Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Importance of Reigniting the Conversation on Embedding Journalists Within the Military

As the United States continues its engagement in multiple military conflicts around the globe, a topic that is rarely discussed within the so-called "mainstream" media is how they cover war. Since the United States invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq in 2003, reporters from major news networks have taken advantage of the opportunity to become embedded with U.S. combat forces.

This strategy gives reporters an up close and personal look at war through the eyes of the warriors who are on the ground fighting the battle. What is also accomplished by embedding reporters within the U.S. military is the natural bond that forms between the soldiers and the reporters. After all, the reporter is an untrained observer along for the ride and they must put their safety in the hands of those who they are tasked with covering in an objective manner.

Embedded reporters see the shots fired at the opposition, but rarely see the outcome of what those bombs and bullets hit. These reporters are supposed to be able to report on the conflict with an even hand and a balanced set of facts, but when they are being shot at by the opposition and are forced to rely upon the U.S. military to shield them from getting killed, it is a difficult if not impossible task to not have their coverage tainted by the circumstances.

As Bill Berkowitz reminded us in 2003, the system of embedding reporters was designed to exploit this very bond:

Where did the "embedding" idea come from? Have journalists reported both the good and bad news? With the demands of 24/7 coverage, does it matter if reports emanating from within combat units are accurate?

Embedding reporters is the brainchild of Victoria "Torie" Clarke, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. Clarke brings considerable PR experience to the task of winning the spin war. She recently worked with Hill and Knowlton, the public relations firm heavily involved in Gulf War I, and prior to that she was president of Bozell Eskew Advertising, an issue advocacy and corporate communications company.

According to a 10-page memo prepared for the National Security Council, Clarke, with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on board, argued that allowing journalists to report live from the front lines would give Americans the opportunity to get the story, both "good and bad -- before others seed the media with disinformation and distortions, as they most certainly will continue to do."

"Our people in the field need to tell our story. Only commanders can ensure the media get to the story alongside the troops. We must organize for and facilitate access of national and international media to our forces, including those forces engaged in ground operations. ... To accomplish this, we will embed media with our units. These embedded media will live, work and travel as part of the units... to facilitate maximum, in-depth coverage."

One senior Pentagon official told World magazine, an evangelical newsweekly, that "The concept was developed to dominate the information market and counter the historical lies and disinformation of the Iraqi regime."

Embedding reporters was a strategy that was meant to counteract what was viewed as the "negative role" that the media played during the Vietnam War. Embedding reporters would effectively grant major networks unparalleled access to the war zone while at the same time forcing the reporters to tell the stories of war through the eyes of the American military.

Norman Soloman, author of "War Made Easy" illustrates this point in 2005:

During the war that followed, the “embedding” of about 700 reporters in spring 2003 was hailed as a breakthrough. Those war correspondents stayed close to the troops invading Iraq, and news reports conveyed some vivid frontline visuals along with compelling personal immediacy. But with the context usually confined to the warriors’ frame of reference, a kind of reciprocal bonding quickly set in.

“I’m with the U.S. 7th Cavalry along the northern Kuwaiti border,” said CNN’s embedded Walter Rodgers during a typical report (3/20/03), using the word “we” to refer interchangeably to his network, the U.S. military or both:

We are in what the army calls its attack position. We have not yet crossed into Iraq at this point. At that point, we will tell you, when we do, of course, that we will cross the line of departure. What we are in is essentially a formation, much the way you would have seen with the U.S. Cavalry in the 19th century American frontier. The Bradley tanks, the Bradley fighting vehicles are behind me. Beyond that perimeter, we’ve got dozens more Bradleys and M1A1 main battle tanks. . . .

With American troops moving into action, CNN’s Aaron Brown (3/20/03) emphasized that he and his colleagues “wish them nothing but safety.” He did not express any such wish for the Iraqi people in harm’s way.

Now that the initial advances of troops into foreign lands has transferred into occupation, we tend to not hear as much from embedded reporters. However on NPR's "Morning Edition" recently, I took note of an interesting story.

NPR Reporter Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson was recently embedded with Marines from India Company of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment as they advanced on the city of Marjah in Afghanistan. Her reporting gained attention in part because she captured the audio of a battle with the Taliban that took the life of Lance Cpl. Alejandro Yazzie. Sarhaddi sat down with NPR's Renee Montagne on "Morning Edition" to talk about the experience and just for a second, I thought that there was going to be a constructive opportunity to discuss the conflicts that face embedded reporters (emphasis mine):

MONTAGNE: This then is your introduction to a group of mostly very young Marines with whom you will be rather intimate and in a sense depending on for your life and your well being.

SARHADDI NELSON: Yeah, it's always a challenge because, again, especially with Marines, it's hard for them to have women in fighting units, 'cause they're just not used to it. I mean, simple things like, you know, you need to go to the bathroom - there's no place to go. You have the Afghan soldiers on one side, you have the Marines on the other, and you really can't go away too far because you could step on an IED.

So it really gets to the point where you just have to kind of close your eyes and just suspend modesty and just go. It's as crude and rudimentary as you can possibly imagine. I mean, it makes camping in a national park look like a luxury.

Montagne hits on the significant issue that faces these embedded reporters, but in the same breath fails to hone in on the importance of her observation. Sarhaddi Nelson is depending on these Marines to protect her, but instead of addressing the potential limits that this situation may pose on her reporting, Sarhaddi Nelson instead chooses to talk about how uncomfortable it is to go to the bathroom as a lone woman among the men.

As the interview progresses, Sarhaddi Nelson continues to describe how she bonded with the Marines on who she was reporting (emphasis mine):

SARHADDI NELSON: I was in a room with maybe 20 or 25 Marines. It was freezing. I mean, it was basically a petrol station that had been - the glass had been blown out from the various IEDs that they had detonated. I was in this room, and you have to picture it's just a concrete floor, rat feces everywhere, and all of us were so cold.

It's interesting - I'm not sure how much they would want me to talk about it -but they would spoon. I mean, it was just to stay warm, you know? But, yeah, I mean, you just somehow managed, and you got to be very close, and you got to sit around and talk and just, you know, about families back home. And it was kind of, I mean, in a way it was nice.

This is a clear example of the kind of "reciprocal bonding" that Normon Solomon discusses in the quote above. The reporter experiences the same things as the troops, bonds with them through shared experience and then is reluctant to reveal information that may make their new friends "uncomfortable", in this case spooning for warmth.

As Sarhaddi Nelson continued the story and began to describe the firefight that took the life of Lance Cpl. Alejandro Yazzie, we see her use the term "we" when she describes how the Marines came under attack:

SARHADDI NELSON: It did. I mean, you have to picture when this happened, the patrol, it had been three hours of really intense pressure. We were constantly under fire. I think at that point the platoon officials or leaders had decided that they were going to stop for the night. It was just not safe to push forward anymore. And so we started to approach this field, and it was at that point that these gunmen, you know, jumped up and started firing - or at least it was described as three gunmen to me. I never saw them, I just heard the bullets.

And so everybody dropped down, squatted down, but we were exposed. We were all just behind these mounds of dirt. And Lance Corporal Yazzie, who I'd gotten to know over the last previous days - I didn't realize where he was standing - and I just, I mean, I saw him get hit, and certainly the captain next to him realized that he'd been killed. And it was just, there was nothing anybody could do, because at that stage the gunfire was so heavy.

Take a listen to the full "Morning Edition" piece by listening here:

After listening to the report one must acknowledge the obvious, that this experience was quite troubling and moving for Sarhaddi Nelson. I do not envy the experience of watching anyone being gunned before my eyes as bullets are flying through the air around me. I also do find value in reporting on the soldiers who are involved in these wars. These individuals are mostly young kids who are enduring very difficult circumstances that will more than likely impact them mentally, physically and emotionally for the rest of their lives. It is one side of the human cost of war and it is a story that needs to be told.

The expanded view of embedding reporters within active military units is another story that must be told whenever we hear reports like the one that Sarhaddi Nelson filed for NPR. The practice of embedding reporters was devised in order to form the close bonds that you can clearly hear in her reporting and it must be understood that these bonds exist and affect the overall coverage. These points must be stressed because telling the story of war through the eyes of the warriors is the norm. What is not the norm and the stories that you do not hear on a daily basis are the stories of those on the other end of the battle. When was the last time you saw a reporter embedded with a civilian Afghan family that was in the path of the American military? I don't seem to recall any reporters from CNN who were inside the Iraqi city of Fallujah prior to the American assault.

Embedding reporters within the military has real and very important consequences that impacts the coverage the public receives as well as the way people understand war. While a human face is put on those like Lance Cpl. Yazzie, too often are generic labels ("enemy", "opposition", "collateral damage") given to those who find themselves on the other end of the invading armies.

I wish Renee Montagne would have honed in on the importance of her phrasing when she indicated to Sarhaddi Nelson that these Marines were responsible for her safety as she reported in Afghanistan. There was a real chance to give some greater context to the practice of embedding journalists and how it contributed to Sarhaddi Nelson's coverage of this group of Marines. I fear that if this practice of embedding journalists continues to occur without a greater discussion on the implications, the larger context of this issue may continue to be swept under the rug.

This piece is cross posted here.