Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Embeds Revisited

Via Instapundit I've seen some more stories regarding the information war in Iraq. A few days ago I wrote a post discussing this topic in the context of a discussion at Done with Mirrors. A large part of that post concerned this piece by Michael Yon. Yon contends that the military has made the process for reporters to embed in specific military units in Iraq so difficult that it amounts to effective censorship.

Today the Instapundit linked to this piece by Michael Fumento. Fumento is now on his third embed inside Iraq, so he writes with some knowledge of the situation. Fumento lambasts the media establishment that reports on Iraq from their hotels in Baghdad. He goes on to fisk those accounts of the dangers of Baghdad for the average reporter. It's pretty powerful stuff.

He gives credit where credit is due, however.

One way the Baghdad press corps and its allies try to steal valor is to invoke the incredibly large number of reporters killed in the war: It's true that over 100 journalists or media assistants have been killed. Yet, with the sole exception of Steven Vincent, the only American journalists killed or even seriously injured by hostile action in Iraq have been embeds. (And even Vincent had been an embed, just not at the time of his death.) Atlantic Monthly editor-at-large Michael Kelly (an editor of mine) drowned after his Humvee rolled into a Baghdad canal during the invasion. NBC reporter David Bloom died of a pulmonary embolism from being cramped in a Humvee, also during the invasion. Both were embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division.

CBS News cameraman Paul Douglas and freelance soundman James Brolan were blown up by an improvised explosive device (IED) while accompanying CBS correspondent Kimberly Dozier, herself critically injured. They were embedded with the 4th Infantry Division. So were ABC anchorman Bob Woodruff and his cameraman, who were critically injured by an IED. Time correspondent Michael Weisskopf had his hand blown off trying to toss a grenade out of his Humvee when he was embedded with the 1st Armored Division. These, not the hotel-bound credit-claimers, are the journalist-heroes of the Iraq War.
But this made me wonder about the Yon piece again. Upon re-reading Yon's article, the only non-independent embed request that gets turned down is for a photographer from the VFW magazine. But Fumento's article includes this bit:

What leads the embeds into the most dangerous parts of Iraq is the glaring gap between the reality of the war and the virtuality emanating from the hotels of the IZ. One of them made this point quite forcefully in a recent column. Jerry Newberry, communications director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars and a Vietnam Army vet, wrote in a September column just before heading off for Afghanistan and then Iraq: "For the most part, the wars being fought by our people in Afghanistan and Iraq - their successes, heroism, and valor - [are] reported by some overpaid, makeup-wearing talking heads, sitting on their fat rear-ends in an air-conditioned hotel. They rely on Iraqi stringers to bring the stuff to them and then call it reporting."
So what gives? Michael Yon's dedication to both reporting and to the US war effort are beyond question. I don't know as much about Fumento, but there is no reason to doubt what he's saying either. So why has one VFW affiliated embed been approved and another turned down? The man who was turned down was Walt Gaya, Iraq II combat verteran turned photographer. Gaya suffered injuries to his left eye during a patrol in Mosul. According to an AP article which Michael Yon links to:

On a routine patrol last July in Mosul, with his trusty Leica camera wedged among the gear in his backpack, a roadside bomb ripped open the hull of Gaya's Stryker combat vehicle, wounding all nine men inside.

Gaya felt his leg throbbing as he helped the others escape the 19-ton vehicle. Shrapnel had torn through his leg and shredded a knee ligament. Then he felt a sharp pain in his left eye. His vision began to blur....

After the explosion, doctors stitched up Gaya's left eye, which had been pierced by a bomb fragment. He was fortunate, they told him, that his eye had not lost all its internal fluid, which likely would have led to its permanent collapse.

But the vision remains impaired -- he can only make out shapes and light and billboard-size letters, he said. At this point, Gaya is considering a cornea transplant.

[It's unclear when this article was written, but it appears to have been filed sometime in the latter half of 2005. That seems likely after having read Yon's May 30, 2006 article about Gaya.]
I haven't found anything further indicating that Gaya's vision has improved. I'm wondering if that may have been a reason that Gaya's embed requests were denied, despite having separate requests from the 4th Infantry Division to embed with them and from Brig. General Dana Pittard to embed with military training teams. This wouldn't make it a GOOD reason, as the units and soldiers involved would know what about Gaya's impairment and whether that would be a serious issue, as would Gaya himself.

But assuming that Gaya was denied an embed because of possible physical impairment and Yon was denied because he's not recognized as mainstream media still leaves questions. Is the military blocking embeds from all sources? Or is the military ignoring the 'small fry' and only permitting recognized news media to embed journalists? If the latter, are those media trying to embed reporters, or are they happy to leave their people sitting in the International Zone in Baghdad and get reports from stringers and insurgents?

This scenario outlined in that last question seems to be the hypothesis that Fumento believes, but is that accurate?

According to a link Yon provides to a story by AP datelined October 16, 2006:

The number of embedded journalists reporting alongside U.S. troops in Iraq has dropped to its lowest level -- 11.

During the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, more than 600 reporters, TV crews and photographers linked up with U.S. and British units....

Some journalists blame the decline on Pentagon bureaucracy, the reporting restrictions journalists face, and pressure by some commanders to avoid ''negative'' coverage. Journalists and U.S. military officers point to declining interest in the long-running story, and the high cost, both in money and danger, of coverage.
Okay, blaming the Pentagon bureaucracy would be Yon's position. Further supporting that contention is Sig Christenson, a journalist with the San Antonio Express-News and president of Military Reporters and Editors, writing in his blog:
But getting to Iraq is the main problem. Almost four years after the Pentagon unveiled the embedding program, there is no clear-cut way to cover the troops in Iraq. I'm an expert on this after having set up embeds for myself and, last year, for photographer Nicole Fruge and reporter Jesse Bogan. There is no simple, one-step process.

You have to send e-mails to the Combined Press Information Center in Baghdad. You have to e-mail local commanders with units you wish to embed with, and they have to accept you. You have to e-mail the Air Force to set up the flights. At some point, you deal directly with someone from the Air Mobility Command, which flies cargo and people into and out of Iraq. This time I also had to e-mail the Air Force Theater Hospital in Balad and Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany so we could do the reporting on a series about military medicine. If I do an embed next year, I'll have to start with a new set of public affairs officers because all the old ones have left Iraq.

I'll also have to get a new CPIC identification card. Been there, done that.

Well, this sounds bad. But how is this situation different than what reporters in the Vietnam war went through, or the Korean war, or WWII? I'm asking because I don't know, but that would provide context for this discussion. Presumably the regulations covering this have changed greatly from war to war. If they have, should we revert to earlier versions of the regulations, or at least use them as a guideline for new regulations? In the comments to that post Donald Sensing, who was "an Army public affairs officer at the Pentagon for three years" states that the process was much smoother during WWII, but doesn't outline details. The Military Reporters & Editors group will be having a conference from Oct 26-28 to discuss ways to make this process smoother. Read Christenson's whole post.

Other factors cited above:

* "[T]he reporting restrictions journalists face, and pressure by some commanders to avoid 'negative' coverage...." This argument doesn't seem all that credible, frankly. Are the restrictions really worse than WWII, when strict censorship was applied?

* "Journalists and U.S. military officers point to declining interest in the long-running story...." What?! Declining interest from whom? According to Gallup (scroll down to bottom of page), "The No. 1 national issue appears to be Iraq, and Gallup's mid-October poll showed continuing acceleration in the public's negative views of how the situation there is going." So I can't believe that it is the public that is losing interest. This sounds like it's the journalists who have lost interest.

* "[A]nd the high cost, both in money and danger, of coverage." So, why is this war more expensive to cover than the Vietnam war was, especially for print journalists? And is that a problem that the media organizations themselves need to solve on their own? (The answer to the first question will heavily influence the answer to the second.)
So all of this still leaves me asking these questions from above:
* Is the military blocking embeds from all sources? Is this due to conscious decision or bureaucratic ineptitude?

* Or is the military ignoring the 'small fry' and only permitting recognized news media to embed journalists?

* If the latter, are those media trying to embed reporters, or are they happy to leave their people sitting in the International Zone in Baghdad and get reports from stringers and insurgents?
The more I look into this situation, the murkier it gets.

2 comments:

Callimachus said...

A perplexity in deed. A couple of thoughts come to mind. We may be seeing two different types of journalist here: non-military and ex-military. One thing us non-military types tend to overlook is that former soldiers always tend to despise military bureaucracy and blame it, sometimes too quickly, when things foul up.

The other is a personal observation. I've tried to go through military channels (Pa. National Guard) to write stories on local folks in action. I make it clear I'm trying to tell full stories, not quick-and-bloody. But I have yet to penetrate the bureaucracy and get through to anyone who can be useful.

I always find someone who appreciates the effort and wants to help. But no matter how specifically I make my request, it never gets to the people who are close enough to a situation to comment on it.

I honestly think the mutual suspicion and hostility between the media and the military -- and it flows both ways -- has reached a point where they're only pretending to talk to each other.

Icepick said...

A couple of thoughts come to mind. We may be seeing two different types of journalist here: non-military and ex-military. One thing us non-military types tend to overlook is that former soldiers always tend to despise military bureaucracy and blame it, sometimes too quickly, when things foul up.

But it doesn’t just seem to be Yon who’s complaining about the bureaucracy. It’s not clear whether Christenson is former military or not, but I get the feeling he isn’t. Also, the MRE group seems to be stating that this is a problem, and that’s a much larger group. And your own experiences seem to point in this direction as well.

But for me, a crucial piece of data is this: How many embeds have the major US news media organizations requested? How many have been turned down? If the number of requests for embeds has been declining, is this because of a problem with the bureaucracy?

I tend to think that other factors are at work. Have the NYT or WaPo indicated a problem in this regard? I would think they would have raised a big stink if this were the case. (And it’s possible I’ve missed it, I readily concede.) Instead we seem to get reporters complaining about how tough it is in the hotels in Baghdad. And certainly I wouldn’t want to stay there, but if the real news is outside the IZ, then the reporters should go outside of the IZ.

I honestly think the mutual suspicion and hostility between the media and the military -- and it flows both ways -- has reached a point where they're only pretending to talk to each other.

And this may be the most worrisome aspect of the current situation. How can we exert any military power for any reason without the public being properly informed? This makes me wonder if the benefits of a professional military are outweighed by the costs. How will this mutual mistrust and loathing be overcome? Most people who go into journalism don’t want to be in the military, and vice versa. Perhaps the benefits of widespread conscription (many people in many walks of life having military experience) outweigh the costs (decreased military efficiency).

Incidentally, T. R. Fehrenbach writes columns for the SA E-N. I didn’t even realize he was still alive. There’s something about the combination of directness and historical knowledge in his columns that makes him seem from a different age.