Although many officials and reporters were skeptical at first, the embedded reporting system used in the Iraq war turned out to be a hit with the military and journalists alike. In most post-war analyses, the Pentagon’s media plan got high marks from everyone.
As National Public Radio’s Tom Gjelten put it, “We were offered an irresistible opportunity: free transportation to the front line of the war, dramatic pictures, dramatic sounds, great quotes. Who can pass that up?”
Indeed, few U.S. journalistic outlets were willing to pass it up. The media, especially television, got the up-close-and-personal images that made for such gripping coverage. With few exceptions, the military got the kinds of images they were after: a professional fighting force equipped with high-tech weapons engaged in a “clean” war to liberate a grateful people. That’s why Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said without hesitation as the war was winding down that the embedded system worked “very well.”
On both sides there was also talk of another benefit, “a positive impact on one area: military-media relations,” as one reporter put it. “While there should always be some distance between reporters and the subjects they cover, the gap between the media and the military has in recent years become a chasm.”
Army Maj. Gen. Buford C. Blount III of the 3rd Infantry Division echoed that assessment: “A level of trust developed between the soldier and the media that offered nearly unlimited access.”
Sadly, these assessments ignore the U.S. commercial news media’s profound failure in covering the buildup to the war and the invasion of Iraq — the failure to adequately challenge the Bush administration’s claims and report critically on the politics behind the war. For that kind of crucial reporting, journalists shouldn’t trust military officials or the civilian leadership that sends them into battle.
Consider an analogy: There is a chasm between journalists and members of the Mafia. There is much mistrust; reporters don’t trust organized-crime figures, and the Mafia dons don’t trust journalists. So, to remedy the situation, reporters agree to be embedded with groups of Mafia foot soldiers. They travel, eat, and sleep with the muscle men of the crime families, getting to know them in a more personal way. The journalists go out on Mafia hits, producing vivid descriptions and dramatic photos of the murders (although, in the interests of good taste, images of casualties that are too gruesome would be avoided). As both sides get to know each other, mistrust evaporates. The chasm closes.
No journalist would see this as beneficial for a simple reason: Mafia hit squads engage in criminal behavior; organized crime is a fundamentally illegitimate enterprise. Most journalists don’t have much empathy for organized crime figures, but that doesn’t matter. The job of the journalists is to report not only on the life of the mob’s foot soldiers, which is a legitimate news story, but on the nature of the entire enterprise. Mob leaders will no doubt explain that they are misunderstood businessmen providing services people want. But reporters would not accept that on faith, just because mob leaders said it.
I’m not equating the mob and the U.S. military, but the analogy is instructive.
The most important questions about the war were about the fundamental nature of the conflict. Was the Bush administration really pursuing a war to protect Americans from the “threat” posed by the regime of Saddam Hussein? Or were concerns about weapons of mass destruction and terrorist ties (none of which have ever been substantiated) a cover for a war about oil and empire? Administration officials always denied such claims. But should reporters accept that on faith, just because administration officials said it?
Embedded reporters produced some good reporting from the front lines, but the answers to those fundamental questions were not at the front lines. The U.S. media did a good job of describing the lives of the military personnel and narrating the advance of U.S. troops, and a lousy job of covering the politics of the war. Readers and listeners all over the world were exposed to a vigorous discussion of the motivations behind the war, but Americans -especially those who got their news from television — were largely deprived of that reporting and analysis.
This critique doesn’t minimize the risks taken by embedded reporters or the troops they cover. But we must ask fundamental questions about the reasons civilian leaders wanted a war and critique the way in which an independent news media system was so easily co-opted as a virtual propaganda arm of the U.S. government to promote that war.
Toward those ends, a little more mistrust by journalists of politicians and generals would go a long way toward making sure that failure isn’t repeated.
Robert Jensen is a founding member of the Nowar Collective (www.nowarcollective.com), a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2001). He can be reached at [email protected]