Glimpses into the life of combat

`Embedding' journalists with troops benefits news outlets, Pentagon

News Analysis

War in Iraq

March 23, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

At 5:34 p.m. yesterday, CBS News' Mark Strassmann reported during a break in his network's coverage of the NCAA men's basketball tournament that grenades had exploded inside a tent at the 101st Airborne Division camp in Kuwait.

Strassmann had been integrated into the airborne unit as part of an effort by the military to give the news media access to combat. He spoke by satellite phone a few minutes after the attack, standing just yards from the still-smoldering tent.

Chalk up another journalistic coup to the system of "embedding" reporters with troops. More than 250 reporters, producers and photographers from outlets large and small have been living and traveling with armed forces in the U.S.-led assault on Iraq, sharing their food, their tents and, in many cases, their danger.

"We've been able to give our viewers a feel for what it's like for the soldiers out there because we are with them," said Marcy McGinnis, CBS News' senior vice president for news coverage.

Yet some of the most compelling footage has come from other sources. Peter Arnett, who covered the 1991 Persian Gulf war for CNN, can be heard frequently on NBC live from Baghdad describing the bombing raids on the city. But he traveled there to complete documentaries for National Geographic Explorer, which appears on NBC's sister station MSNBC.

Meanwhile, the videotape of spectacular aerial assault by the United States and its allies comes from news organizations such as Abu Dhabi Television and Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite television station.

But American reporters aren't able to confirm the effects of the bombing, because most have been expelled from Baghdad. Yesterday, Iraqi officials angrily ousted the last reporters from CNN in the Iraqi capital.

Reporters operating independently in other parts of the region, such as northern Iraq and the Jordanian border, have been able to file stories without delay or military scrutiny. But such travel in areas of conflict carries risk. CBS arranged yesterday for correspondent Scott Pelley to join a Marine unit after a day in which an Australian journalist was killed in an attack on the Iran-Iraq border and a news crew from Britain's ITN network traveling independently was missing.

The military-press agreement requires that reporters not disclose information that might aid Iraqi fighters in anticipating movement and actions of the U.S.-led forces. Several days ago, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke rebuked editors for reports she said revealed too many details about military operations. But most such friction has been relatively minor.

If anything, television networks appear to work hand in glove with the military at times, as the nation's airwaves are dominated by former generals and other retired senior officers. Debates are on tactics or strategy in how best to take Baghdad - not on the enterprise itself. Coverage of demonstrations in major U.S. cities served as the only periodic reminders that support for the invasion, while currently strong, is not uniform.

The glimpses into the life of combat provided by "embedded" journalists are just that - partial glimpses. "What we are seeing is not the war in Iraq. What we're seeing are slices of the war in Iraq," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld cautioned.

That aside, the Defense Department has benefited from the integration of journalists into military units.

It has allowed senior military officials to give out few details during their infrequent briefings at the Central Command post in Qatar. And perhaps more important, the stories have been largely positive, stressing the dedication of the U.S. and allied troops and their resolve heading into perilous conflict.

"Clearly, the idea of embedding hundreds of reporter with units has produced very good coverage from their standpoint," said Kenneth Bacon, a Pentagon spokesman in the Clinton administration.

There are the usual suspects: the networks, the cable news channels, and newspapers large and small.

But there are also reporters from less conventional sources, including MTV and Al-Jazeera, which had previously been maligned by U.S. officials as anti-American.

Television networks and cable channels, in particular, have benefited from the footage. They have shown tanks on the move, the dispatch of helicopters, the surrender of Iraqis, the chemical weapons warnings. Much of it can be seen as happens.

News executives acknowledge that their reporters are telling stories from the viewpoint of the troops they are covering.

"There is the natural journalistic fear that all of us share," said Kathryn Kross, Washington bureau chief and vice president for CNN. "We want to make sure that `embed' doesn't mean `in bed.'"

Few of those images transmitted have involved the most charged moments - the pitched fighting said to have been occurring around Basra or the downed helicopters that killed several U.S. service members.

Yet compared to the brush-off given to the news media in past armed conflicts, the access granted by the Defense Department is astonishing, Kross said.

"I think the Pentagon gets very high marks for the creativity and the scope of the effort," she said. "We've never been here before."

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