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Journalists embodied realities of Iraq war by Katherine Skiba

Journalists embodied realities of Iraq war
Last Updated: Sept. 13, 2003

Carlisle Barracks, Pa. - They brought the war in Iraq into living rooms while experiencing the shock, horror and exhilaration of battle alongside the troops.

Under a Pentagon program unsurpassed in scope, some 777 journalists embedded with U.S.-led coalition forces during the war generated as many as 6,000 stories a week, making it one of the most heavily reported military conflicts in history.

But were members of the media objective, or did they get too cozy with their sources? Did they tell the facts, but miss the truth? Did the U.S. Defense Department's ground rules prevent them from showing the ugliness of war? Did their "soda straw" view of the action mean they missed the big picture?

Were the so-called embeds a help or hindrance as the military sought to send a message to the enemy? How did they compare to the so-called unilateral journalists? Which group behaved - and which didn't?

And will we see embeds should America go to war again?

Those were among the questions tackled at the Army War College this month when top wartime commanders joined journalists, military historians, academics, researchers and students for a look back at the program that many in the military now salute just as, paradoxically, they won't promise it will happen again.

The workshop, Sept. 3-5, drew about 90 participants, including 18 students from the war college, which prepares military officers for top leadership positions.

Some commanders remembered the old days, when it was drilled into them: "A reporter is not your friend." One disclosed that the embed program went forward despite threats indicating that terrorists would pose as journalists. And no military bosses had fond memories of the estimated 1,200 unilaterals in the war zone, since more often than not, they turned to the military when they found themselves under fire and needed to be rescued.

A prominent voice in the workshop was Joe Galloway's, the journalist sometimes called the "grandfather of the embed program." He cut his teeth as a young reporter for UPI during the Vietnam war, accompanying infantrymen into battle and immortalizing them in a book, "We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young," which was made into an acclaimed film.

Galloway, who went on to cover other wars, including the first Gulf War, is now with Knight Ridder Newspapers in Washington. He said that he's spent the last dozen years telling every military audience that will have him that embedding was "the right thing to do, the best way to fix what was broken in military-media relations."

Many officers, while initially skeptical about the embed program, agreed, saying U.S. troops were a national treasure, and those sent into harm's way became the military's best spokespeople.

During the first Gulf War, Galloway rode with the 24th Infantry Division, a mechanized unit. But because relatively few reporters had such front-row seats, he said he looked back in sadness about opportunities lost by both the military and the press.

"Because of poor planning, paranoia and over-control, the details of a great victory of American arms were virtually lost to history. The crucial Army tank battles took place far from the lens of any camera. The Navy was over the horizon, out of sight and out of mind, and the Air Force contributed nifty 'smart bomb' film. We were left with the false image of a Nintendo war.

"The only thing the Pentagon had to hide in the Gulf was the finest military force this country has ever put into the field, and it did that very efficiently."

Noting that Knight Ridder had 32 embeds covering the war in Iraq, Galloway said he thought the program worked "damned well," and believes that familiarity between the military and media will not breed contempt "but trust and respect."

[The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had two embedded reporters in Iraq, myself and Nahal Toosi.]

According to Galloway, today in Iraq there are only 26 embedded reporters and only two in Afghanistan, a source of concern because fighting continues.

But does familiarity - sharing a fox hole, coming under fire, working, eating and sleeping with the troops - blind embedded reporters to objectivity?

Retired Major General Robert Scales, one of the so-called "embedded generals" who did commentary for Fox News Network during the war, charged they did. "The media did go native. . . . By golly, you were co-opted," he said, though reporters were quick to challenge him, saying they had covered the good, bad and ugly of the war.

Sean Naylor, a senior writer for Army Times newspaper, part of the Gannett chain, asked why the same question about objectivity is not raised about reporters "who embed with presidential campaigns, sports teams or police departments."

Many in the military expressed a belief that the story of efforts to secure and stabilize postwar Iraq is not being fully told, because the embeds, by and large, have vanished.

The United States lost the "information objectives campaign" when most embeds left, said Marine Col. Glenn Starnes, since coverage now focuses on soldiers being ambushed and killed. The embeds got "all the news out, not just the sensationalism," said Starnes, who led troops in heavy fighting in Nasiriyah.

Major General James D. Thurman, one of the top operations planners during Operation Iraqi Freedom, agreed. "We lost information superiority with the departure of the media," he said, noting there aren't enough public affairs officers involved in the postwar "stability and support" phases, and "good news" stories aren't being told.

"Information superiority" lets military commanders send a message to the enemy that helps shape the outcome of a fight, Thurman said.

The 777 embeds included 527 journalists who crossed in to Iraq, primarily with Army and Marine units; the others tended to be assigned to Air Force or Navy unit.

Thurman, chief of operations for the Coalition Forces Land Component Command, said he sought to "leverage" the embedded reporters to impact what the enemy was thinking.

He and others pointed out that not long after the war's purported "stall," and not long after the Iraqi minister of information announced there were no American or British troops in Baghdad, media accounts from embedded journalists proved otherwise.

As examples, Thurman cited having the media along let them capture events such as the first assault on Baghdad on April 7 and the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in the Iraqi capital as the regime crumbled two days later.

Thurman, like a number of military brass, said he had his doubts about the embeds but came away a believer.

Some remain dubious. James Fisher, an assistant professor from the University of Utah's Department of Communication, said journalism involves "thinking, observing and looking all around" and that there were times the military moved forward too quickly to let the reporters gather the proper context.

Fisher, who has reported from several war zones, said he believes the problem is not that embedded reporters were "looking through a soda straw, but that they were looking through an American soda straw."

He also questioned whether Defense Department ground rules, which forbid, for example, showing dead U.S. troops, meant the release of only a distinctive kind of war photo, such as the Marine assault across the Baghdad Bridge April 7.

Not that all reporters followed the rule book, which, among other things, forbade the press from leaking battle plans and jeopardizing the lives of soldiers. Altogether, 35 members of the media, 12 to 15 of them embeds, were either asked to leave or escorted out, one official said.

Though military commanders said they found the vast majority of journalists professional and trustworthy, they made no guarantees that there will always be embeds.

Phil Nesbitt, a media consultant from Oakton, Va., said the public watched and read with rapt attention to get a feel for what was happening during the war. He noted that top editors, some of whom worried in advance that the natural bonding in the field would make reporters flavor their work, were surprised by and pleased with the quality of broadcast and print reports.

"I think the genie is well out of the bottle," Nesbitt said. An appetite has been created among viewers, listeners and readers and if America went to war without embeds "there would be outcry from the public."

Katherine M. Skiba is a reporter in the Journal Sentinel's Washington Bureau. She was embedded during the war with the Army's 159th Aviation Brigade, part of the 101st Airborne Division, and was a panelist at the Army War College workshop.

From the Sept. 14, 2003 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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