Embedding Reporters on the Frontline
With regained public trust, watchdog reporting might be more welcomed for its role in protecting democracy.
Several weeks into the Iraq War, the Pentagon’s embedding policy was judged a resounding success. While questions will always remain about the degree to which reporting from within a war effort must inevitably compromise journalistic independence, embedding allowed far greater access to the battlefield than the press has enjoyed in more than two decades and has dampened the long hostility between the Pentagon and the press. In a popular and relatively easy war, reporters’ access to the battle zones was a win-win policy. With a bit of a stretch, we might even speculate that the embedded reporters’ contributions in the war will contribute to a wider public embrace of the press’s watchdog functions.
Mutual dependence under fire entwines people, as the Pentagon obviously understood. Skeptics likened this empathy to the “Stockholm Syndrome,” but if embedding yielded some gee-whiz admiration for soldiers and their hardware, mutuality also yielded a great deal of public education about military life and procedures. Support for the troops became the overriding frame for war news in the United States media, and television reporters, in particular, partook of the vast public support that poured forth for capable and honorable soldiers.
The degree to which embeds participated in the war effort became a central element of their reporting. Following the Fox News Channel’s lead and precedents set after September 11th, broadcasters used the triumphal first person “we” to chart U.S. progress toward Baghdad. Through the frame of red-white-and-blue graphics, the celebration of embedding took on a redemptive tone, as if, after decades of obstinate standoffishness, reporters had finally reconciled with their Pentagon elders and shown up for the family reunion.
The few flaps that raised ethical conundrums for journalists’ independence were resolved with the happy discovery that reporters are actually Americans and human beings. Boston Globe reporter Scott Bernard Nelson, embedded with the First Marine Division, was the only one in his convoy who spotted an Iraqi sniper’s position. Nelson informed a gunner, who fired 100 rounds and killed the fedayeen sniper. Nelson said he had come to “identify with the Marines,” but would like to believe his reporting was untainted since it appeared alongside unembedded Globe coverage from Qatar and the Pentagon.
CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon, helped doctors in a U.S. Army medical unit operate on both Americans and Iraqis. After interviewing a Marine wounded in Nasiriyah’s “Ambush Alley,” MSNBC’s Kerry Sanders— still broadcasting—offered his satellite phone to the young soldier so he could call his family. MSNBC’s self-congratulation grew a bit thick as the New York-based anchor, on the phone with the Marine’s mother in Tennessee, concluded the umpteenth repetition of this video of the soldier being propped up to catch the satellite signal with the verdict that embedding was a triumph. “Somewhere a journalism professor is telling a student never to get involved with the subject of a story. Here we have proof that this is wrong.”
Whither Journalistic Independence
What could be wrong with reporters doing such useful and compassionate duty? Nothing. The ethic of journalistic independence suddenly appeared obsolete, as if it had stemmed from life-threatening stupidity or inhuman selfishness. Journalists’ service to democracy is now defined as providing support for the troops rather than independently gathered information on their activities.
Oddly enough, for those of us concerned with the health of our democracy and its diminishing respect for a watchdog press, embedding might prove to have been a positive step. For decades, journalists have labored under the public perception that an aggressive watchdog press is inherently unpatriotic and disloyal. That perception has dissipated in some measure because embedded reporters reestablished the humanity and patriotism of those in the profession. Even if it emerges out of the bandwagon aspects of embedding, the possibility might have opened for increased public respect for the press’s more demanding functions, the ones that are not as obviously patriotic as saving lives.
My experience teaching a course in the history of war reporting suggests this possibility. Harvard undergraduates generally arrive with some version of the belief that the news media are overly aggressive, disrespectfully demanding, and utterly unpatriotic. When they look at documents such as the Society of Professional Journalists’ December 2002 “Statement of Principles” on access to military operations, many find the tone whiny. Reporters’ exasperation with decades of military secrecy seems unreasonable.
These students do not easily differentiate tabloid excesses from mainstream news practices; instead, they tend to roll it together in a ratings-frenzied and unbecoming free-for-all. Nor do they recognize the difference between a journalist’s personal criticism of, say, prospective war in Iraq, and reporting of such sentiment on the part of a prominent individual whose opinion is itself newsworthy, such as Brent Scowcroft. While intrigued by the mystique of war correspondence, these brightest of 18-year-olds find the concerns of actual military journalists tiresome and annoying.
What gives more of a luster to journalists’ defense of freedom of information, in their minds, is a bit surprising. It is not learning the difference between criticizing the government and bringing important criticism to public attention, although that makes them far better readers of news. Nor is it the study of press performance in past wars, from Ernie Pyle’s rhapsodies of the Normandy infantry, to Michael Herr’s hallucinogenic evocations of Khe Sanh, although first-rate war journalism from any era holds their rapt attention. Instead, a simple exercise in defining democracy dispels the notion of an overreaching press. Is democracy best served by Americans’ uncritical support of wars or by free-ranging debate that might end by earning support the hard way? There is an easy defense of democracy and a hard one, and when challenged no student ever prefers the easy one.
The students and I might end with respectful disagreements over the justice of particular wars, but we always agree that security should be defined strictly, to limit disclosure of information directly injurious to the troops, and hardly ever should be defined broadly, to include those broad strokes that fall under the heading of “protecting morale.” This generation of students has no romance with dissent. As a style and mode of discourse, they find it embarrassing. Yet they believe strongly in the institutions of democracy. They just need a bit of help to locate this belief among the many fashionable dismissals of the media.
Has embedding made it easier to understand the difficult demands of democracy? After the war in Iraq, do we have a better view of the crucial role the press plays in a robust democracy? Certainly not. The war remained popular and only fuelled intolerance of dissent. But to the extent that it dispels the perception of journalists as spoilers, it opens a small window to more tolerance for genuine democratic debate. Reporters begin again to look a bit like heroes. The question remaining is whether the former war correspondents will use that capital to meet the challenges of democracy, or to make TV movie deals.
Nancy Bernhard teaches “Reporting From the Front” in the Expository Writing Program at Harvard University. She is the author of “U.S. Television News and Cold War Propaganda, 1947-60” (Cambridge University Press, 1999).