When the reporter is the story

April 04, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - A one-time cardinal rule of the news-gathering business was that reporters should go get the news, not make it. In the new war in Iraq, that axiom is going out the window.

One reason is the Pentagon's decision to "embed" reporters with troops in the field. A result has been a raft of stories about them and whether the policy serves the interest of the public, the Pentagon, or both.

On the positive side, scads of timely and informed reports are filling the nation's television screens and newspapers, bringing viewers and readers to the battlefield in unprecedented ways. The embedded reporters are providing close-in accounts of what's going on in pockets of the war, though naturally limited to where they are. It's still left to reporters covering the command headquarters in Kuwait and at the Pentagon to put it all into the larger perspective.

On the negative side, at least from the point of view of the military, a few reporters have been called on the Pentagon carpet. They have been accused of going over the edge in reports that the brass says may have provided the Iraqi regime with information about the position, strength or other details of American forces and plans.

This is always a gamble the military takes when it gives television cameras and reporters access.

During the Vietnam War, the press had a relatively free hand to see and record what was going on in the field. Many of the pictures sent back and witnessed in the living rooms of America fed the war protest that helped drive President Lyndon B. Johnson out of the White House.

The latest and most sensational example of an individual reporter making news as well as reporting it is the story of veteran war correspondent Peter Arnett sitting amid the war for an interview on state-controlled Iraqi television.

Mr. Arnett reported, among other things, that the American rush to drive Saddam Hussein from power had generated a "growing challenge to President Bush" at home and had "failed because of Iraqi resistance." For his trouble, he got himself fired from two television jobs (but was immediately picked up by a London tabloid).

Most of the criticism leveled at Mr. Arnett was for the substance of his comments, viewed widely as anti-American and injudicious for a reporter representing American television organizations.

But another question is whether, as a journalist in Iraq to report the news, he should have sat at all for a television interview by anyone other than his employers. It is one thing for a television or print reporter to tell what he knows and thinks to the people who sent him on the story to do just that. It's another for him or her to become an information or opinion source for somebody else - friend, competitor or foe.

The reporter who takes off his reporting hat and dons the hat of a source is commonplace these days, on or off a battlefield. For print reporters, who used to be told by their bosses to be seen but not heard - or, more specifically, to be read but not seen - it has become routine to seek and gain celebrity by going on television as news sources or, if you will, news entertainers.

At home, particularly in politics, nobody seems to care, even if a reporter/source pumps up a candidate or raps him. But when a celebrated reporter such as Mr. Arnett wears his source hat and spouts off from a battlefield - on television controlled by the enemy, no less - he asks for the thunderous criticism he gets.

In either case, the old rule that reporters should go get the news, not make it, still makes sense, even for a famous journalist. As for all the criticism, as the hit song in the Oscar-winning Chicago puts it: "He had it comin'."

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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