Press Box

Full Metal Junket

The myth of the objective war correspondent.

The first-person pieces ( New York Times, Boston Globe, CBC, MTV, Slate, et al.) by reporters who’ve completed “media boot camps” in preparation for covering the Iraq attack should prime us for the sight of gut-wagons wheeling back from the front piled high with journos. In piece after piece, combat-inept reporters undergo multiple simulated deaths as their trainers attack them with mock mustard gas, grenades, and bullets.

“You just ran into a mine field!” a soldier/instructor hollers at a network correspondent in the San Francisco Chronicle’s account. “You’re dead!”

The Pentagon is “embedding” more than 500 journalists—including an Al Jazeera crew—in U.S. units in hopes of countering Iraqi wartime disinformation. A week of boot camp is supposed to make these journalists “field-safe”—that is, prevent them from doing something stupid that will get them, and the soldiers they’re covering, killed.

Skeptics surmise that the boot camps are designed to break reporters psychologically before the first cruise missile is fired. By demonstrating to journalists that they’re physically unfit for the rigors of the battlefield (most are) and that war can kill them in a thousand ways they’d never expect (it can), the military will reduce cynical reporters to pacified puppies. Once in the war theater, the thinking goes, even a seasoned reporter will hug his favorite lance corporal’s ankle for protection and file patriotic fluff.

Such military conspiracy isn’t necessary: You’d be hard-pressed to find any neutral, objective reporters in a foxhole—especially when a cloud of hot metal is streaming in. Historically, journalists have automatically empathized with whatever troops brung ‘em to the front, making indoctrination redundant. Iraq will be no different.

It’s heretical, of course, to suggest that war correspondents don’t practice the objective brand of journalism brought to bear on politics, business, culture, religion, science, and other beats. After all, journalists don’t follow the cult of objectivity grudgingly; they embrace it like a monk embraces silence: “Don’t take sides“; “remain neutral“; “be open-minded“; “check your bias“; “you’re not the story; you’re just reporting it. Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., the high priest of journalistic objectivity, hasn’t voted since becoming the paper’s managing editor in 1984 because he doesn’t want to make up his mind, “even in the voting booth, about candidates or issues.”

But war reporting is clearly the great exception from the cult of objectivity—if only because a reporter who disengaged himself emotionally from a skirmish’s outcome would be inviting death.

“It’s hard for reporters to turn loose of a paradigm that is so thoroughly drummed into them,” says the Miami Herald’s Glenn Garvin, who covered the troubles in Central America for more than a dozen years, often hiking the high country with the Contras. “But it’s inconceivable to me that anybody who goes out into a combat situation is not sympathetic with the guys they’re traveling with.”

“The closer you get to war, the less practical it is to write a balanced story. While traveling with a Marine patrol, you can’t get comments from Iraqi troops,” Garvin says. “It’s not journalism at its finest.”

The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Goldberg recalls the “overwhelming warmth and solidarity” he felt for Azerbaijani troops when they—and he—were attacked by Armenian soldiers. “It’s more than male bonding. They’re literally in charge of keeping you alive,” he says. That the Azerbaijanis weren’t the “good guys” in the war didn’t matter to Goldberg at the time.

“Somebody gets you out of a mess, you’re very grateful,” he says. “Ask anyone who has been shot at.”

Goldberg predicts ugly trouble for the many newspapers that are sending green reporters to Iraq instead of experienced war correspondents. “These are people who have never seen people shot or the immediate aftermath of a big explosion,” says Goldberg. “They don’t understand the emotions they’re going to feel, especially when their guys get blown apart.”

Never minding, for a moment, the overwhelming subjective emotion generated when you wipe a buddy’s guts off your laptop for the first time, the snapshots the Pentagon is letting embedded journalists send from the war’s bleeding edge will be anything but objective. The Pentagon ground rules bar reporters from filing reports of live, continuous action without the presiding commanding officer’s permission. Stories about future or canceled missions are also banned, and journalists can use only general terms when reporting about the time and place of any military action, etc.

The Iraq engagement rules aren’t anything new. Joe Galloway, who famously covered the war in Vietnam for UPI and wrote We Were Soldiers Once … and Young, compares them favorably with those imposed on war correspondents four decades ago in Indochina. (One  key difference: Vietnam correspondents went wherever they could hitch a ride; in Iraq, journalists will be anchored to specific units and prohibited from jumping from one to another.)

So, at the unit level, the embedded journos might tell us who’s gaining territory, who’s retreating, who’s on fire. Hazy truths, at best. And nothing approaching a complete account of any battle will be feasible until long after war’s end, when reporters interview soldiers from both sides. Citing security reasons, the Pentagon will control the big picture as rigorously as it ever has.

Why should we expect it to be any other way? No government has ever endorsed the notion that the press should have unfettered access to the battlefield. Even the pretense that war correspondents should be objective is a recent development. Until the early 20th century, war writers routinely wore the uniforms of the army they covered and carried arms against “the enemy.” Their dispatches openly (and honestly) rooted for the home team. While covering the Spanish-American War as a journalist, Stephen Crane aggressively maneuvered his way ahead of U.S. troops so that he could accept a Puerto Rican village’s surrender on behalf of the soldiers, Phillip Knightley writes in his history of war reporting, The First Casualty.

Unarmed journalists didn’t acquire “protected class” status until after World War II, when the Geneva Convention finally proscribed soldiers from targeting or detaining them. (They join noncombatant women, the elderly, and children in that category.) Prior to the convention rewrite, armies killed civilian reporters or held them as POWs all the time, rarely facing a sanction after the war.

During World War II, the American press happily submitted to a voluntary censorship of domestic stories. Editors regularly excised anything that could harm the war effort or U.S. morale, including grisly combat dispatches or photos. According to Michael S. Sweeney’s book Secrets of Victory, no print journalist deliberately broke the censorship code, and only one radio broadcaster, KFUN in Las Vegas, N.M., ever rumbled with the government censors.

If war makes objectivity impossible, why do we pay so much lip service to it? Perhaps because journalists think the myth of objectivity will help keep them safe—even when they’ve declared sides.

Take the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, for example. After allied troops toppled Mullah Omar’s regime, Wall Street Journal reporter Alan Cullison purchased a used laptop and hard drive in Kabul on which he found al-Qaida correspondence and terrorist plans. Included in the 1,750 files recovered was information on the movements of an al-Qaida operative whose itinerary paralleled that of Richard C. Reid, the now-convicted shoe bomber of American Airlines Flight 63—information that would help the military or CIA further its anti-terrorist initiative. On Dec. 31, 2001, his paper published the first of its stories based on its computer finding. Prior to publication, it shared the information on the computer and hard drive with the U.S. military.

“We decided that this was the right thing to do in moral terms and reporting terms,” Journal Managing Editor Paul E. Steiger told the New York Times on Jan. 21, 2002. “In moral terms, we would have been devastated if we had withheld information that could have saved the lives of our servicemen [emphasis added] or of civilians. In reporting terms, we wanted to verify what we had.”

On Jan. 23, 2002, kidnappers nabbed Pearl, who was investigating the connection between Pakistani militants and Reid—information first gained from the computer. The kidnappers didn’t regard Pearl as neutral, objective, or a noncombatant. In a ransom note, they claimed that Pearl was a CIA agent. The claim was outrageous, but it wasn’t absolutely absurd. As recently as the years of the Carter administration, the CIA recruited American reporters to do work for the agency. And not just once, but three times.

This isn’t to criticize Steiger for sharing the Journal’s raw findings with the military. Had I been in his shoes, I would have done the same thing. But I wouldn’t expect to have it both ways: aggressively assist the U.S. government in the prosecution of the war and declare my staff above the fray.

I revisit the wicked slaughter of Daniel Pearl only to remind reporters, editors, and readers that war is stingier about recognizing noncombatants than they realize, and journalistic objectivity—in theory or in practice—won’t necessarily provide them safe passage out. Say what you will about the brutes who killed Pearl; they’ve got a clearer vision of which side the American press is on than do most pressmen. In a follow-up ransom note, they e-mailed:

We warn all amreekan journlists waorking in pakistan that there are many in their ranks syping on pakstan under the journlist cover. therefore we give all amreekan journlists 3 days to get out of pakstan. anyone remaining after that will be targetted.

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