Are Embedded Journalists In Iraq Being Short-sheeted?
March 22, 2003 12:46 PM   Subscribe

Embedded? Or In Bed With The Military Spin Doctors? Quite apart from the significant sexual and conspiratorial overtones of the word and concept themselves (when applied to people), there's something more than a little disquieting about the participant observation aspect of the large-scale practice of embedded reporting in the current invasion of Iraq - as opposed to the journalistic tradition of direct observation. Altogether too gung-ho - and inevitably so - I'd say. Me no like. And don't really trust myself to be able to epistemologically introduce, in my understanding of what I see, the (already minimal) distance that I'd previously taken for granted in standard reportage. What can be done to offset this bias? [Here is a very recent, detailed Department of Defense guide to what a media embed consists of [pdf format] and the release journalists must sign in order to be embedded.]
posted by MiguelCardoso (23 comments total)
I suggest you take it for what it's worth, cuz given what I am seeing, that is all you can get from such an attack.

All unofficial communications channels have been cut. Those guys are putting a missile down every radio transmission that has not been officially pre-cleared.
posted by mischief at 1:03 PM on March 22, 2003

Here, incidentally, is a list of the other buzz-words that have arisen during this war - it's from Reuters who has, in my opinion, offered the best coverage so far.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 1:13 PM on March 22, 2003

When I hear 'embedded' I always get the image of the cute blonde reporter chick getting banged on the desk by the army guy in the movie "Three Kings". Just thought I'd share.
posted by Space Coyote at 1:16 PM on March 22, 2003

From your Reuters "buzz-words" link:

"In longhand, MOPP stands for Mission Oriented Protection Structure, with MOPP4 the highest level of alert."


posted by mr_crash_davis at 1:18 PM on March 22, 2003

"to be able to epistemologically introduce" - now that is the Mother of All Split Infinitives...
posted by Bletch at 1:18 PM on March 22, 2003

Current Pentagon policies on the press come from the mother of all myths, the Vietnam War. It's a commonly held belief that the war was lost in the living rooms of America but in fact the press was a voluntary lapdog then as now. Until we started losing...

The Myth of the Media's Role in Vietnam

...Myths and empty cliches flourish if unexamined. Professor Daniel Hallin of the University of California at San Diego conducted perhaps the most thorough study of U.S. media coverage of Vietnam in light of the standard rhetoric that Vietnam had been the "living room war" -- an "uncensored war" showing its "true horror."

What Hallin found was a war, especially on TV, that was largely sanitized, as a result of media coziness with government and military sources and network TV policies against airing footage that might offend soldiers' families. Pictures of U.S. casualties were rare, Vietnamese civilian victims almost nonexistent.

It wasn't the mainstream media that turned the public against the war. Quite the contrary: it was the public -- especially the ever-growing anti-war movement fortified by Vietnam veterans who spoke out against the war -- that prodded mainstream media toward more skeptical coverage.

In February 1968, the Boston Globe surveyed the editorial positions of 39 leading U.S. dailies with a combined circulation of 22 million and found that not one advocated withdrawal from Vietnam. But that was the position of millions of Americans who'd educated themselves about the war -- not through the nightly news or Time magazine -- but via alternative media or attending protests or talking to returning vets. Campus teach-ins on Vietnam began in 1965.

Living Room Wars: Vietnam vs. ‘Desert Storm’

Western media plays follow the (government) leader
posted by y2karl at 1:33 PM on March 22, 2003

Whoa, we're off and running with the Mother of's today!
posted by y2karl at 1:34 PM on March 22, 2003

It's Mother's Day soon isn't it? I propose that next Mother's Day be the Mother of All Mother's Days.
posted by chrid at 1:51 PM on March 22, 2003

Not much more than embedded propaganda
posted by onegoodmove at 1:51 PM on March 22, 2003

You're right mr_crash_davis; MOPP should actually be "Mother Of all Protection Ptructures.
posted by taz at 1:59 PM on March 22, 2003

The "embeds" which so far have provided the terrible quality web-cam like video from aircraft carriers at night or the tanks cruising across the desert have been interesting.

But one does wonder what will happen to the program if someone is broadcasting live and gets killed. I'd imagine that would be the end of the program.
posted by birdherder at 2:05 PM on March 22, 2003

The embedding process may backfire to some extent, judging from the apparent frustration of the rolling news channels in the UK with the coverage they're getting back from their embedded correspondents. It's all rather piecemeal digital steadycam and closely-cropped sanitised footage which doesn't satisfy the hunger for More! Explosions! More! Shooting! Now!

It's been a good war for radio.

And it's with a heavy heart that I hear from the first editions of tomorrow's papers that Terry Lloyd and his ITN team, un-embedded and missing since this morning, may have been killed by 'friendly fire' outside Basra. Lloyd was no tyro: he was the network's man on the scene at Halabja. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for him.
posted by riviera at 2:22 PM on March 22, 2003

Crash: Reuters mipslepped Mission Oriented Protective Posture. {See also from Gulf War Syndrome site}.

riviera, I pray for your colleagues' safety, but it doesn't sound good. The Iraqis they encountered clearly hadn't read, or were ignoring, the clear surrender instructions distributed by coalition forces, which put them in terrible danger of being mistaken for hostiles, or just caught in crossfire.

I'll note regarding this and birdherder's post that being embedded doesn't guarantee safety, either: in the early hours (4am CST) CNN was running with live footage from Martin Savidge as some US Marines were demolishing abandoned T-72s and other Iraqi military equipment; during the process the Marines came under RPG fire from the adjacent walled village, and the entire contingent withdrew for safety. Very live, very scary, and you grew more concerned with every video dropout.

Still, the military can't win. If they keep the press away, as in Afghanistan, they're accused of covering up atrocities. If they let them in, with minimal controls centered around safety, they're accused of co-opting the reporters. If the reporters go off on their own, the risk of death or injury from either side, even completely accidental, rises substantially. Journalists end up trading off independence for safety, probably on a reverse bell curve. Even the most objective embedded journalist will be sympathetic to the soldiers he bivouacks with, and relies on for warnings of danger and even for protection from it. But leaving those golden handcuffs behind carries enormous risk.
posted by dhartung at 3:09 PM on March 22, 2003

it wasn't always like this (self-link via the second time today!) :)
posted by poopy at 4:04 PM on March 22, 2003

Quite apart from the significant sexual and conspiratorial overtones of the word and concept themselves (when applied to people),...

Sexual? You need to get out more. Seriously.

The word is pure buzz; I saw a caption on the news about some reported embedded with some cavalry, and I though, wouldn't it make more sense to say he was traveling with them, or just with them.

"Embedded" makes me think of chips or something buried in one's head, like something out of Neuromancer.
posted by Ayn Marx at 4:41 PM on March 22, 2003

You offering to help him out Ayn?

In any case I think the idea is new because of the technology. For the first time they can have 2-man crews beaming direct live feeds back to the USA. This presents amazing opportunities to be with the troops real-time reporting.

If anything it is unprecedented access during a major offensive campaign. In the past it was only Army reporters allowed. Once the combat stalls or moves to a new stage the reporters will operate more freely like they usually do.
posted by stbalbach at 5:35 PM on March 22, 2003

But leaving those golden handcuffs behind carries enormous risk.

And enormous rewards. Exhibit A:Chris Hedges.

By working outside the pool, we could speak with soldiers without the presence of an escort. This did not always mean that we wrote stories that criticized the military, although people were more likely to speak openly if they thought their conversations were not being monitored.

The fine stories on the Egyptian forces filed by Forrest Sawyer of ABC News and Tony Horwitz of The Wall Street Journal, for example, could only have been done by going outside the system. Managed information always has an unreal, stale quality. And while none of us broke scandals or uncovered gross abuses, we were able to present an uncensored picture of life at the front.

...The ground war was now only days away, and the military police were frequently stopping cars along the road that ran east to west along the Kuwaiti and Iraqi border. By this time, I had my hair cut to military regulations, my jeep marked with the inverted "V" that was on all military vehicles, and a large orange cloth tied to the roof to identify it as part of the allied force. I carried canteens and even a knife, the gift of some marines. I was waved through check points.

By the time the attack was launched, the JIB had issued new regulations: no reporters were allowed to wear military dress, to use cellular phones to file stories, or to mark their vehicles. The new rules came a little late.

He traveled with the troops and got stories--not controlled, scripted, censored propaganda. Free press, baby, free press. It comes with risks in war reporting but, ah, we get to hear it unfiltered without the spin. Truth and Dare.
posted by y2karl at 5:36 PM on March 22, 2003

So let me see...if the press were kept behind the lines, the liberals would be complaining that the mililtary would be keeping the true story from getting out. And now the embedded journalists are in the thick of it, risking their own lives, and they are lapdogs of the military? Geez, maybe we should just recognize that the American armed forces are not as awful as you lefties think they are.
posted by Durwood at 5:47 PM on March 22, 2003

Yes, this one ranks very high on the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't scale. Afghanistan was one long media gripe about not being close enough to the battle. Now they get to ride on the damn tanks, and people complain that it's "too cozy."

Anyway, this isn't an issue of free press -- the military is offering this as a service, and the press organizations were free to agree on the military's terms, or refuse. And they always have the option of doing actual reportage -- finding another way to get the "real" story like news people have done in combat for hundreds of years. That's your free press. Of course, you run a much greater risk of being killed that way, which tends to put a damper on your day.
posted by pardonyou? at 5:59 PM on March 22, 2003

Just FYI ...

Australian cameraman killed in car bomb attack

Freelance cameraman Paul Moran, 39, and ABC correspondent Eric Campbell had gone to the northern town of Sayed Sadiq where there had been some fighting between Kurds and Iraqi militants...
posted by bright cold day at 7:13 PM on March 22, 2003

Pardonyou? : considering that you don't have room for reporters in a serious battletank (M1A1) you'll send the guys on Bradleys, Humvees and M113s which are highly unsafe because the protection they offer is minimal and they're the most likely targets: no self-respecting soldier without a serious antitank weapon would target an M1A1, they'd rather attack the less protected ones.

You may as well follow the tank parade with some 4x4 lightly armored veihicle with a BIG "Press" logo over it. It
would be a logistical (fuel) nightmare but MUCH more safe because 1) you have tanks clearing your way 2) you could always run away like hell and put at least 2-3 Kilometers between you and the serious gunning action, while the Bradley is going to stay and fight, only the Humvee would probably run away.

So the reportes are taking quite a risk when going with the army in their lightly armored vehicles. The only vehicle which is likely to survive almost anything is the M1A1.

And regarding free press: check the BBC guy doing all the reports LIVE from within Baghdad, he's taking tons of risks and of course all the scoops, he's a real war reporter.
posted by elpapacito at 7:22 PM on March 22, 2003

karl, keeping this on a high plane here, I pointed out risks. I did not suggest that reporters shouldn't take them. I hope you weren't implying otherwise, but you've been pretty cranky lately, so I don't know.

Strictly speaking, the Gulf War pool program is not directly comparable to the embed program; in fact, what Hedges did is much more comparable to the latter. I haven't been able to watch all the war reporting, but I've seen quite a bit of MSNBC, ABC, and CNN, and I wouldn't describe their reporting as controlled, scripted, censored propaganda. Mostly the soldiers seem to be leaving them alone, and I haven't seen a single instance of soldiers telling a reporter to stop filming or speaking. I have seen cameramen restricted in the directions they can point, lest they reveal a position. There are reports that as many as 10% of the reporters who originally signed up for the embed program are now out of it, but it's not clear how many couldn't handle the limited restrictions and how many may have been ejected by the Pentagon for violations, let alone what those violations were. (The media employee acknowledges that failure to follow any direction, order, regulation, or ground rule may result in the termination of the media employee's participation in the embedding process. -- emphasis added) Under ground rule 3.Q., the standard for release of information shall be "why not release" vice "why release", in other words, a commander must give a good reason to bar a reporter from releasing certain information; and under 3.R., there is no general review process for media products; and 4.E. embargoes will only be used to protect operational security, and temporary by default. Under 4.F., almost everything that has already happened is reportable, except details listed under 4.G. of small-unit strength, capability, and position, future operations, and other things likely to endanger the accompanied troops.
posted by dhartung at 10:05 PM on March 22, 2003

I am cranky--it's going around. I'm actually trying to tone it down but... you know. I heard the guy who wrote Jarhead on This American Life and he was complaining to Ira Glass about how scripted it was but, wait a minute, didn't I already say this? Man, this is like playing rummy with the nieces: I'd be yakking and then grab a card out of turn...ALZHEIMERS!!they'd then all yell. Ouch.

He read an excerpt in his fist appearance here. That whole show was great. The new one will be up next week.

I hate this war--it's like Vietnam deja vu all over again. Except we're that polarized in just 72 hours and have had our first fragging already. Well, at least I don't have to worry about getting my head beat on by the cops no w--no more of that waist length hair. *sigh*
posted by y2karl at 10:42 PM on March 22, 2003

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