 600 reporters out there in the field is that they are reporting in a very factual, matter of fact, truthful way, both the good and the bad.
Geneva, do you see that as a plus? And do you see any other pitfalls?
Absolutely. I don't want to un-embed. I commend the Pentagon. I think this is extraordinary. I agree totally with Alex that compared with what we've had before it's a marvelous, marvelous advance.
However, just as you said, we need more than embedded reporting. And it is very hard, which is nobody's fault, to do independent reporting. In fact we are hearing far more from these 500 to 600 embedded reporters. We haven't comparable numbers of American independent reporters and those we have are under enormous pressure.
Alex Jones, is there a danger in your view, or have you seen reporting that reflects reporters getting too close to those units and soldiers that they are traveling with, eating with, sharing danger with and it certainly would be a human reaction but does it jeopardize the objectivity of their reporting?
I don't think it's a question of objectivity. I think what you have is empathy, which I think is appropriate. It comes with knowledge.
I think that what we've had is a reporting corps that has no experience with the military whatsoever. They weren't in the military the way they were in my day. There was not a draft. And so we have got two generations I guess of journalists who have never had any military experience.
I think what we've got now is 600 journalists who are getting a dose of what it's like to be a soldier. I think that's automatically going to give empathy and knowledge and insight, but I don't think that means that the reporters who are out there are not also going to be reporting the truth.
And if it's a harsh truth, if it's a negative truth, if there is a war atrocity, if there's some appalling thing, if the war is going bad, I don't think that you're going to find that the journalists are going to sugar coat it; I think they're going to do their job.
But part of what they're reporting is a more sort of nuanced understanding of what it's like to be a soldier. And that does include getting close. I don't have a problem with getting close. I think that's what journalism is for.
Bryan Whitman, we mentioned the case of Geraldo Rivera and the other reporter, Philip Smucker, who were in effect asked to leave the Iraq because of what were seen as compromises of operational security. How serious were they? What does that say to you about the situation of reporters being so close to the front lines?
Well, let's be clear about these two situations that have received some visibility.
Both of these cases were individuals that were not embedded with our U.S. forces…
Traveling with but not fully and legally embedded…
So we should look at them separate from the 600 or so reporters that are out there that are embedded for which we have had virtually no problems with operational security.
In these two cases, we did have concern over the reporting that was being done in real-time about the position, the location, the mission, its relationship to other units, what it was about to do, and these were real-time reports.
In both cases, the news organizations took our concerns very seriously. They understood and we appreciate their cooperation and their understanding in the matter. And I think they made the right decision in both these cases.
Geneva, there was another case obviously that got a lot of attention. Peter Arnett, a veteran reporter, gave an interview to Iraqi television about his views on how the war was going and was promptly fired by his employers, cut loose. I wonder what your reaction is to what he did.
He wasn't as promptly fired as I'd have fired him. I found it very hard to believe that Peter Arnett, a smart reporter, would have thought that was an acceptable thing to do, to go on Iraqi television and give an interview which he knew would be used for propaganda purposes.
I have trouble anyway with news reporters going on the air, on our own air, and opining. I just think it's not a good idea. But that was a spectacularly bad idea, it seems to me.
Alex Jones, does the Arnett case, does it point up some of the difficulties and the delicate situation that the remaining American reporters — I understand there are only about 16 still left in Baghdad — reporting as they are from an, you know, the enemy capital back to the United States on a U.S. assault on Baghdad?
I think it goes to the heart of the very, very delicate situation you find yourself in when you go to the enemy's heart and try to report.
That's never happened until the first Gulf War. Peter Arnett was right there doing that. And I think that as long as he, you know, reported what he saw, he was fine.
My problem with Peter Arnett is not what he said. It's where he said it, just as Geneva said. He knew it was for propaganda purposes or he certainly should have because this is totally state controlled. If Peter Arnett had gone on Iraqi television and said, you know, fellows, all these American soldiers are about an hour's drive from here and you're being bombed every night, things aren't going very well for you — that would not have gone out.
I think that the point is, you should not confuse going on Iraqi television with, you know, going on a news program. It was not news. He should have known it. It was open and shut as far as I was concerned.
Do you agree, Bryan Whitman, that it was where he said it, not so much what he said?
Well, how I feel about it probably isn't appropriate for your audience — my true feelings on it. But let me just say that I think the news organizations that were using his material did the right thing even if it was a bit slow.
All right. Geneva, step back a little.
Look at the coverage of this war up to this point. Tell us how you think the viewer, the reader, is being served. Are they getting a good, well rounded picture?
I think they're getting a spectacularly thorough picture of the operations of war thanks to this embedding procedure, thanks to technology.
I worry though that we are so focused on that, for understandable human reasons, that we are not getting the kind of picture we should of what's happening in the larger sense of what other nations think of us, of whether pan Arabism is growing, a sort of setting the war into a context of a dangerous and fast-changing world. I don't see much of that.
Into its political context.
Into a political context, exactly.
Alex Jones, what did you think of the point that Bill Plante of CBS made in the taped piece that presided this that the difficult days lie ahead, that news will not always be good after all?
Well, news has not been good. I mean there have been some bad news moments that I referred to originally. This Apache raid was one that turned out not to be as good news or at least that's the way I think most people interpreted it.
But, you know, you've got 600 reporters over there embedded. Many of them are the very best reporters or among the best reporters of some very important news organizations. Is Ted Koppel not going to tell the truth when the moment comes? I can't believe it.
I think that most of the people who are over there embedded are at the top of their game for very big, important news organizations, and I don't think you're going to find that that will happen. Now, does it mean that the information may not get out if the military decides to impose censorship for a time? Well the military can do that. They have the power. But that won't last for long. I think we'll know the truth in a much shorter time frame than we would have otherwise.
Alex, Geneva, Bryan Whitman, thank you all three very much.
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