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"Without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind."
—General William C. Westmoreland, U.S. military commander in Vietnam
It was bound to happen. People start sleeping together, and the next thing you know, they're talking commitment.
That was the basic theme underlying most of the embedded reporting during the invasion of Iraq. As reporters rode shotgun on tanks and Humvees and slept alongside soldiers in Iraq, what journalistic distance there ever was vanished into the sands of the desert.
Don't take it from me. Take it from Gordon Dillow of The Orange County Register, who wrote: "The biggest problem I faced as an embed with the Marine grunts was that I found myself doing what journalists are warned from J-school not to do: I found myself falling in love with my subject. I fell in love with 'my' Marines."
And CBS's Jim Axelrod, who was embedded with—I would say in bed with—the 3rd Infantry Division, echoed: "This will sound like I've drunk the Kool-Aid, but I found embedding to be an extremely positive experience.... We got great stories and they got very positive coverage."
From the Pentagon's point of view, this one-sided reporting worked like a charm. "Americans and people around the world are seeing firsthand the wonderful dedication and discipline of the coalition forces," declared Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke.
For Clarke, a former top executive with Hill & Knowlton, the world's largest public relations firm, nothing was left to chance. "We put the same planning and preparation into this [embed program] as military planners put into the war effort," she said.
The embed program for the invasion of Iraq was the culmination of years of effort and experimentation by the Pentagon to control the media during war. In World War II and Vietnam, many reporters were in the field alongside soldiers. But as the Southeast Asian quagmire deepened, the Pentagon became exasperated with journalists who reported the increasingly grim realities that they saw: dispirited troops, futile efforts by the United States to win the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese through carpet bombing, and even occasional dispatches about war crimes. It became an article of faith that "the media lost Vietnam"—as if the American public would otherwise have gladly accepted the staggering toll of 58,000 Americans killed, 300,000 wounded, and at least 2 million Vietnamese killed in a pointless war.
For the 1983 invasion of Grenada, the military tried a different approach. There would be no journalists at all. No photos of civilian casualties, no pictures of dead or wounded Americans, at least in the short term. Reporters who tried to reach the Caribbean island by boat were turned back at gunpoint.
When U.S. troops invaded Panama in 1989, the military promised greater access, but on terms of its choosing. During the initial bloody assault, hundreds of frustrated reporters were left to wait on planes in Costa Rica and Miami. Reporters were not allowed in during the first day or two, when 23 American soldiers died and 265 were wounded.
"About one hundred fifty reporters were held in Miami," said Democracy Now! cohost Juan Gonzalez, who was one of the reporters held hostage by the U.S. military. "After much protest, we were flown to Panama, where we were held at Howard Air Force Base. They wouldn't let us off the base. But after we protested, they agreed to send reporters at our own risk. At that point, El Chorillo had been destroyed." El Chorillo was the poor neighborhood in Panama City that the U.S. military bombed and burned to the ground, killing hundreds of Panamanians and leaving thousands homeless.
In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the Pentagon took media control to new levels. During the initial assault, a news blackout was declared. On one aircraft carrier, reporters were actually rounded up and detained in a special room at the start of the fighting. The Pentagon permitted only pool coverage, with a handful of reporters allowed onto the battlefield. Frontline dispatches were subject to censorship and delays. Reporters who defied Pentagon restrictions and ventured out on their own to report on the war were subject to arrest. Nearly 50 reporters were detained and some arrested for attempting to report on the war independently.
The media bargained politely with the Pentagon over media restrictions prior to the Persian Gulf War, but the big newspapers were more concerned with ensuring that their correspondents got the precious few coveted pool assignments to cover the war. It was left to a group of alternative news outlets to play hardball. On January 10, 1991, Pacifica Radio, The Nation, Harper's, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, and others sued the Pentagon, charging that the media restrictions were unconstitutional. None of the big television networks or the major dailies joined the suit or contributed friend-of-the-court briefs. Getting them even to cover it was futile. After the war, a judge ruled that restricting the press from the battlefield was subject to judicial review even in wartime, but with the war over, he threw out the lawsuit, calling it moot.
As the invasion of Iraq showed, it was hardly moot.
The large corporate media did complain loudly about their treatment in the 1991 war—after the war was over. By and large, they acquiesced to the heavy-handed Pentagon restrictions prior to the first shot being fired. During the Gulf War, the Pentagon managed not only to protect itself, but also its friend Saudi Arabia, telling media outlets they had to apply to the Saudi government for approval to cover U.S. troops there.
And a lot of good it did to go along to get along. As former New York Times executive editor Howell Raines said of the press after the war, "We lost. They managed us completely. If it were an athletic contest, the score would be 100 to 1."
A committee of representatives of some of the largest U.S. news organizations came to the same conclusion in a 1991 review of Gulf War coverage: "In the end, the combination of security review and the use of the pool system as a form of censorship made the Gulf War the most undercovered major conflict in modern American history. In a free society, there is simply no place for such overwhelming control by the government.... Television, print, and radio alike start with one sobering realization: There was virtually no coverage of the Gulf ground war until it was over."
The program of embedded reporting was the logical next step for the Pentagon. The idea was for the Pentagon to give the appearance of access during the invasion of Iraq, but to maintain total control. The wild card was the press. The Pentagon was counting on reporters to be awed and compliant. The generals were not disappointed.
Not surprisingly, most of the "in-beds" were simply a megaphone for the views of the military who were keeping them alive. The fawning reports became a grand display of the Stockholm syndrome, where hostages come to identify and sympathize with their captors. "These journalists do not have access to their own transportation," noted New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges. "They depend on the military for everything, from food to a place to sleep. They look to the soldiers around them for protection. When they feel the fear of hostile fire, they identify and seek to protect those who protect them. They become part of the team. It is a natural reaction. I have felt it."
The embeds were supposedly there to offer frontline coverage. But what can you cover from the turret of a tank? You can cover what it feels like to shoot people. Then you can get the gunner's response and the commander's spin. That is one narrow slice of the war experience.
What about the victims? Shouldn't reporters be embedded in Iraqi communities and hospitals? Shouldn't there be reporters embedded in the peace movement to give us an intimate understanding of what catalyzed the largest coordinated international protest in history, when 30 million people around the globe marched against war on February 15, 2003?
A few reporters were honest about what was going on—off-camera, overseas, in private, and talking and writing among colleagues. That's where journalists told the real story of how embedding worked.
Like Dan Rather. He understood the Pentagon program for what it was: spin control. In an unusually candid interview about the "war on terror" with the BBC, he said, "There has never been an American war, small or large, in which access has been so limited as this one. Limiting access, limiting information to cover the backsides of those who are in charge of the war, is extremely dangerous and cannot and should not be accepted." Unfortunately, he added, "it has been accepted by the American people. And the current administration revels in that, they relish that, and they take refuge in that."
Rather leaves out a key participant as he doles out blame here: the media themselves. Networks and newspapers didn't just go along passively with the Pentagon's rules of journalistic engagement. They actively helped to limit our perspective on what was happening in Iraq.
John Donvan, who worked the Iraq invasion as a unilateral—unembedded—reporter for ABC, told a classic story. "Our car was literally looted in Safwan the first day. The very first day, I reported that it was unstable in the place where just yesterday people were cheering. And our editors in New York were saying, 'Well, John, could you get us some of those pictures of people cheering?'"
Jonathan Foreman, an embed for the New York Post, also found himself being discouraged from telling the truth—even about the soldiers he was with. "On more than one occasion," he said, "I'd be writing stories about how exhausted and pissed off the troops were." But when the paper came out, "I'd find they were topped by a headline like, 'Troops Can't Wait to Get Their Hands on the Republican Guard.'"
Journalism was a respectable profession. Journalists are supposed to expand our understanding, taking risks to provide an independent view of the world. We trust reporters to speak truth to power, to ask the uncomfortable questions. In war, journalists should offer a nuanced mosaic, telling stories of everybody from the troops to civilians to victims to families back home. You form your opinions based on the full range of views that you hear. But you've got to hear from all sides, and that was what was so deeply compromised by what happened with the embedding of reporters during the invasion of Iraq.
This is excerpted from The Exception to the Rulers, by Amy Goodman with David Goodman. Copyright © 2004 by Amy Goodman and David Goodman and published by Hyperion. Excerpted with the permission of the publisher. You can buy Exception to the Rulers at Amazon.com.