Having spent several days as an embedded reporter aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, as well as having placed three other reporters in the field (two with the Marines and one with the Navy), a few comments about the embed program and war correspondents generally are in order.
First, the war correspondents. NBC did the right thing by canning Peter Arnett. It’s an old story: While Arnett may have had the right to say what he did, he wasn’t right to have said it. Not to Iraqi television while American boys and girls were in harm’s way. Lawyers have an old saying: “Always make sure that it’s not the client who goes to jail.” The counterpart for journalists is to make sure that they should never become the story. They’re not sent overseas to write their autobiographies – they’re over there to report, period.
Next on the list is Geraldo Rivera. If there’s truth in what’s been reported – that Geraldo sketched a map in the sand showing viewers the location of the unit he was traveling with – then, like Arnett, he displayed some lousy judgment, albeit of a different kind. Rivera’s sin was probably over-enthusiasm – what reporter doesn’t want to spill all the beans all the time? The problem is that because he was not an embedded journalist he was not trained in the rules. The old adage, “When in Rome do what the Romans do,” has no greater force than with reporters who travel with military units.
Like it or not, whether you’re male or female, Democrat, Republican, Independent or pop-goes-the-weasel, when embedded, you become one of the Band of Brothers. And that means discipline, prudence, and the absolute necessity of engaging the brain before any other bodily organ.
And that brings me to the central question: Are embedded reporters too much “in bed” with the military units they cover? This criticism has been raised, and there is an important psychological basis for it. Out “there” reporters are non-combatants against an enemy that doesn’t really recognize non-combatants. A reporter is guarded by the soldiers he or she is sent to report about – his or her life depends on them. The reporter eats, sleeps and answers nature’s calls with them; rides, marches and hikes with them; tolerates freezing desert nights, sweaty NBC suits and the lack of hygiene and privacy with them. Fear, boredom, anger and sadness are also part of the shared experience. Who could possibly be “objective” in these circumstances? Who would even want to be objective?
My answer may surprise some people, but I don’t think the role of reporters embedded with combat units is to be “objective” in the traditional sense. To begin with, as Geraldo found out to his dismay, the universe of “facts” that an embedded journalist may report is quite circumscribed, forever limited by security concerns. As a result, no one in the audience is looking for an embed to explain troop movements and positions, grand strategies or likely thrusts and parries. For that, there are the Rent-a-General talking heads, Grand Pooh-Bah analysts and the Big Picture Correspondents at Pentagon briefings.
Instead, embedded journalists are there to provide a very particular subtext of the war story. It is the story that millions of Americans who have relations or friends in theater care as much about as the television chessboards straddled by studio Napoleons. It is a story that fascinates many more millions of Americans who have never worn a uniform, a story which is equally fascinating to those millions of veterans who have served in past conflicts. It is the story of young people at war – sons and daughters, husbands and wives, bridesmaids and best men, cousins and co-workers. Families learn news of the greatest value – if they don’t necessarily get to “see” their particular loved one, they can at least understand that someone else’s loved one, similarly situated, is getting three squares a day, still has a sense of humor, and that the sunrise over an Iraqi desert is at least as pretty as back home in Arizona. If it’s your son or daughter out there, this is big news.
Likewise, for those who may never have worn a uniform, embed reports can satisfy huge curiosity about “how do soldiers do it?” Embeds necessarily “de-Hollywoodize” the profession of soldiering by plainly showing the hard work, the frequent boredom and waiting and the occasionally awful fear which is a part of that life. Embed reports also offer a very different view of young people than that marketed a few years ago in Hollywood’s slacker movies. However one feels about the war, one has to respect and admire these kids.
But I think the biggest benefit of embedded reporters is to humanize a sector of America too long demonized by many of my friends on the left, lots of who came up in life as 1960s anti-war protesters.
Embedded journalism is a straight-up, no ice – no water tonic for ignorance. In this respect, it may be some of the best reporting around.