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Iraq: Media, Public Finding Military's 'Embed' System Has Pluses, Minuses For Covering Wars

Technological progress in recent years has brought live images of wars into people's homes via their television sets. Armies generally prefer to keep war correspondents far from the action out of concern for the journalists' safety, but also to prevent intelligence leaks and to avoid negative coverage if events go poorly. In advance of the current war in Iraq, the U.S. and British military instituted a new system of "embedding," or assigning, more than 500 reporters with specific military units. While this has brought a record number of reporters close to the scene of battle, RFE/RL reports it has raised questions about the media's claims of independent and unbiased reporting.

Prague, 28 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In addition to the tens of thousands of coalition forces now fighting in Iraq, some 500 journalists are "embedded" with military units to provide a firsthand report of battle. The system is now more than a week old and both its advantages and disadvantages are becoming apparent.

Bob Steel, a journalism lecturer at the Poynter Institute in Florida, said the system so far has provided far greater access than was available during the 1991 Gulf War, when the press was tightly restricted. "We have had insight into this war to a much greater degree than we certainly had during the Gulf War. The embedded journalists have given us a lens on both the preparation for war and the battlefield action in a much more focused way than we have seen in the past," Steel said.

Embedding has enabled the U.S. and British military to convey their progress and losses in a more effective manner -- through the eyes and lips of reporters rather than through commanders and their official spokesman.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is participating in the embedding system. Correspondent Ron Synovitz is traveling with the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, which was one of the first units to cross the Iraqi frontier from Kuwait when the war started. Synovitz's unit is now somewhere south of Baghdad near the city of Najaf -- he cannot give his precise location because of strict Pentagon rules over what reporters can and cannot report.

Synovitz is a strong supporter of the embedding system, saying it gives him insight into what is happening on the battlefield that his "nonembedded" colleagues do not have -- even if he is not always free to share this information with us and by extension to our listeners.

"Well-briefed, embedded journalists in Iraq have known the battle plan for the division they are with from the beginning of the war. From this perspective, we can see that our nonembedded colleagues are sometimes grasping at small pieces of information and are making inaccurate assumptions based on these 'snapshots.' I've learned from this experience that the fog of war can blind journalists and news desks more than the rank-and-file soldiers in the battlefield. The danger is that those journalists with access to many wire-service news reports sometimes think that they are seeing the bigger picture while the full battle plan remains embargoed and unknown to them. As a result many news organizations are unintentionally reporting speculation as fact. This is how journalists themselves can sometimes be responsible for making truth the first casualty in war," Synovitz said.

That enthusiasm is shared by another embedded reporter, CNN's Walter Rodgers. Rodgers, traveling with U.S. tanks on their drive toward Baghdad, was quoted by "The Washington Post" as describing the experience as "unbelievable." "I don't believe I've ever had such access over 36 years of reporting," Rodgers said.

The drawbacks of such a system, however, can be serious. In addition to the reporting restrictions, embedded journalists are almost wholly dependent on their units to provide them with information. The danger is that the embedded reporter can assume the role of unofficial spokesperson for the unit.

Additionally, while knowing what is happening in one battle or on one ship is important, it is not the whole story. News reports that rely too heavily on "embedded" eyewitness accounts risk missing the big picture.

Poynter's Bob Steel told RFE/RL: "We must recognize as viewers and readers and listeners that we only get slices of the full war picture each time we see, hear, or read one of these reports. We have to make sure we consume a lot of information in order to put each story into meaningful context."

Steel noted the U.S. military and the other coalition allied military leaders and governments were "exceptionally restrictive" on media access during the 1991 Gulf War. As a result, he said, the media ended up giving the world "a much more sanitized version" than what was actually taking place.

"Journalists must operate on the principle of independence. We must make sure that we are independent observers and reporters of what takes place, whether they're the routine stories in our communities or what's happening on a battlefield. If we are denied access to the true elements of war, then we will not be able to honor that principle of independence and serve citizens," Steel said.

"The Wall Street Journal" reported this week that some branches of the U.S. military are benefiting more than others from the embed program that the commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, General Tommy Franks, says he is a "big fan" of embedding.

The U.S. Air Force had planned to embed 83 reporters but in the end embedded only 18 since authorities at almost all of the 30 bases in various countries from which the air force is taking off for missions over Iraq wish to remain anonymous. The other branches of the U.S. military, the army, marines, and navy, are all carrying far more reporters, with the army embedding most.

Reporters embedded aboard naval boats from which cruise missiles are launched have had to face up to 12-hour news blackouts during launches, making their news reports at best footnotes to history.

And just as there are differences in the way embedded reporters and anchors see the big picture, there are similar differences between anchors sitting relatively close to the action in Kuwait or Qatar and those back at company headquarters in the U.S. or U.K.

BBC defense correspondent Paul Adams, in an internal memo, accused the central newsroom of misleading viewers by playing down the success of the allied forces and exaggerating the severity of casualties suffered by British forces.

Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" yesterday quoted BBC's head of news, Richard Sambrook, as responding that is difficult for reporters in Iraq to be able to distinguish true reports from false ones.