TCS Daily


Bring Back the Embeds!

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - December 11, 2003 12:00 AM

Robert E. Lee once said, "it is well that war should be so terrible, otherwise men would grow too fond of it." His statement is true, but as with any momentous historical event (whether that event was for good or for ill), human beings have the capacity to study and learn from that event.

 

So it is with the recent war in Iraq. We are studying and learning from our experience in fighting the regime of Saddam Hussein, and will apply lessons learned in both the political and military sphere to future challenges. As we do, we would also do well to learn from how the media covered the war in Iraq. Specifically, we should take note of the tremendous success of the embedded reporters program, and look for circumstances in which the use of embedded reporters could help augment media coverage -- as it did in covering the war. Indeed, I have a candidate for another story that could benefit from the use of embedded reporters -- covering the securing of the peace in Iraq.

 

Currently, American forces face terrorist attacks from holdouts connected to the former Ba'athist regime, as well as terrorist groups operating in Iraq. Whenever an attack occurs, the media descend on the scene, gather information, decide how to present it, present it to the public, and then depart until they are called for again by another development affecting American and coalition forces. This, of course, differs substantially from the way in which the media reported the prosecution of the war through the use of embedded reporters. In the latter situation, embedded reporters didn't descend on the scene with the onset of each event, but rather, they lived with the military unit with which they were embedded and reported events as they happened, instead of merely providing an after-the-fact report to the public.

 

The use of embedded reporters had significant advantages. By living and traveling with military units, embedded reporters could not only report individual news stories, but could also weave a coherent and accurate narrative of how the war was affecting the unit to which they were assigned. This macro-examination could then be compared with similar examinations from other embedded reporters about their units, thus presenting a more accurate view and analysis of the American and coalition military effort as a whole.

 

One particularly attractive feature of the embedded reporter program was the reporting of the state of morale in the military. It is, of course, possible for military personnel to get in front of a camera or a microphone and sugarcoat the issue of morale for the public, but if the statements really did constitute sugarcoating, it would be next to impossible to hide a low state of morale from an embedded reporter. The very nature of the embedded reporter program would make that impossible -- by virtue of living and traveling with a specified military unit, the embedded reporter would be able to notice any and all manifestations of low morale, poor unit cohesion, or uncertainty regarding the nature of the military mission at hand. Similarly, the embedded reporter could also be in a valuable position to dispute such reports by pointing out that the reporter has the chance to observe the troops of a particular unit 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and sees an overall picture indicating high morale and unit cohesion, as well as enthusiasm and understanding of the military mission at hand.

 

Some may fear the possibility of increased censorship of media reports through the use of the embedded reporter program. But this is not a serious problem. First of all, the embedded reporter program during the war in Iraq was widely hailed as a success by both the Pentagon and the media at large. This would indicate that the media did not encounter many problems with unreasonable censorship.

 

Secondly, even assuming arguendo that the Pentagon is inclined to censor media reports out of Iraq, it is difficult to understand why they would necessarily have to wait for the implementation of the embedded reporter program to do it. The Pentagon could just as easily censor the (often critical) reports that are presently coming out of Iraq -- reports that are filed by non-embedded media personnel. And finally, if censorship becomes a particular problem under the embedded reporter program, media outlets always have the capacity to opt out of the program, and explain to their viewers/listeners/readers why. Indeed, the ability of the media to blow the whistle on any attempt or inclination on the part of the Pentagon to censor reports serves as a check against any potentially unreasonable censorship.

 

So let's bring back the embedded reporter program. Embedded reporters have the unique capacity to see the forest for the trees -- to show how individual developments fit into a larger picture. They have the capacity, therefore, to provide greater accuracy regarding the reporting of Iraq's rebuilding and reconstruction. And considering the momentous nature of that reconstruction, such accuracy is indispensable, and the need for it is paramount.
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