Press Box

The PR War

The general who devised the “embedded” program deserves a fourth star.

The Pentagon officer who conceived and advanced the embedded journalist program should step forward and demand a fourth star for his epaulets. By prepping reporters in boot camps and then throwing them in harm’s way with the invading force, the U.S. military has generated a bounty of positive coverage of the Iraq invasion, one that decades of spinning, bobbing, and weaving at rear-echelon briefings could never achieve.

The coverage, so far, has depicted U.S. soldiers as brave, enthusiastic, and conscientious warriors who, as they bomb and shoot their way to Baghdad, uphold the highest professional standards of the art of war. These dispatches are believable, even though the video cameras and reporters’ notebooks glean only slivers from the front line.

The wide range of U.S. and international “embeds,” as the journalists themselves are now called, brings substantial credibility to the war as independent truth-tellers. It’s easy for armchair journalists and stateside press critics to ridicule the likes of NBC’s David Bloom as he joyously cruises across the Iraq desert seated on the fore of an armored vehicle like he’s John Wayne lassoing rhinos from the front fender of a truck in Howard Hawks’ Hatari! But Bloom and others are strictly following the rules of access set down by the Pentagon—don’t endanger the operation security of the troops—while still reporting truthfully.

Because the war on Iraq is still young, the embed reports from the front are mostly variations on the themes, “Hey, I’m still alive!” and, “Hey, those Iraqis are extremely dead!” which must warm the hearts of the chain of command. The honest shock and awe expressed by the embeds’ reports translate into victories for the U.S. military in their concerted propaganda campaign against Iraq, its allies, and its sympathizers. The real-time reporting by the embeds of American military might—as well as of American military restraint—fortifies the United States government’s desired image as a just yet vengeful power.

The downside of the embed program, as everyone keeps saying, is that the battlefield reporters are viewing the war through soda straws—the soda straws of their specific, narrow battlefield locations and the soda straws of their self-preservation. All of the embeds have a strong stake in the outcome of any hostile action they might encounter, hence their understandably enthusiastic embrace of the plural pronouns “we,” “our,” and “us” to describe the progress of the units to which they’re attached. You’d probably use the same words if you were dune-buggying your way to Baghdad.

The embeds also create a mise-en-scènethat the liaisoning reporters, trapped in the minimum-security prison of the Qatar briefing complex, can’t easily puncture with their questions. (Have you ever seen anything sadder than that frisky ferret, George Stephanopoulos, attempting to grill the combat-ready Centcom guys?) The embeds depict a tough and ugly war, but one that looks on all fronts like a success.

The live, on-air TV reporters aren’t uplinking an early history of the Iraq War as much as they’re uplinking their rough notes for immediate, unedited consumption. The true test of the embed program will come when—and if—those video notes reveal something the Pentagon would rather you not see: an advancing Marine unit greased by an artillery shell; a bloody friendly-fire incident; or, knock on wood, a Geneva Convention violation by U.S. troops. All these examples are possible, and some are likely. The propaganda tide could shift and cause the Pentagon to rue the day they heard the word “embed.”

But until that happens, that Pentagon officer should get his star. And if it never happens, he might want to put in for a Pulitzer, too.


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