The American public was inundated with the coverage of the Iraq conflict, but the pressures inherent in the relationship between the military and the 600-odd journalists who covered them, were little explored. We were trying to serve our readers, listeners, and audience without endangering the troops. We wanted to make friends without losing perspective and transmit information using sandstorm-befouled equipment as we bumped along together toward Baghdad.
Bill Katovsky, a former researcher at the Brookings Institution, and Timothy Carlson, a former staff writer for the Los Angles Herald Examiner, have written Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq. It is a work of oral history based on interviews with 61 people who were involved in covering the war, from photographers and military public-affairs officers, to drivers and fighting soldiers, even a peace activist. The introductions can be clunky, especially some failed attempts at humor, but they are short and only meant to provide context. The book may not automatically appeal to the average reader because journalists like to talk shop. But anyone interested in the profession or firsthand experience of the war would be well served by picking it up.
The book illuminates the differences between the demands of diverse types of news organizations. For newspaper reporters, the job meant a story once or twice a day. For television, it was about overcoming the enormous technical hurdles of near constant broadcasting. After returning to the States, I was particularly jealous of Evan Wright, embedded with a Marine recon team for Rolling Stone magazine, who had the luxury of waiting until he got back to write three long, fantastic articles about his experience. Not only did he have the time to construct a coherent and almost artistic narrative, but also he was writing for a publication willing to print the unexpurgated musings of the Marines. It is almost impossible to quote a Marine without colorful cuss words three or four times in each sentence, and without that cursing their iterations feel bowdlerized and false. Wright could include the homoerotic joking, their violent fantasies and even their discussions of bowel movements. None of this would have been suitable for The Wall Street Journal‘s readers over their morning coffee and cereal.
From a personal angle, it was nice to know that I was not the only fool who contracted a foot infection in the miniature swamps of my sealed, rubber chem-bio boots. And neither was I alone in having both serious nightmares before the war and none whatsoever during it, if only due to perpetual exhaustion.
The embed system gave rise to a series of complaints by journalism critics and journalists themselves. Reporters agreed not to disclose certain types of information like the location of military units or plans for future operations, and commanders could impose embargoes–blackout periods such as at the very start of the ground war. But such limits don’t seem unreasonable in time of war, and in my experience never seriously got in the way of my reporting what I thought was important. Moreover, the embed system must be judged in comparison with the likely alternatives. Take, for instance, the first Gulf War: In 1991, most of the information was pumped out of official stations of the Pentagon either in the Middle East or in Washington. To the extent that it wasn’t was much to the credit of independent reporters like the late Michael Kelly, who roved the war zone on his own in that conflict. (It is a sad irony that Kelly was killed in this recent conflict as an embedded journalist with the Army’s Third Infantry Division.)
Another major criticism of the embed coverage in practice was that it provided a scattershot view of the war, narrative slices so fine that they provided no context or bigger picture. But that critique overlooks the fact that most news organizations compiled their coverage of the war from a variety of sources: embeds and independent journalists filing reports from Baghdad, Kuwait, Jordan, and the Kurdish-controlled territories in Northern Iraq, as well as researchers, editors, and bureau chiefs working in domestic offices to compile articles or broadcasts. The Journal, for instance, wove together coverage from embeds, from the Pentagon’s briefing centers in Qatar and Washington and unilaterals converging from numerous directions. That was more than some papers, perhaps, but fewer than other major dailies and certainly as much as wire services like the AP and 24-hour news channels. Indeed, one of the book’s greatest shortcomings is that it focuses so much on the experiences of individual reporters as to lose sight of the fact that most of us were operating as parts of much larger teams. Even one interview with a bureau chief would have shed significant light on what it was like to try to make sense of irregular field reports without losing sight of other organizations’ reporting in the war’s 24-hour news cycle.
A third criticism of the embed system is that it led to a blurring of the border between reporter and soldier; that in practice, the reporters became too close to the troops to write critically or objectively. That accusation also cuts directly against my own experiences. Though the other reporters and I ate with the troops, slept next to them, and endured hostile fire alongside them, we were professionals, military personnel, and correspondents alike. I can’t count the number of times I apologized for an invasive question and heard, “You have to do your job,” back from a Marine. In reading CNN and Time medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s words about operating on a two-year-old child with severe head injuries, it is difficult to comprehend that he was criticized for trying to save a dying child because it somehow compromised his journalistic detachment. There were also those who derided the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Ron Martz for helping a medic treat two wounded soldiers and an Iraqi civilian. He told the editors of this book, “There is blood everywhere as Schafer falls back. His blood is not squirting in the air; it’s just flowing out of his head … I’m in the corner, kind of trapped by Schafer, who’s laying on top of me and my legs are caught up underneath some of the equipment.” One wonders what kind of person doesn’t help a gunshot victim lying on top of him or her, Iraqi or American or Senegalese, much less someone they’ve shared a ride and every meal with for a month. Wherever he or she is, I wouldn’t want that person working with me. Katovsky and Carlson tracked down Pfc. Don Schafer recuperating at home. “He kept telling me that I’d be okay, because I kept telling him how tired I was,” Schafer recalls. For those who call the media anti-military, it is worth noting just how much respect many of the journalists felt for the soldiers they covered.
In the end, the war was far too short to be a test of the embed program. Over another six months or six years, the quality of the journalism it produced would have been easier to judge.
When I contemplate the success or failure of the embed program, I think about those briefings in Qatar, at the Pentagon’s press office, not the numbing recitation from the podium, but those moments when a questioner, with a newspaper or television transcript clutched in one hand, refuted a bit of stilted Pentagonese by saying, “But an embed with the 3rd I.D.” or “an embed with the 1st Marine Division reported” And that’s why we were there.