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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Embedded Ambition

by digby

With all the discussion about the media's malfeasance leading up to the war, I think one aspect of it has been overlooked: the thrill of embedding.

Here's a taste of what we all saw during the first few days of the war from CNN:

BROWN: Again, down in the corner of your screen, what you are seeing is the 7th Cavalry on its way to Baghdad. How quickly and what it will encounter as it gets there, we do not know. But we know what has happened so far because CNN's Walt Rodgers has been riding with them. Walt, tell us -- you don't need to tell us location. But tell us what you can about what you have encountered to date.

WALTER RODGERS, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The pictures you're seeing are absolutely phenomenal. These are live pictures of the 7th Cavalry racing across the deserts in southern Iraq. They will -- it will be days before they get to Baghdad, but you've never seen battlefield pictures like these before.

Immediately in front of our cameras, an M1-A1 Abrams tank. We're sitting about 30 meters, now about 40 meters off the back of that tank. You can see that they've got water bottles stacked on board. That's how close we are.

The orange cover on the back is called a VF-17. That's a visual identification marker for allied aircraft in the air to let them know this is the 7th Cavalry, these are friendly units, we are rolling through the desert. Speed here, probably 40 to 50 kilometers an hour. That's been our speed most of the time.

A short while ago, perhaps 30 minutes ago, this unit took some incoming fire. It never came within more than half a kilometer of the 7th Cavalry. But there you can see these tanks rolling along. The Army says these are the most lethal killing machines on the earth. And when you see those 120-millimeter guns go off, there's no doubt about it.

There he's swinging the turret. That constant swinging of the turret is to maintain a state of alertness. As you look at the soldiers atop the tank, the one nearest us on the left side of the tank is the loader. He is responsible for loading the 120-millimeter shells, gun shells into the tank when it engages in hostile combat. That has not occurred. That is, the tanks have not fired, to the best of our knowledge, so far today.

The other soldier on the right side of the turret, his head sticking up too, is the commander of the tank. You have to realize, they've been riding along, bouncing along in these tanks for probably six or more hours now. Those two on top are standing. The driver is -- if you can look on the left front side, the driver is in a reclining position by that slash (ph) 91 figure. He's in a two-thirds reclined position.

And then deeper inside the tank, and if you ride inside that tank, it is like riding in the bowels of a dragon. They roar. They screech. You can see them slowing now. We've got to be careful not to get in front of them. But what you're watching here...

BROWN: Wow, look at that shot.

RODGERS: ... is truly historic television and journalism. This is live pictures of the 7th U.S. Cavalry headed for Iraq. This is actual time. What you are witnessing now is what is happening here in the Iraqi desert as the 7th Cavalry, part of the 3rd Infantry Division, is moving northward through the Iraqi desert.

I remember that story vividly --- the sunburned, khaki-clad Rogers standing up in the back of the vehicle with the sand blowing in his face looking for all the world like some sort of JC Penney version of TE Lawrence going on about the total awesomeness of his own awesome reporting of the awesome march across the awesome desert. I'm sure that the Pentagon was extremely pleased that day at the success of their war marketing.

One of the things that cannot be discounted is the fact that the news organizations and reporters themselves were beside themselves at the prospect of being able to cover "the war." Their childlike excitement was palpable and the government used the enticement of "embedding" reporters on the front lines with access to that totally awesome coverage as Rodgers shows in the clip above. It's not that I blame reporters for being thrilled to be a part of this operation --- it was the obvious Walter Mitty warrior fantasy that made me queasy.

This was set up in a very systematic way by the Pentagon. In a very slick maneuver, they held a media "boot-camp" months before the war began (and while they were insisting that they were not preparing for war.) They got the reporters all hot and bothered about the exciting story they would be able to cover. Who wanted all those unpleasant old facts refuting the casus belli to get in the way of that?

December 11, 2002

With all eyes on a possible war with Iraq, many journalists are wondering how the current Republican administration, known for its strict control of information, will allow the media to cover the battle for Baghdad.

A few clues were given in November, when the Pentagon held the first in a series of week-long training seminars for journalists at a marine corps base in Quantico, Virginia. Over fifty members of various news organizations attended the course, which included staged hostile environment scenarios and instruction on chemical weapons protection.

Participants say they came away with a better understanding and respect for the military, but they’re no closer to understanding how embedding–the proposed practice of attaching a journalist to a military unit–will work. If anything, the course raised as many questions as answers about objectivity, safety and access.

Getty News staff photographer Spencer Platt, one of the particpants in the first media boot camp, says photographers embedded with the military will have to give up some of their independence.

"When you’re with the military, you’re extremely restricted," Platt says. "The military will tell you point-blank they’ll censor what you shoot and what you write, and they have that right. You have to understand that."

On the plus side, Platt says embedded journalists will have a better insight into the everyday lives of soldiers, which could lead to better stories. Still, he says, journalists have to keep some separation between themselves and their subjects.

"We do not want to be seen [as fulfilling] a military role," Platt says. "When you’re with the military you’re much more of a target than independent journalists."

At the November boot camp, finding that separation wasn’t easy. Upon arrival, journalists received military issue equipment such as backpacks, helmets, flack-jackets and NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) suits, which they then used in training exercises. Washington Times staff photographer Gerald Herbert says at first they enjoyed getting their hands on the new "toys," but a few of the journalists quickly realized the dangers of donning all the military gear.

After a demonstration on weaponry, one of the participating photographers took a picture of UPI reporter Pam Hess wearing full battle fatigues and holding an M-16 while a marine at her side gave instructions. When the picture ran in The International Herald Tribune the next day, some boot campers began to worry about how they were being perceived by the outside world.

Some feared the picture would fuel suspicions that American journalists are working in concert with the American military, a danger made all the more real by the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl last year in Pakistan.

"I don’t think in any sense we should wear anything that confuses us as members of the military," Platt says. "This is a new war and journalists are targets. If the concept gets out there that we’re working for the military, it’s going to make our jobs much more difficult."

On the final night of boot camp the journalists learned they were about to become the subjects in a massive photo-op organized by the military. The thought of marching five miles in full gear with still and TV cameras documenting their every move spooked many of the journalists there. So before the big event, many decided to present themselves in more of an independent light when the time came for their pictures to be taken.

"All of a sudden the media was trying to spin the media," says Herbert. "That question was nagging me all week long and came to a head that day: at what point are we observing and at what point are we participating?"

Herbert says some of the journalists used white tape and black markers to designate themselves as press, while others wore jeans and one guy even drew a peace symbol on his shirt.

This issue of what to wear was obviously quite a problem for the press as I recall laughing at some of the embeds' quasi-military get-ups. Many of them were very sharp, like this one:

Yep, that's Judy Miller on the left.

I'm not suggesting that the journalists were wrong to embed themselves or that they shouldn't have been trained to do so. But from November of 2002, the Pentagon was enticing a whole bunch of war correspondent newbies with a chance to go and report an "historic" invasion and I can't help but believe that it affected their ability to be objective about the reasons for the war in the first place. Just as the anchors back in the booth were waving flags and enjoying the huge ratings that war porn brings to the usually flat cable news networks, the reporters in the field were getting fitted for Prada camo-fatigue safari gear for their war epic. By the beginning of January 2003, the news networks were literally selling the war.("See full coverage of The War, here on CNN...")

They were played for breathless fools by the Pentagon with enticements of historic, unprecedented footage of their intrepid reporters with sand in their faces, standing on the back of a jeep in the middle of the desert as the American forces raced to Baghdad. From that moment on the press had a dog of their own in the fight.


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