Media Credibility in War
The Phenomenon of Embedded Reporters
By Robert Hodierne
Jan. 8, 2005
Since the rise of the popular press in mid-19th Century America, journalists have traveled into war with U.S. forces. And from the start there has been friction, the inevitable collision between military people, who are accustomed to secrecy and control, and reporters, who chafe at both.
For a century and a half, that friction has defined both the nature of the relationship between the American military and the media and the credibility of those two institutions with the American public at large. The uncomfortable truth for most journalists is this: The American public is more likely to believe the military than the press, especially when there is wide support for war. During what Americans call the first Gulf War (1991), nearly all journalists were excluded from almost all front-line coverage. They were reduced to covering press briefings at military headquarters. A RAND study concluded that “…the military was successful in implementing some of the most extensive controls ever on information and press coverage, and the public appears to have been largely indifferent to, if not entirely satisfied, with the performance of the press and the military in keeping the public informed.” 1
In the years after the first Gulf War, the military came to realize that the pending war with Iraq was going to be a war not just with bombs and bullets, but with information. The military needed the work of a free and unfettered press to counter what was expected to be a vigorous information campaign from the Iraqis. That need, as much as anything else, motivated a return to coverage unregulated and uncensored in a way that hasn’t been seen since the Vietnam War.
We all saw the results of embedding large numbers of journalists with frontline troops: For the first time, stunning live images of combat were broadcast into homes around the world. Thousands of stories portrayed American troops in just the way the government wanted – as skillful, well-trained men and women who, in general, performed honorably.
It is only now, in the occupation stage of the war, that embedding has started to reveal the other, darker and inevitable consequence of war: the abominable behavior of some troops.
In the short term, the coverage by embedded journalists boosted the sagging credibility of the press in America. But as the war drags on, the simple story line of a lightening quick invasion has given way to more complex and often unflattering coverage. And with that media credibility has started to droop. But without the frontline accounts, the press would be reduced to parroting the government version of events and that would do even deeper, more far-reaching damage to press credibility. As the American Senator Hiram Johnson said in 1917: “The first casualty when war comes, is truth.”2
To understand how the media performed – and was used – in the Iraq War, it is necessary to understand the history. The stage for all of this was set a century and half ago in Mexico.
In 1846 an expansionist Unites States went to war with Mexico. The Mexican War (1846-48) was the first war covered by professional journalists at the front lines. Much of the way the press handled the Mexican War presaged the way the American press has covered wars ever since. And while much has changed, much remains the same. For example, the vivid descriptions of combat and atrocities in the Mexican War fueled an anti-war movement back home, something that would be echoed 120 years later in Vietnam.
The Mexican War came just as the American newspaper business was going through dramatic changes. The invention of the fast rotary press in 1843 allowed newspapers to increase their press run and lower their costs. The so-called penny press became America’s first truly mass media, catering to the tastes of an ever widening range of literate Americans who bought papers on the streets from boys hawking that day’s headline.
Much of the press fueled the drive to war with uncritical and unquestioning acceptance of government pronouncements, not unlike the American press treatment of the run up to the current war in Iraq. The Boston Times said of the pending Mexican War that an American victory "must necessarily be a great blessing," because it would bring "peace into a land where the sword has always been the sole arbiter between factions" and would introduce "the reign of law where license has existed for a generation." 3
Once the war began it became America’s first media war.
Robert W. Johannsen, writing in “To the Halls of the Montezumas: The Mexican War in the American Imagination,” said that war …
… touched the people’s live (especially if they were readers), a war that was experienced more intimately, with greater immediacy and closer involvement than any major event in the nation’s history. It was the first American war to rest on a truly popular base, the first that grasped the interest of the population, and the first people were exposed to on an almost daily basis. The essential link between the war and the people was provided by the nation’s press, for it was through the ubiquitous American newspaper that the war achieved its vitality in the popular mind.4
Prior to the Mexican War, newspaper accounts were based on letters from soldiers or official dispatches. In the Mexican War, professional reporters traveled to the front with the troops. They were embedded, to use the popular contemporary term. But unlike modern wars, those reporters frequently blurred the line between observer and participant. At times, some took up arms. They advised military and diplomatic leaders. One, James L. Freaner of the New Orleans Delta, actually carried the signed peace treaty from Mexico to Washington.
And if it is true that wars are good for the careers of military officers, it is just as true that journalism careers have been made by wars. The man often described as the first modern war correspondent was George Wilkins Kendall, who founded the New Orleans Picayune. His coverage of the war made him nationally famous, probably America’s first celebrity journalist.
Whatever shortcomings in accuracy and objectivity, Johannsen said, “Americans were better informed about their war than any people in wartime had ever been.”5
That turned out to be a double-edged sword. Reporters traveled where they wanted and reported what they saw. They reported on the hardships the American troops experienced, the horror of combat and the atrocities that some U.S. troops committed against Mexican civilians. That reporting helped build a vibrant anti-war movement in America that included such people as Henry David Thoreau and Abraham Lincoln.
The war ended with America annexing California and much of what is now the American southwest – excluding Texas. The expansionists in America, who had led the charge to war, felt the United States got less than it deserved. In fact before the war the United States had offered to buy those same territories from the Mexicans. Many American historians believe the U.S. government settled because the American public, which at one time had been enthusiastic about the war, had grown tired of its costs, both in dollars and lives. At both ends of that equation was the press. The American public believed the press when it said the war was a good idea; many believed the press accounts of the war’s true gruesome nature.
By the time the American Civil War (1861-65) began, the newspaper business had flourished. Northern newspapers put 500 journalists in the field. One paper, the New York Herald spent $1 million covering the war and had 63 journalists covering it. 6
The technology of gathering news had improved dramatically: The country had gone from no telegraph at the start of the Mexican War in 1842 to 50,000 miles at the start of the Civil War. The technology of printing newspapers had also improved. Presses powered by steam engines were faster, which meant the time between the arrival of a wire report from a distant city and the appearance of a paper on the street was cut from days to hours. Newspapers often had stories about battles before government officials in Washington had accounts from their military officers.
What had not improved was the professionalism of journalists. A journalist of that era would not have understood the term “objective reporting.” Their papers were partisan, and so were they. Their standards of sourcing were nonexistent.
Phillip Knightley, in his book “The First Casualty,” said that battalion of Civil War journalists “measured up poorly to the task.” They were, he said, “ignorant, dishonest, and unethical … the dispatches they wrote were frequently inaccurate, often invented, partisan, and inflammatory.”7 Editors and publishers didn’t care. They cared about selling newspapers. Knightley said a New York newspaper “could sell five times its normal circulation when it ran details of a big battle …”8
But if the newspapers were dishonest, so, too, was the government.
The Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, began to dicker with casualty figures. He altered an account of (Gen. Ulysses S.) Grant’s failure at Petersburg, reducing the losses to about a third of their actual number. His department withheld news of the surrender of Harper’s Ferry for twenty-four hours and changed ‘10,000 Union troops surrendered’ first to ‘6,000’ and in later dispatches to ‘4,000.’ The actual figure was 11,200. Stanton took to suspending newspapers that had broken his censorship rules, arresting editors, threatening proprietors with court-martial, and banning correspondents from the front, and he actually issued orders for Henry Wing of the New York Tribune to be shot for refusing to hand over a dispatch he written for his newspaper.9
By 1898 at the start of the four-month Spanish-American War, the American press nearly had reached the zenith of its sensationalist partisanship. The role the press played in creating the war continues to be debated. But 200 journalists went to Cuba to cover the fighting there.
By the start of American involvement in World War I in 1917, the number of newspapers in America had reached 17,000, the greatest number that would ever exist in the United States.10 The press had matured and standards of accuracy and objectivity had become more widespread. But governments, too, had matured in their understanding of how to manipulate the press. Before America’s entry into the war, the American press struggled to remain neutral and objective, siding with neither the British and French nor the Germans. The British government launched a campaign to win over the American press and bring the country to its side in the war, which Knightley said was notably successful. 11
To travel with the American forces once the United States had joined the war, reporters needed military credentials. Of those, Knightley writes:
The rules for accreditation of a war correspondent to the American Expeditionary Force have to be read to be believed. First, the correspondent had to appear personally before the secretary of War or his authorized representatives and swear that he would ‘convey the truth to the people of the United States’ but refrain from disclosing facts that might aid the enemy. The he had to write – and the authorities defined ‘write’ to mean with a pen, not a typewriter – an autobiographical sketch, which had to include an account of his work, his experience, his character, and his health. He had to say what he planned to do when he reached Europe and where he planned to go. Then he or his paper had to pay $1,000 to the army to cover his equipment and maintenance and post a $10,000 bond to ensure that he would comport himself ‘as a gentleman of the Press.’ If he were sent back for any infraction of the rules, the $10,000 would be forfeited and given to charity. He was allowed to take an assistant – for a further $500 maintenance fee – and if he did not wish to use army transport he could buy a car or ship one overseas for his personal use. Correspondents wore no uniforms, but were obliged to wear a green armband with a large red ‘C’.12
While certain parts of those rules seem stark by today’s standards – no journalist would ever post a bond to ensure his good behavior – many of the other regulations are not so different from those imposed on journalists by the American forces in Iraq. Reporters in Iraq were prohibited from describing the success of enemy weapons against American forces, nor were they allowed to tell which defensive measures used by the Iraqis were successful. (The full ground rules are in Appendix A.)
In World War I (1914-18), all the stories about American forces were censored. The same practice continued in World War II (1939-45). Among the bizarre results of that censorship was this: While the Japanese public saw newsreels showing how many ships its navy had sunk at Pearl Harbor, and while every person in Hawaii knew, the American public was purposefully misled until well after the war.
When commanders in the field made errors, when supplies were short, when the enemy managed victories, the American public never knew. And while reporters chafed and groused, there was never an organized effort to either circumvent or change the censorship rules. The journalists, like the military, believed in the greater good. After the war, the American author John Steinbeck wrote:
We were all part of the war effort. We went along with it, and not only that, we abetted it. Gradually it became a part of us and the truth about anything was automatically secret and that to trifle with it was to interfere with the war effort. By this I don’t mean that the correspondents were liars. They were not…It is the things not mentioned that the untruth lies…Yes, we wrote only a part of the war but at that time we believed, fervently believed, that it was the best thing to do. And perhaps that is why, when the war was over, novels and stories by ex-soldiers, like the ‘The Naked and the Dead,’ proved so shocking to a public which had been carefully protected from contact with the crazy, hysterical mess.13
In the early months of the Korean War (1950-54) there was no formal censorship and reporters filed vivid and often chilling accounts of the war, which at the start went especially badly for the Americans. The military accused the reporters of being traitors (a similar accusation was made against me twenty years later in Vietnam). But the press had a different view of its mission in Korea than in any previous war. Their mission was to tell the truth.
Marguerite Higgins, a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, wrote:
So long as our government requires the backing of an aroused and informed public opinion … it is necessary to tell the hard bruising truth … It is best to tell graphically the moments of desperation and horror endured by an unprepared army, so that the American public will demand that it does not happen again.14
After Korea, Higgins was one of the earliest Americans reporters to cover the war in Indochina. She was with photographer Robert Capa when he stepped on a mine in 1954 and was killed. In 1965 in Vietnam she contracted the tropical disease leishmaniasis and died in early 1966.
Depending on your point of view, coverage of the Vietnam War (1961-75) was either the high point or low point of American war coverage. During that war, journalists traveled any place in the country, limited mostly by their ability to hitch rides on helicopters and their nerve. There were few restrictions on what they could publish. The result was the most unvarnished coverage ever of a major war. It was the first war played out on television – bloody color war images on every TV set in America. Along with stories of heroism came stories of atrocities. An entire generation of American military leaders believed firmly that what they viewed as negative press coverage lost the war in Vietnam. And for a generation, American journalists believed you could tell if a military officer briefing the press was lying by simply looking to see if his lips were moving.
The same year Higgins died, I dropped out of college and paid my way to Vietnam to work as a freelance war photographer, a stringer. I mention this as an illustration of how accessible that war was to journalists: Even a 21-year-old freelancer with no other professional experience could get a press card and set forth where ever he wanted.
War correspondents who covered Vietnam sometimes speak wistfully about that war as the last good war for journalists. The military provided transportation and placed few restrictions on where we could travel. We didn’t need to clear our travel plans with anyone. Our stories and photographs were uncensored. There were some ground rules: We couldn’t report on a military operation until contact had been made with the enemy. We couldn’t report exact casualty figures. Instead we used terms like “light,” “moderate” or “heavy.”
Technology was also moving ahead rapidly. Just as the telegraph enabled reporters covering the Civil War to bring war news home with unprecedented speed, television was not only bringing the news home faster but was bringing it right into American living rooms.
Until the late 1960s, many American journalists covering the war sympathized with American government goals. Many of the older correspondents who had gotten their starts in World War II and Korea tended to view the government with little or no skepticism. But as the war dragged on, the conflict between the reality plainly visible to reporters who ventured into the field and the picture painted in official briefings became starker.
The daily military briefing, conducted at five in the afternoon, became known as the “Five O’Clock Follies.” By 1969, the push was on to turn the war over to the South Vietnamese army so the U.S. forces could declare victory and depart, a policy that sounds eerily like U.S. policy today in Iraq. An early test of that came at an isolated Special Forces camp near the Laotian border called Ben Het. I had spent several days at the camp in June 1969. It was surrounded by North Vietnamese soldiers who lobbed in scores of rocket and artillery rounds each day. The only way in and out was by helicopters that were inevitably shot at. I left the camp and flew back to Saigon, arriving just in time to hear the briefer at the Five O’Clock Follies upbraid the gathered press for insisting on referring to the “siege” of Ben Het. He said, with utter sincerity, the camp was not under siege, that the South Vietnamese army had the road to Ben Het open and was regularly supplying it. I never believed another word the man spoke.
Several months later I wrote an article about soldiers who, after several days of bloody fighting, had refused to fight. The chief spokesman for the U.S. Army in Vietnam gave a speech in which he said “whether the story was true or not was beside the point.” My story, he said, “did not border on treason, it was treason.”
“Whether it was true or not is beside the point” pretty much defined, for the press at least, the American military’s attitude toward truth. For its part, the military came to believe the reporting from Vietnam was unrelentingly and unfairly negative. When the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong staged their coordinated, countrywide attacks during the Tet holiday in 1968, the military, quite correctly, noted that thousands of the enemy had been killed and that they had been unable to hold a single city (though it did take the U.S. Marines weeks to drive them out of Hue). It took the military years to understand that the lies they had told in the years leading up to the Tet attacks had led the American public to believe the enemy was crippled and incapable of the stunning military action that they watched in horror on the evening television news shows. And so the U.S. military, while handing the North Vietnamese a staggering military defeat, itself suffered a staggering public relations defeat from which it never recovered during that war.
The military vowed to never let it happen again. And through the next three decades, as they fought in Grenada, Panama, Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo, the military kept the press away from the action or let so few have such limited access that it never faced the unrelenting scrutiny it believed had undone its efforts in Vietnam. In the first Gulf War that policy reached its zenith. The military, whose telegenic officers and whiz-bang smart bomb videos entranced an American public, totally controlled the message.
Lurking in the background, however, was the unlearned lesson from the Vietnam War. That lesson is this: To succeed in an information age, you must be credible. And for the American military to be credible with its public in America it must allow the press the access and ability to perform its watchdog role. As painful as that might be from time to time – video of a Marine shooting an apparently helpless wounded Iraqi insurgent was not the best public relations – it is nonetheless in the larger scheme of things the only successful route open to a military in a democratic society that depends, as Higgins put it, on an aroused and informed public.
The Birth of Modern Embedding
When the American government decided to invade Afghanistan and search out the Al Qaeda forces behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as well as the Taliban regime that supported them, it enjoyed public and world wide support not seen since World War II.
The early military operations in Afghanistan, relying as they did on special operations teams, did not lend themselves to media coverage. The techniques and weapons were secret, the very fact that they were present on the battlefield was secret. What’s more, there aren’t many journalists who could hope to physically endure what the special operations teams endured.
But even once conventional forces entered the fight, the American military’s response to the press was reflexively controlling and secretive. Here is a description by Washington Post reporter Carol Morello of the first group of reporters allowed with U.S Marines in Afghanistan in late November 2003:
The first news media pool, a small grouping of reporters who are the eyes and ears of their colleagues and share their reports with others who are not present, was airlifted to the Marine base in Afghanistan for five days that ended early this morning. While at the base, the reporters were not permitted to accompany troops on expeditions from the base, were prohibited from reporting much of what they saw, were diverted toward feature stories such as church services and promotion ceremonies, were not allowed to speak to senior commanders (except one produced in their final hour with the Marines) and were barred from reporting details even after they were leaked -- and announced -- by the Pentagon. Working under Pentagon guidelines that require public affairs escorts at all times, reporters could cover everything but the news.15
Morello went on to describe what happened when some wounded Americans were brought to the base, named Camp Rhino. The journalists were confined to a windowless warehouse when wounded U.S. and Afghan troops arrived. The men had been wounded when a U.S. B-52 dropped bombs near them and the military didn’t want the negative coverage they believed would follow if reporters had access to the men. So, the reporters were not allowed to interview the wounded nor the doctors who treated them. They weren’t even allowed to see them. For many in the press, it seemed like the bad old days of the first Gulf War had returned.
“We had greater freedom of coverage of Soviet military operations in Afghanistan than we had at Camp Rhino,” CNN reporter Walt Rogers was quoted as saying in Morello’s story. 16
But then a remarkable thing happened. In Washington, the defense department spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke, issued a memo to the press saying “we owe you an apology” for the “severe shortcomings” in the treatment of reporters at Camp Rhino. Even more remarkably, for those accustomed to a far different message, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he was “committed to the principle that the media should have access to both the good and the bad in this effort.”17
The military made good on those words. When the U.S. Army staged its largest operation of the Afghanistan war, the assault into the Shahikhot Valley, it took reporters into combat. A reporter and photographer from Army Times, reporters from Agence France Presse, the Associated Press and a two-man team from CNN went in with the first waves of Operation Anaconda.
The reporters were given the sort of pre-operation access they had dreamed about for a generation. They sat in on sand table briefings in which the entire operational plan was laid out. These were not special, sanitized press briefings. These were briefings for the officers who would lead the fight.
Such access posed enormous risks for the military leadership. If the plan fell apart – and the axiom in military life is no battle plan survives the first contact with the enemy – the reporters on the scene would be witness to the unraveling plan. The best hope of the military in that situation was that the reporters would put any change in the plan into its proper context.
Operation Anaconda was a tactical military success in that the several hundred Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the valley were killed or driven off. It was also a public relations success: The stories and photographs that came from that small team of embedded journalists in general portrayed the American soldiers as brave and competent, their leaders as savvy and the enemy as defeated.
As a footnote: One of the embedded reporters, Sean D. Naylor of Army Times, has just completed a book on the operation that delves far more deeply into both the heroics performed by American troops, and their screw ups. It is unlikely he would have been able to produce such a definite analysis had he not been present for the fight. The fact that he was there suffering the same physical hardships as the troops, including being shot at, increased his credibility among the men he later needed to interview for his book.
At the urging of military public affairs officers who had been in Afghanistan and who had helped push through the small-scale experiment in embedding, Victoria Clarke, the Defense Department spokeswoman, and her deputy, Bryan Whitman, began enlisting the support of America’s major media. Both knew they would have a tough time selling their boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and his boss, President George W. Bush.18
Their goal was simple.
‘We wanted to neutralize the disinformation efforts of our adversaries,’ explained Whitman. ‘We wanted to build and maintain support for U.S. policy as well as the global war on terrorism. We wanted to take offensive action to achieve information dominance. We wanted to be able to demonstrate the professionalism of the U.S. military. And we wanted to build and maintain support, of course, for the war fight out there on the ground.’ They believed ‘robust media access’ would ‘counter Iraqi lies’ and highlight the professionalism of U.S. forces, he said. 19
Getting Rumsfeld on board proved easier than getting the president to approve.
‘Rumsfeld and Torie Clarke ran against the current,’ said (Walt) Rogers (of CNN). ‘I know personally, and won’t go into any detail, that the president of the United States thought embedding was ‘a crazy idea’ and was initially opposed to it but reluctantly went along. I know personally that the vice president of the United States did not think it was a good idea. It was Torie Clarke and Don Rumsfeld who pushed this through over the objections of their superiors.’ 20
The decision to embed large numbers of journalists with the armed forces preparing to invade Iraq, while different in scale, was consistent with what the published public affairs policy of the military had been since 1993. “Open and independent reporting shall be the principal means of coverage of the U.S. military operations,” those guidelines say. “Journalists shall be provided access to all major military units.”21 The major difference was this time the military meant it.
Once the decision had been made to embed journalists with military units, both the military and the media had many decisions to make.
On the military side, it was mostly logistical. How many journalists could any given military unit accommodate? How would the military move the journalists around the battlefield? Should the military provide protective gear? But those are the sorts of logistical matters the American military is expert at.
For journalists, there were more troubling issues, mostly dealing with the risks to their credibility if they were perceived as having gotten into bed with the military, not just embedded with them.
The psychological phenomenon in which hostages begin to identify with, excuse, and in some cases even actively protect their captors is called ‘the Stockholm syndrome.’ While this term is not wholly applicable to the embedded press, there is little doubt that similar pressures are placed on embedded reporters. From the military’s perspective, journalists’ identification with soldiers can be beneficial since it increases the likelihood of good public relations. But from the perspective of journalists and the public, this closeness can be somewhat alarming.22
In the end, no major American news organizations failed to take the military’s offer to embed journalists. In all, 775 journalists were embedded with American ground forces, on Navy ships and at airbases in Kuwait (though much to the frustration of the reporters there, they could not identify even the country in which they were located due to sensitivities of the Kuwaitis). But for all the sound and fury surrounding the number of embedded journalists, only 40 or 50 would see actual combat. What’s more, despite the large numbers of embedded journalists, they were outnumbered by those acting outside the embrace of the military. Those unilaterals, as they became known, were based in Kuwait, Qatar and Baghdad. Some roamed the battlefield. Some reported from the roofs of their hotels in Baghdad. 23
For the American military, the embedding of journalists during the first stage of the war was a major success. As a RAND study concluded,:
Embedded press during major combat operations in Iraq, coupled with the decisive military victory and the by-and-large exemplary performance of U.S. forces, resulted in excellent public relations for the military. Public support for the military remained high, even during the second week of the war … when several negative stories appeared. 24
The RAND study added that the military’s commitment “to the embedded press system, even in the face of events that did not show the military in a favorable light (such as the reporting of accidental civilian casualties at a checkpoint), served to increase and maintain military credibility.”25
The Tribune report concluded that “…Americans gained a better comprehension of what the military does and of the sacrifices and hardships thousands of Americans make on a daily basis. And it renewed pride in the U.S. military.” 26
Having the independent press along to bear honest witness paid off, just as the military planners had hoped. After the war, Victoria Clarke, speaking at a Brookings Institution panel, said:
I've used this story several times, but I knew with great certainty if we went to war, the Iraqi regime would be doing some terrible things and would be incredibly masterful with the lies and the deception. And I could stand up there at that podium and Secretary Rumsfeld could stand up there and say very truthfully the Iraqi regime is putting its soldiers in civilian clothing so they can ambush our soldiers. Some people would believe us and some people wouldn't. But we had hundreds and hundreds of credible, independent journalists saying the Iraqi regime is putting their soldiers in civilian clothing. So we knew that would be a very effective tool.27
Contrast with Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in 1861, who said, “We don’t want the truth told about things here … We don’t want the enemy any better informed than he is.”28
At no point was the strategy of using the media to bolster the credibility of the military more apparent than in the closing days of the drive to Baghdad. Had there been no embedded journalists, the story would have played out this way:
Gen. Vincent Brooks, the U.S. military’s chief spokesman operating out of Camp Doha in Qatar, would have told the 200 or so assembled press that American troops had moved into Baghdad airport and were in the outskirts of Baghdad.
The world’s media then would have broadcast Iraq’s minister of information, Mohammed Said Sahaf, saying that Baghad is "safe and secure," that the invading "louts" and "mercenaries" were being "slaughtered."
"We have killed most of the infidels, and I think we will finish off the rest soon," Sahaf said.29
Who would have known what to believe? The conventions of “objective” news coverage would have required journalists to offer up both views and let the audience decide. But with live television images showing American tanks at the airport, Sahaf was reduced, at least to American eyes, to a comic figure. He may have played differently in the coffee shops of Cairo and Amman, but there was nothing the American military could have done about that. In America, the Iraqi regime was reduced to farce.30
Polling by Pew showed the military’s credibility with the American public was high. At the end of March 2003, 84 percent of Americans were saying they had confidence in the accuracy of the military’s reports about the war.31
But if embedding was a boon to the military’s credibility, the results are more ambiguous for the press. As the RAND study noted:
Credibility is particularly hard to nail down for the press because of its atomized nature: different press agencies deserve different levels of credibility; however, different people will mentally aggregate ‘press’ at different levels; some might distinguish between print and television, while other might single out specific agencies for greater skepticism, and still others might consider the press as a single monolithic enterprise. 32
At the height of major combat operations, the Gallup pollsters asked the American public to rate the job news organization have done in covering the war. The first week of the war a resounding 84 percent said the press did an “excellent” or “good” job, numbers that slipped a bit the second week to 79 percent. Those laudable numbers came in an era when large majorities of American (ranging from 58 to 62 percent) said that in general news organizations were often inaccurate. And only slim majorities described themselves as having any level of trust and confidence in the media. In short, the public believed the war coverage more than they typically believe the media.33
But before drawing any link between that level of trust and embedding it is instructive to look back at similar polling during the first Gulf War when most journalists were kept far from the fighting. The public’s ratings then were, if anything slightly higher. 34
These conclusions were essentially duplicated by polling done by the Pew Charitable Trust in May 2004. 35
The increased credibility of the press may have been rub off from the generally high credibility military pronouncements had in the minds of the general public. Nonetheless, there is evidence that embedding bolstered news media credibility.
A Los Angeles Times poll found that “55 percent said the greater media access is good for the country because it gives the American people an uncensored view of events. By contrast, 37 percent said embedded coverage is bad because it provides too much information about military actions as they unfold …” 36
"I think all the reporters we have over there are showing us the battlefield, the way it really feels, and I suppose that's as good a kind of coverage as you can get," said Fred Cowardin, a Florida respondent in the (Los Angeles Times) survey. "I can't personally verify the accuracy of everything I'm seeing, but it's much easier to believe with this access."37
But Pew asked several other questions that raise concerns about the credibility of war coverage among the American public.
Thirty-eight percent of respondents told Pew pollsters in May 2004 that news reports are portraying the situation in Iraq as worse than it really is, 14 percent said the news reports portray it better than it is and 36 percent say the media tells it the way it really is. Or to put it another way, a clear majority thought the media had it wrong.38
There is also an appetite among American news consumers for fair coverage of the war on terror. In excess of two-thirds told the Pew pollsters that they preferred coverage of the war on terror that was “neutral” instead of “pro-America.”
About half of the same respondents told Pew that media criticism of the military helps keep America’s military better prepared.39
Which raises the question: Did embedding journalists help the American media produce accurate and objective war coverage? Journalists hold as an article of faith if they are accurate and objective they will be credible.
There is, of course, no obvious metric for objectivity. One man’s objectivity is another man’s propaganda.
The Project on Excellence in Journalism, part of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and underwritten by the Pew Charitable Trusts, said that, “The review of embedded reports shows that the inevitable bias that comes with point of view is a risk journalists and viewers must beware of.” 40 The Project on Excellence report offers as an example a story done on March 22, 2003, by Oliver North, who was embedded with Marines and reporting for Fox News. North is a former Marine lieutenant colonel who was the central figure in the arms sales to Iran and the diversion of some profits to the Nicaraguan rebels in the 1980s. He was convicted of felony charges in that scandal but the convictions were later overturned. In that March 22, 2003, report, the Project on Excellence says North …
… talked about a ‘remarkable display of military prowess and might’ on the part of ‘my marines.’ North also covered the Marines aiding a wounded Iraqi teenage girl and transporting her to medical attention. ‘A remarkable display of humanitarianism by our armed forces as well,’ the Fox anchor added. Some may question how representative North's reporting may be. North, however, is employed as a journalist by Fox News. 41
It is easier to measure accuracy than objectivity, although as we will see those two concepts are interwoven.
Editor and Publisher magazine is the major trade journal of American newspapers and magazines. Its editor, Greg Mitchell, kept a tally of what he viewed as errors in the first week alone. He listed 15, including: Saddam may well have been killed in the first night's surprise attack (March 20); Umm Qasr has been taken (March 22); Iraqi citizens are greeting Americans as liberators (March 22); Umm Qasr has been taken (March 23); a captured chemical plant likely produced chemical weapons (March 23); and, Umm Qasr has been taken (March 24).42
But factual errors of that sort are inevitable in a fast-moving war. It is not for nothing that the military refers to the fog of war.
More important were stories that the embedded journalists missed entirely, some understandably, some inexplicably, all contributing to a distorted view of the war that damaged the overall credibility.
Embeds saw what the military units they were with saw. If the embedded journalist was with a combat unit, he typically had a view out the window of his Humvee as it sped north. There was little time to stop to see what impact all those bombs and artillery shells had on ordinary Iraqis. Or to ask the Iraqis what they thought of the U.S. military juggernaut. Those stories were largely left to the Arab media. The American military was outraged when Al Jazeera ran video of wounded Iraqi civilians. Rumsfeld is seen in the documentary “Control Room” accusing the network of faking the scenes of Iraqi suffering:
We know that Al Jazeera has a pattern of playing propaganda over and over and over again. What they do is when there is bomb goes down they grab some children and some women and pretend the bomb hit the women and children. It seems to me it’s up to all of us to try to tell the truth, to say what we know, to say what we don’t know and to recognize that we’re dealing with people that are willing to lie to the world to attempt to further their case.43
On American television and in its newspaper photographs there was a real absence of suffering. The American public may have read about wounded and dead troops, but they seldom saw them during the early stages of the war.
One exception was a stark photograph published in Army Times April 21, 2003, of a wounded soldier being carried off for medical treatment.44 The soldier later died. When Army Times, an independent paper published by the Gannett Co., printed that photograph, the Army tried to kick out all of the paper’s embedded journalists. (At that point, there were only three Army Times journalists remaining with Army units. Three others had already left the combat zone.) The Army was overruled by the Department of Defense public affairs office, which grudgingly had to admit that the paper had not violated the ground rules governing photographs of wounded soldiers. The rule read: “Battlefield casualties may be covered by embedded media as long as the service member’s identity is protected from disclosure for 72 hours or upon verification of (next of kin) notification, whichever is first.” (See ground rules in Appendix A.)
As the war has dragged on, photographs of wounded Americans have become more common in American newspapers and magazines and on television. The New York Times, in particular, has published images of wounded troops that are remarkable both for their graphic nature and the lack of a negative response from the Pentagon.45
One other aspect of the embedding process that affected credibility was the varied treatment different media got. Some were favored, some were not.
While the Army tried to kick out all of the Army Times journalists after the newspaper published the photograph of the dying soldier, when Fox News reporter Geraldo Rivera gave away his unit’s location by sketching a map in the sand on live television Sunday, March 30, 2003, he was asked to leave briefly and reinstated but no action was taken against any of the other Fox reporters covering the war. The Fox network is generally viewed as the most conservative of the American television networks.
Capt. David Connelly, an Army media relations officer at the U.S. military headquarters in Kuwait during the war, said of Rivera:
He went live on air and basically violated everything you would normally protect: timing, intentions, and things an adversary can use against you. … He scratched out a sketch in the sand that showed their formation, where they were, how far and fast they had traveled, and when they would be at their next location.
When higher headquarters ordered that Rivera be removed, Connolly wrote that Rivera’s unit, the 101st Airborne Division …
… who did not have the benefit of live television, was upset because, ‘he was their man.’ Say what you will about Geraldo, but he is great for morale. … He was eventually pulled, knowing he would go back because the division wanted him back. This was after a heartfelt apology, of course. Luckily, it did not appear that his actions ever got anyone killed.46
But when Philip Smucker, a freelance reporter working for the Christian Science Monitor and the London Daily Telegraph, did much the same thing – he gave away a unit’s location during a live television interview – his treatment was far harsher, even though he was a unilateral not embedded with any American military unit.
U.S. troops escorted the veteran correspondent out of Iraq for reporting information that "could harm him and the unit." Monitor Editor Paul Van Slambrouck maintains that Smucker did not disclose anything that wasn't already known. Smucker told colleagues he had been handcuffed and had equipment confiscated.47
The process of embedding journalists with the military did clearly build media credibility among members of one group: the military.
Bob Franken of CNN, speaking at a Brookings Institution panel, said:
You were there. You experienced everything. That was part of it. The other part of it is that the military people got to see firsthand that we weren't just a bunch of lazy pencil necks, to use the expression, who would sit at our desks in Washington drinking coffee and reporting ignorantly. One of my proudest moments came when this Marine colonel, a John Wayne type if there ever was one, came up to this riffraff group of reporters, all of dirty, none of us had bathed, we were all eating the MREs, (military rations) all that type of thing. And he said, ‘You guys are like the Marines.’ I was embedded with the Marines. ‘That is to say, you'll do whatever it takes to get the job done. Whatever it takes, no excuses.’48
Liz Marlantes, in the Christian Science Monitor, got it right when she wrote:
While there should always be some distance between reporters and the subjects they cover, the gap between the media and the military has in recent years become a chasm. … With the rise of an all-volunteer military, and with fewer and fewer journalists volunteering, one upside to embedding is that it essentially offered journalists a crash course in military service. The program gave many reporters a first-hand understanding of how the military conducts warfare, and, many say, a greater respect for service members. Similarly, the troops and commanding officers in the field had a chance to observe the dedication and professionalism of journalists - and see them in a more sympathetic light.
"This was a very valuable experiment, in having the military ... perhaps discover that reporters are people, too, and vice versa," says Chris Hanson, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland and a former Pentagon reporter. "I think this might help media-military relations in the future, and cut back on the mutual stereotyping that has been a problem for so long."49
The military has shown a remarkably durable commitment to embedding, perhaps because it realizes how effective overall it has been. Even when embedded journalists have produced the worst imaginable news stories, the military has stood up and protected the rights of journalists to stay in the field.
On Nov. 15, 2004, NBC broadcast video shot by Kevin Sites, who was embedded with Marines in Fallujah. The video showed a Marine shooting a wounded and apparently helpless Iraqi. The video created a firestorm of bad publicity for the U.S. military, especially in the Arab world.
Two days after the video first aired, the Armed Services Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, had the Marine Corps commandant before it. The committee chairman, Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, asked, “Can we abandon that plan about embedded reporters? War is hell. … I don't think it's a good idea to have embedded reporters in combat to the extent that we have them. And I hope we abandon that.”
Another committee member, Democrat Rep. Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas, joined in. “Not that we want to keep anything secret. But having had the experience of combat, it's an ugly situation. And people get into different kinds of situations. And we should not be providing Al Jazeera with the kind of propaganda that they have had the last couple-three days.”
But the Marine commandant, Gen. Michael W. Hagee, was firm:
I understand the comment about embedded reporters. Obviously, I know the incident you're talking about. But sir, in my personal opinion, embedded reporters have actually worked very well. They inform the American public about what these great, young Americans are doing over there. And the large, large majority are doing, as you have -- as the members here have already articulated -- are doing a tremendous job. And the American press is an important part of getting that information out. So I would not want -- I personally, Mike Hagee, would not want to do away with something that's working very well.50
For the military, telling the truth is not a moral imperative, it’s a tactic. For the media truth is not a means to an end, it is the end. To be sure, it is a goal the media often misses for any number of reasons -- deadline pressures, financial restraints, competitive pressures and -- never underestimate this one -- incompetence. But Among America’s major media it is seldom the result of a conscious decision to lie.
When the military decided to allow journalists unusually broad access to its operations during the Iraq war it was not lifting the curtain and revealing what the wizard was doing behind the scenes. Neither the media nor the media’s public should ever believe that. It is instructive to read what the military people behind the scenes of the embedding process were doing and thinking.
Capt. David Connolly was a media affairs officer at the U.S. military headquarters in Kuwait during the war. Writing later in Infantry Magazine, he said:
The media should be considered as a component of nonlethal fires/non-kinetic targeting, another tool at our disposal to help accomplish the mission. The media will write their stories, with or without our input. It only makes sense to engage the media to ensure the whole story is told. The media is a venue in which we can pass along our command messages, which contain truthful and factual information. The bottom line is that we should always keep in mind what we are there to do. Always remember the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines that are on the ground sacrificing every day. If we can help their morale and ultimately make their job easier by using the media, we should. It is safe to say that 99 times out of 100, we -- the members of the U.S. military -- are acting with the right intentions. Meaning, we have nothing to hide. We have been given our orders and are attempting to carry them out within laws of land warfare. But bad things happen in war. Not everything goes our way. During these times it is best to confront the media and articulate to the world our side of the story.51
And while portions of that may sound benign, he goes on later in the same article to talk about the role of Information Operations, which is the military branch charged with carrying out propaganda and disinformation operations intended to confuse the enemy, and Public Affairs, which is meant to be the honest voice of the military speaking to the media.
During the initial phases of (Operation Iraqi Freedom), (headquarters) always ensured that Public Affairs planners were involved in the information Operations Working Groups (IOWG). This ensured they were involved in the effects targeting board process. In that case, they could bring that information to the media director. The media director would then have a clear picture of what the commander's intent was and what the staff was attempting to accomplish. Armed with this knowledge the media director could prioritize which of the thousands of media queries to work on while maintaining a level of fairness and equity to all reporters. As an example, prior to crossing the line of departure (LD), IO was pushing themes to the enemy concerning capitulation. Knowing this, the media director could push reporters out to units responsible for dealing with large numbers of enemy prisoners of war (EPWs). These types of stories would send a message to the enemy and the world. The enemy would see how they would be fed, clothed, and provided shelter. Capitulation might appear to be a good option given their current status. The world would see that we were trained and ready.52
Despite the grave risks of being manipulated by the military, the media should continue to take every opportunity to embed with the military. The more experience reporters have covering the military, the more difficult it will be for the military to misuse the media and deceive it. Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, summed it up nicely:
We sometimes talk about win-win propositions, but I think (the Department of Defense) produced one of the most remarkable win-win-win propositions. It's clear that journalists, who want access more than anything else, were given remarkable access. It seems to me clear that the military got much more favorable coverage than they would have had had there not been embedding. And it's clear that the public saw a type of picture that they had never, never had an opportunity to see before.53
And all other considerations aside, the public loved the coverage. According to the Chicago Tribune, “For the week of March 17, (2003) each of the 24-hour news cable channels saw huge gains in viewers following word the night of March 19 that U.S.-led forces had launched the attack on Iraq. … Fox's viewership was up 379 percent over the same time last year, CNN increased by 393 percent, and MSNBC soared by 651 percent, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research.”54
The mass media will never ignore an audience that massive.
1 Paul, Christopher and Kim, James J., “Reporters on the Battlefield: The Embedded Press System in Historical Context” (Santa Monica., Calif., RAND, National Security Research Division, 2004) p. 43
2 Knightley, Phillip, “The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-maker from the Crimea to Kosovo” (Baltimore and London, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000) p. iix
3 Digital History, “War Fever and Antiwar Protests, 1820-1860”
4 Johannsen, Robert W., “To the Halls of the Montezumas: The Mexican War in the American Imagination” (New York, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1985) p. 16
5 Ibid, p. 20
6 Knightley, op. cit., p. 23
7 Knightley, op. cit., p. 21
8 Knightley, op. cit., p. 23
9 Knightley, op. cit., p. 27
10 Newseum, “The New History Gazette – The History of News” (Freedom Forum, 1997) p. 14
11 Knightley, op. cit. p. 131
12 Knightley, op. cit. p. 133
13 Knightley, op. cit. p. 301
14 Knightley, op. cit. p. 401
15 Morello, Carol, “Tight Control Marks Coverage of Afghan War; Curbs Exceed Those of Past; Broader Access Is Promised,” (Washington Post, Dec. 7, 2001) p. A43)
16 Ibid. p. A43
17 Ibid., p. A43
18 Shepard, Alicia C., “Narrowing the Gap: Military, Media and the Iraq War” (Chicago, Robert F. McCormick Tribune Foundation) p. 11
19 Ibid. pp.11-12
20 Ibd., p. 13
21 Department of Defense, “Directive 5122.5: Principles of Information,” Dec. 2, 1993 http://www.usmc.mil/directiv.nsf/0/2d60387a77a175a5852564970066850e/$FILE/MCO%205720.67.pdf
22 Paul, Christopher, op. cit. p. 112
23 Shepard, Alicia, op. cit. p23
24 Paul, Christopher, op. cit. p. 80
25 Paul, Christopher, op. cit., pp. 82-83
26 Shepard, Alicia, op. cit. p. 58
27 Clarke, Victoria, panel member, “Assessing Media Coverage of the War in Iraq: Press Reports” (Brookings Institution, June 17, 2003) http://www.brookings.edu/dybdocroot/comm/events/20030617.pdf
28 Andrews, Peter, “The Media and the Military,” (American Heritage, Vol 42, No. 4, July 1991) p. 71
29 Lamb, David, “He Wages War -- on Reality” (Los Angeles Times, April 8, 2003) p.1
30 Ibid, p. 1
31 Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “TV Combat fatigue on Rise” (Pew Charitable Trust, March 28, 2003) http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=178
32 Paul, Christopher, op. cit. p.88
33 The Gallup Organization, “Media Use and Evaluation” www.gallup.com/poll/content/print.aspx?ci=1663
35 Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Iraq Prison Scandal Hits Home, But Most Oppose Troop Pullout” (Pew Charitable Trust, May 12, 2004)
36 Getlin, Josh, “All-News Channels Find Big Audience (Los Angeles Times, April 5, 2003) p. 4)
38 Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, op. cit.
39 Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Public Wants Neutrality and Pro-American Point of View” (Pew Charitable Trust, July 13, 2003)
40 The Project for Excellence in Journalism & the Committee of Concerned Journalists, “Embedded Journalists: What Are Americans Getting?” (March 22, 2003) http://www.journalism.org/resources/research/reports/war/embed/impressions.asp
42 Mitchell, Greg, “15 Stories They’ve Already Bungled,” (Editor and Publisher online, March 27, 2003) http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1850208
43 Control Room
44 Curtis, Rob, photo of mortally wounded soldier (Army Times, April 21, 2003) p. 6
45 Gilbertson, Ashley, photo of wounded Marine in Fallujah (New York Times, Nov. 10, 2004) p. 1
46 Connolly, Capt. David, “Media on the Battlefield: ‘A Nonlethal Fire’” (U.S. Army Infantry School, Infantry Magazine, No. 3, Vol. 93, May 1, 2004) p. 31
47 Ricchiardi, Sherry, “Close to the Action” (American Journalism Review, May 2003) p. 28
48 Franken, Bob, panel member “Assessing Media Coverage of the War in Iraq: Press Reports” (Brookings Institution, June 17, 2003) http://www.brookings.edu/dybdocroot/comm/events/20030617.pdf
49 Marlantes, Liz, “The other boots on the ground: embedded press” (Christian Science Monitor, April 23, 2003) p. 1
50 House Armed Service Committee, Nov. 17, 2004 (transcript at http://www.house.gov/hasc/schedules/2004.html)
51 Connolly, Capt. David op. cit. p. 31
52 Connolly, Capt. David op. cit. p. 31
53 Hess, Stephen, panel member “Assessing Media Coverage of the War in Iraq: Press Reports” (Brookings Institution, June 17, 2003) http://www.brookings.edu/dybdocroot/comm/events/20030617.pdf
54 Johnson, Allan, “Cable news gets huge ratings lift from war; Some networks also see gains” (Chicago Tribune, March 27, 2003) p. 17
Andrews, Peter, “The Media and the Military,” (American Heritage, Vol 42, No. 4, July 1991) p. 71
Clarke, Victoria. Panel member, “Assessing Media Coverage of the War in Iraq: Press Reports” (Brookings Institution, June 17, 2003) http://www.brookings.edu/dybdocroot/comm/events/20030617.pdf
Connolly, Capt. David, “Media on the Battlefield: ‘A Nonlethal Fire’” (U.S. Army Infantry School, Infantry Magazine, No. 3, Vol. 93, May 1, 2004) p. 31
Curtis, Rob, photo of mortally wounded soldier (Army Times, April 21, 2003) p. 6
Department of Defense, “Directive 5122.5: Principles of Information,” Dec. 2, 1993 http://www.usmc.mil/directiv.nsf/0/2d60387a77a175a5852564970066850e/$FILE/MCO%205720.67.pdf
Digital History, “War Fever and Antiwar Protests, 1820-1860”
Franken, Bob, “Assessing Media Coverage of the War in Iraq: Press Reports” (Brookings Institution, June 17, 2003) http://www.brookings.edu/dybdocroot/comm/events/20030617.pdf
The Gallup Organization, “Media Use and Evaluation,” (www.gallup.com/poll/content/print.aspx?ci=1663)
Getlin, Josh, “All-News Channels Find Big Audience (Los Angeles Times, April 5, 2003) p. 4
Gilbertson, Ashley, photo of wounded Marine in Fallujah (New York Times, Nov. 10, 2004) p. 1
Hess, Stephen, “Assessing Media Coverage of the War in Iraq: Press Reports” (Brookings Institution, June 17, 2003) http://www.brookings.edu/dybdocroot/comm/events/20030617.pdf
House Armed Service Committee, Nov. 17, 2004 (transcript at http://www.house.gov/hasc/schedules/2004.html)
Johannsen, Robert W., “To the Halls of the Montezumas: The Mexican War in the American Imagination” (New York, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1985)
Johnson, Allan, “Cable news gets huge ratings lift from war; Some networks also see gains” (Chicago Tribune, March 27, 2003) p. 17
Knightley, Phillip, “The First Casualty: The War Corrspondent as Hero and Myth-maker from the Crimea to Kosovo” (Baltimore and London, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000)
Lamb, David, “He Wages War -- on Reality” (Los Angeles Times, April 8, 2003) p.1
Marlantes, Liz, “The other boots on the ground: embedded press” (Christian Science Monitor, April 23, 2003) p. 1
Mitchell, Greg, “15 Stories They’ve Already Bungled,” (Editor and Publisher online, March 27, 2003) http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1850208
Morello, Carol, “Tight Control Marks Coverage Of Afghan War; Curbs Exceed Those of Past; Broader Access Is Promised,” Washington Post, Dec. 7, 2001) p. A43
Newseum, “The New History Gazette – The History of News” (Freedom Forum, 1997)
Noujaim, Jehane, “Control Room” (Artisan Entertainment, DVD released Oct. 26, 2004)
Paul, Christopher and Kim, James J., “Reporters on the Battlefield: The Embedded Press System in Historical Context” (Santa Monica., Calif., RAND, National Security Research Division, 2004)
Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “TV Combat fatigue on Rise” (Pew Charitable Trust, March 28, 2003) http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=178
Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Public Wants Neutrality and Pro-American Point of View” (Pew Charitable Trust, July 13, 2003)
Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Iraq Prison Scandal Hits Home, But Most Oppose Troop Pullout” (Pew Charitable Trust, May 12, 2004)
The Project for Excellence in Journalism & the Committee of Concerned Journalists, “Embedded Journalists: What Are Americans Getting?” (March 22, 2003) http://www.journalism.org/resources/research/reports/war/embed/impressions.asp
Ricchiardi, Sherry, “Close to the Action” (American Journalism Review, May 2003) p. 28
Shepard, Alicia C., “Narrowing the Gap: Military, Media and the Iraq War” (Chicago, Robert F. McCormick Tribune Foundation)
“War Fever and Antiwar Protests -- Period: 1820-1860,” Digital History. http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?HHID=318