In Stone
September 2008

by Ron Steinman

In mid-July The New York Times ran an unusual front-page story by Michael Kamber and Tim Arango with the headline, "4,000 U.S Deaths, and a Handful of Images." It was about news coverage in Iraq and its failings. The words were direct, the outrage carefully parsed. The accompanying photos were powerful. The story hit a nerve mostly among journalists because it implied, rightfully, that freedom of the press is at stake. The complaint is justified. The story was about the embed regulations, and principally, the troubles a freelance photographer had because he released photos on his Web site, that, according to the Department of Defense, he had no right to do.

As the war in Iraq was about to start, the press, as many in America, got caught up in the White House's crusade against Saddam Hussein. Overeager to be in on the story of the decade – going to war is not a normal pursuit, nor should it be– the lords of the press gave in to the Department of Defense and its demands to limit access to the war. These demands were carefully honed after the Vietnam War ended because the military felt the press had had too much freedom to cover that war. With what I can only assume was a weak battle against the Pentagon, the news media agreed to the new guidelines and "embed" became the only way a reporter could cover the war. I believe the Pentagon duped all media of whatever the size, power and influence. As far as I know not one news organization put up a strong fight against embedding as a way to cover the war. The cheering squad had to be in place.

Before we indict the Department of Defense for the embed concept, and it deserves an indictment, it is worth looking at the guidelines as publicly outlined on a Department of Defense Web site: When first announced, there was a flurry of resentment and some anger about the new rules. Official complaints quickly died as war approached. Though apparently not pleased, every news organization in the world accepted these rules. Freelance journalists, whether on their own or on assignment, also had to follow the same rules. After succumbing to the new regulations, journalists thought they could go anywhere, and do anything, all with the blessing of the Department of Defense. They obviously did not read the embed rules, those newly printed barriers to the war's coverage.

Take a look at some of the regulations and keep in mind that more often than not the final arbiter is the commander on the ground, the officer, either commissioned or non-commissioned, who has the right, a right that is not clearly defined in the new policy, to massage these rules to his or her satisfaction, and in ways that often get in the way of the reporter. It is important to note that any professional in a war zone has always understood most of these rules, many of which have never been in print. Only now they are as if a tattoo forever on the canvas of news that will never be allowed to fade.

There are rules for everything. Some inhibit coverage. Others, seemingly, do not. The Department of Defense describes an embed the following way: "An embed is defined as a media representative remaining with a unit on an extended basis—perhaps a period of weeks or even months." Further, the rules state there will be no use of personal vehicles. Note that we used to ride to war in Vietnam in our own cars and jeeps. The military will provide food, a place to sleep and medical attention, if needed. No equipment will be "specifically prohibited," but commanders on the ground can "temporarily restrain transmissions for security reasons." I don't have a problem with that. If a freelance has a sponsor, he or she can embed. For me that is a problem. It means in effect there is no such entity as a freelance. Commanders can assign escorts, which is nothing new. Journalists can cover combat and "safety is not a reason to exclude them from combat." That, too, is the way it should be.

Many rules make sense, including the ones that clearly state that embedded media cannot carry firearms, alcoholic beverages or possess pornography. For security reasons there are restrictions regarding the release of information during an operation and about an operation that if made public could aid the enemy. The military is obviously over-protective of its turf and, with that, arrogant about its understanding of the enemy. In some ways, the military may be right. But just because the enemy seems to be ragtag does not mean that, in the age of the Internet, he lacks sophistication and an understanding of how the Coalition works, especially United States forces. There is no argument there. But restrictions on showing wounded and dead are unreasonable. It is understood that DOD will be the first to release the names of those killed in action. I don't have a problem with that. However, it is impossible to get the names and permission of the wounded during coverage of an action. War, unfortunately is about dying, death and destruction. It is inhibiting to stop in the middle of a fight or incident where there is more heat than light, and get prior written consent from a combatant during a firefight.

Finally there is this: "Any violation of the ground rules could result in termination of that media's embed opportunity." Once signed on, there is no other choice. Fair enough.

When embedding was agreed to, a precedent had been established. I do not agree with some analysts who think these rules will change more in favor of the press during war in the future. With the military there is rarely a turning back from a set of rules it devises to protect itself. I fear the media, with the simple acceptance of embedding, gave up forever its ability to properly cover the Iraq war and any war in the future.

Despite what the politicians and the generals want us to believe, war is not a private enterprise conducted by a duly elected government in what purports to be our democratic society. War is public. It is worth repeating. War is public. Democracy demands that we as a people must know everything we can about the war we are engaged in. The only stipulation is no military action should be revealed before its time, nor should a military action be compromised while it is happening. Having covered war in more than one country, I can tell you these are not difficult rules to follow. They do not get in the way of a journalist's right to report. If we send men and women to fight in a war to protect this country, then the public has the right to see it through the eyes of reporters assigned to cover it. That should be for any war America fights. If journalists do not have full access to the field where the story takes place, we might never know what really happens on the ground. A reporter should report on what he or she sees. If a reporter has limited access to the field and to the action, something that Kamber and Arango write about with intelligence, the American people are not getting a true picture of the war now, nor will they for any war in the future.

I can hear some people revving up their objections by arguing that what I write is a betrayal of our brave troops. That seeing wounded and dead on the battlefield or after a roadside bombing undermines America's mission in Iraq. Nonsense. You cannot sanitize war and its havoc. Furthermore we should not sanitize war and its havoc. Some want photos of war to show only gallant men and women giving out lollipops and chewing gum, cavorting with the locals, directing traffic, building schools and dams. These play a role in war. Unfortunately, this is not a true picture of daily life in the war zone. Think of America's failure to win hearts and minds in Vietnam.

Despite the restrictions in Iraq, there are journalists who wrote and photographed what he or she wanted, fulfilling their role as observers to inform the public. These are the exception, not the rule. Some even went on to win important awards, but that is not why journalists do what they do. Restrictive rules are there for the breaking. But would not cooperation and understanding with the DOD be better? There will always be a push and pull between journalism and government or officialdom. It is good for the society in which we live. If restrictive measures become an impassable chasm between the press and the military, truth suffers. With truth withheld, our democracy suffers, because we, as a people, lack the information to make informed judgments.

The concept of embedding journalists in a war zone, where officialdom limits access and freedom to report, may be the worst thing to happen to freedom of the press in America. I can see the idea of embedding journalists creeping into other aspects of our daily life. We can either fight or become a rubber stamp for someone else's truth. It is our choice. The danger is that other monolithic organizations will buy into the embed concept and so further limit free and open access to all coverage. The art of embedding, and it is art in the crudest sense, is attractive to any organization bent on controlling the flow of news. Caveat Emptor. Let the buyer beware.

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© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.