Press Box

Embeds and Unilaterals

The press dun good in Iraq. But they could have dun better.

The “embed” program, in which the Pentagon attached some 600 print, radio, and TV reporters with coalition forces for the Iraq invasion, gave reporters unprecedented access to the battlefield, allowing them to file uncensored views of the action in real time. In return, embeds vowed not to reveal anything that would endanger “operational security”—troop strength, location, strategy, etc.

Compared to the media freeze-outs of the Afghanistan campaign, the Panama invasion, and the taking of Grenada, the embed program is a huge improvement. Never in the history of war have more reporters been able to cover the conflict from the front as it happened. And just because the military ended up liking the embed program—Gen. Tommy Franks told Fox News that he was “a fan”—doesn’t mean the program was bad.

Assessing the “embed war” in any complete way is beyond the scope of any single writer, even one who read voluminously while it raged and watched television into the wee a.m. But what can be ascertained in talking to individual reporters who covered the war as embeds and so-called “unilaterals” (unattached to any military unit) is—perhaps predictably—that the program was good but not perfect. Not every commander fully honored the terms of the Pentagon’s program. One reporter who covered the war estimates that only 50 to 70 of the 600 embeds saw any interesting combat during the conflict. Others found themselves embedded with units that saw little action or were never deployed.

One troubling side effect of the program was that it created a credentialing system among reporters: The embedded were considered official journalists, to whom the military would generally talk, and the unilaterals were often treated as pests with no right to the battlefield. In many instances, the military prevented unilaterals from covering the war, especially in the southern cities left in the invasion’s wake: Basra, Umm Qasr, Nasiriyah, and Safwan.

And while embedded TV journalists beamed back to the studio compelling footage of battlefield bang-bang, the networks failed to place the action in proper context. Exchanges of small-arms fire were inflated into major shootouts by television, and minor (though deadly) skirmishes became full-bore battles. Also, the journalistic tendency to put a human face on every story hyperbolized coalition setbacks, such as the ambush of Pfc. Jessica Lynch and her comrades.

Who’s to blame? How can journalists work to make future war coverage better? Several reporters and editors who shaped coverage of the Iraq war speak their minds.

When Peter Copeland covered Gulf War I’s ground war for Scripps Howard New Service, commanders made him privy to every aspect of the battle plan and allowed him to accompany troops into battle. But all this access was for naught. The technology was inadequate—there were no tiny, mobile satellite phones and no Internet.

“My technology was a battery-operated printer that I would try to have faxed. Or give guys to take back to the rear,” Copeland says.

“There were reporters out in the front who were getting good stories. But we depended on the military to distribute our stories, which was a mistake,” he says. “I didn’t know if my stories were getting back or not. After the ground war was over I called my office. ‘Where the hell have you been?’ ‘Iraq.’ ‘Why the hell didn’t you file?!’ “

Currently Scripps Howard’s editor and general manager, Copeland and other experienced war reporters and editors worked with the Pentagon to create a program that would allow reporters to tell the war’s story while it was happening.

Copeland applauds the embed program 1) for creating so many embedded slots that not all the offered slots were taken; 2) for educating the military on the fact that the press wouldn’t endanger the troops or the battle plan; and 3) because it would protect reporters: “I didn’t want my reporters driving around the battlefield during a high intensity conflict looking for stories, because they’ll get killed.”

But the embed program also taught Copeland that the press should do a better job of training people for the next conflict and reduce its dependency on the military.

Copeland resists reducing the discussion about Iraq war reporting to embeds versus unilaterals: “I am in favor of embedded reporters, but also reporters working on their own. You need to have both kinds and as many eyes as possible,” he says.

No single vantage point gave an adequate view of the war, but one of the best seats went to U.S. News & World Report reporter Mark Mazzetti. Mazzetti (see his November Slate “Diary” about “embed school“) covered the brass inside the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force’s mobile command, which packed up and moved twice during the Baghdad blitz.

“Before the war started, they briefed us on the whole battle plan for the Marines. We got to see where they scrapped the plan,” Mazzetti says. He heard everything from the calling of the first “audible” to invade, which resulted in the Marines securing the oil fields, to the end of the war. Mazzetti observed up close the planning of missions and the ever-changing positions of the blue (coalition) and red (Iraqi) icons on the laptops and monitors as the battles unfolded.

Although his viewpoint was limited, in some sense it was a clearer perspective than the TV networks were able to convey: From the mobile-command vantage point, the war was going exceedingly well—even during the weekend of March 29, when Army generals, TV generals, and the press worried that a quagmire had swallowed U.S. forces. The Marines told the journos they were smashing Iraqi forces and gaining excellent yardage on Baghdad—which conflicted with the TV images of selected units broadcast that weekend.

Cloistered inside the Marine tent, Mazzetti had trouble determining whether the Marines were spinning him and his three fellow embeds or whether the war really was going well.

“There were times during that bad week when the four of us were thinking that we were drinking the Kool-Aid and not getting the whole picture,” Mazzetti says.

The Marines’ optimistic message clashed with what U.S. News was hearing stateside. Ultimately, Mazzetti conveyed the Marines’ message to his editors, who used it as one of many data points in shaping the story.

“We were able to present a picture to our editors: ‘Hey, don’t fall off a ledge,’ ” says Mazzetti.

It takes a lifetime of study to discern a defeat from a setback or to see a campaign’s complete context. The military calls this skill “situational awareness,” and many of the people who think they have it don’t. The press corps’ poor performance in reading the Iraq battlefield indicates that you can be embedded all the way up to the four-star generals and still not understand the meaning behind the action. Press organizations might want to think about teaching the TV generals more about journalism or, better still, schooling their correspondents and anchors in remedial situational awareness programs.

The embed program proved to be only as good as the commanders overseeing it. Embeds on the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln had to mutiny against the military to report the war. When they boarded the ship, Rear Adm. John M. Kelly forced them to agree to ground rules that were more restrictive than the Pentagon-imposed rules. The Washington Post’s Lyndsey Layton, who covered the Navy’s air war from the carrier, says the rear admiral assigned a Navy “minder” to sit in on every interview and note every question asked and every reply made. He banned reporters from the general mess deck, essentially preventing them from interacting with sailors. After five days of this treatment, Layton and her colleagues took their complaint to Navy brass in Bahrain. Only then were the ad hoc restrictions on reporters’ movements lifted; eventually the escorts, who had previously shadowed the reporters’ every step, vanished.

“I wasn’t breaking any news on that ship,” Layton says. “I was there in case a plane went down.” But when a carrier-based Navy F/A-18 Hornet was lost over Iraq, Centcom released the information to the press swarm in Qatar, not via the carrier group.

Aside from Rear Adm. Kelly’s overreaching—”He didn’t want us there”—Layton thinks the embed program works but only as long as the senior people sign on. She does reflect, however, on the limitations of covering a war from the claustrophobic confines of a carrier. All of her dispatches were sent through the Navy’s e-mail system, making them easy to hack if the Navy wanted to.

“When you’re on the ground, you can always find your way to other sources,” Layton says. “But on a ship, you can’t place a phone call or send an e-mail to a source.”

Washington Post military affairs reporter Thomas E. Ricks gives “two thumbs up” to the embed program. Working in Washington, Ricks fielded a flood of information each day—anywhere from 60 to 70 pages of memos and dispatches from the front—that he and his fellow Posties melded into a daily overview of the campaign.

Ricks, who covered the Somalia intervention as an embed, says the program will have a lasting effect on the reporting of military affairs.

“Out of the 500 embeds, a goodly portion will continue to cover the military. There are a lot of Ernie Pyles out there who will know fielded military operations. I think too many reporters focus on the Pentagon. And calling yourself a military reporter and covering the Pentagon is like going to Yankee Stadium to report on baseball and covering George Steinbrenner,” Ricks says. To adequately report war, Ricks insists, you must have witnessed it firsthand.

Some independent-minded journalists chaffed at embed restrictions, which required embeds to stay with assigned units. Or they feared, quite rationally, that their natural affinity for the troops who were protecting their lives might impede their objectivity. For these and other reasons, some journalists covered the war unilaterally by choice.

Many of them complain about the second-class role they were relegated to. They speak of broken promises made by the military to helicopter them into southern Iraq—perhaps broken because the desired visual of Iraqis celebrating the liberation of Basra never materialized. Instead of helicopters, buses ferried unilats to conventional photo ops of the rescued oil fields or of relief ships docking in Umm Qasr. It’s rumored that some unilats, frustrated by the lack of access, ignored the Geneva Conventions by dressing their vehicles in Red Cross disguise to sneak across the Kuwait-Iraq border after the invasion.

As far as the “coalition military press machine” was concerned, writes Jamie Wilson in the Guardian, unilaterals were one level lower than Republican Guardsmen.

Richard Leiby of the Washington Post’s “Style” section went to war as a unilateral with just one order from his editor, Gene Robinson: Don’t get killed.

Leiby argues that while the war “at the tip of the spear” got extraordinary coverage, the conflict left in its wake, in the rear, was grossly under-covered. What was the collateral damage wrought by the war? While Leiby played it safe, he says his Post colleagues, David Finkel, Keith Richburg, Susan Glasser, and Lucian Perkins risked their lives to report the war in the south without the benefit of the military guardians most embeds were assigned. Just getting inside Iraq from the press tent in Kuwait took journalistic ingenuity, he says. You’d have to beg your way onto a convoy or attempt to join one at a berm crossing or even bootleg your way into Iraq by finding a gap in the border and sprinting in.

Los Angeles Times unilateral Sam Howe Verhovek dittos Leiby.

“If this had been a war that had only been covered by embedded reporters, as great a job as they’ve done, they would have only gotten a part of the story,” says Verhovek, who documented the sufferings of Iraqi villagers in the south with fellow Timesman Mark Magnier.

“There’s an inherent conflict built into embedding. From the military’s point of view, when you embed somebody in your unit, they become family,” says Verhovek. “For the reporter, that’s very tricky. You want to keep objective distance from your source.”

The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Goldberg declined an embed slot for the freedom of a unilateral approach because he wasn’t sure the unit the military offered him would see combat. (It didn’t.)

“The risk of embedding is that you won’t be able to see anything,” says Goldberg. He estimates that 50 to 70 reporters had “really interesting experiences.”

“The real danger is not being killed but being seriously out of position,” says Goldberg.

Reporting the war in the north, Goldberg’s experience was a mixed bag. Some GIs wouldn’t talk to him because he was a unilateral but would speak to the embed standing nearby. Gradually he gained access to U.S. forces at the front and the hospitality of the U.S. Air Force on the way out. Goldberg cracked a few ribs when the Kurdish guerrilla driving the SUV he was riding in swerved to avoid mortar rounds and rolled onto its side. When the war looked all but won, he asked for a ride out on an Air Force C-130 departing from a northern airstrip.

“I assumed I wouldn’t get it because I was a unilateral,” says Goldberg, who thought of himself as an outsider. “This captain said, ‘No problem, we’re all on the same team.’ ”

Still, what sticks in Goldberg’s craw about the embed program is the way it turns one group of reporters into “official reporters” and another group into “the unapproved,” not unlike the official credentialing that reporters in nearly every Middle East country must endure.

“Somebody should be able to stand outside and find fault other than the people inside,” Goldberg says.

But who? And how?

Scripps Howard’s Copeland holds the press, not the Pentagon, accountable for the journalistic shortcomings in Iraq.

“You don’t want to get the Army in the position of acting as assignment editor,” Copeland says, shuttling embeds and others around to battlefield hot spots. “That was one of the problems in the first Gulf War, they’d decide where we wanted to go.”

“Critics who don’t like the coverage should put some of the burden on the media and stop trying to blame everything on ‘censorship.’  I don’t think we should expect the Pentagon to do our jobs for us. It’s our responsibility—not the military’s—to figure out how to cover the story,” Copeland writes in e-mail.

A more diligent press would have covered the Iraq war by hiring experienced, Arabic-speaking reporters and translators in greater numbers and assigning more experienced war reporters to follow behind advancing U.S. forces as unilats.

“I’d be willing to talk with other news organizations about sending in our own team of people together but independent of U.S. forces,” says Copeland.

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E-mail me at  pressbox@hotmail.com.