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© Vincent Laforet / The New York Times

A Photo Essay by Vince Laforet, The New York Times


April 1, 2003

For almost a month now, I have been aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier as part of the military's "embed" process. It's been an amazing process - a learning process - for both the Navy and the media.

I boarded this ship with limited expectations of what we would be allowed to cover - I was skeptical about the military's agenda. At first, things went poorly on this ship. Journalists were required round-the-clock escorts - even for meals. This proved to be a huge logistical nightmare for us, as the people we photographed/interviewed, were visibly uncomfortable with having a Navy personnel overhearing every word, and as the Public Affairs office struggled to find enough bodies/volunteers to escort 30 members of the media - 24 hours a day - 7 days a week.

All interview requests had to be done through the PAOs (Public Affairs Officers.) Our first media uproar occurred less than a week into the embed, when a few of the interviews were abruptly cancelled by the PAOs - one LA Times reporter was discouraged to write about on-board pregnancies. Such issues were unflattering to the Navy and off limits we were told. A quick e-mail campaign to Pentagon officials resulted in a significant turning of the tides. The PAO's office was told not to interfere with the aim or content of our coverage. I should clarify that the Navy does not read through or censor the content we send back at anytime - we are trusted not to make any mistakes and release sensitive information.

By the second week, the Navy allowed the media to roam freely aboard the ship - only classified areas and the reactor were off limits - escorts were of course required on the flight deck, an area which has been described as the most dangerous 4.5 acres in the world. Spirits were up - and feature stories began to flow. Still photographers benefited the most - as the four of us were allowed to work on mini-essays which was a welcome relief from photographing endless waves of takeoffs and landing (which is what I think the Navy expected us to cover day in and day out.)

Reporters remained frustrated however - as rear Admiral John Kelly, the senior navy man in the fleet - was extremely reluctant to release any information to them during the daily press briefing on this ship. In fact it wasn't uncommon to have him release information 24 hours after it had been aired on CNN, or in a CENTCOM briefing in Qatar - with no further details. His priority was clear - he was not willing to take any risks whatsoever in releasing ANY information that might put his pilots or sailors in jeopardy -
even if they had been covered a few dozen times over by the networks and confirmed by Pentagon officials. By the time the reporters received the information on this ship - the stories were already landing on people's doorsteps back at home. One thing had become clear in terms of the embed process - this is NOT place where one can be expected to release breaking news.

One further difficulty involved random blackouts on this ship. These blackouts, referred to as "River City" here, were without warning and had no specified durations. We were not allowed to make any outgoing calls, send any e-mails, photographs - anything. Doing so would result in a quick end to an embed position. The reasons for the blackouts were clear - the Navy wanted to make sure that editors back home would not guess that the war had started - when all lines of communications suddenly went dead in the Middle East. Therefore these blackouts became routine weeks before the start of
the war. What did not make any sense to us: was the Navy's refusal to let us know when these restrictions would be lifted - after all we could do nothing with that information amidst the blackout. Letting us know how long each would last would have allowed us to go to sleep, or take a nap - instead of waiting up all night for the first opportunity to send in our material. One of the media members was driven to tears when the sanctions
were lifted minutes prior to her deadline - only to find out that the ship's systems people decided that it was a good time to perform a back-up of the entire ship's e-mail - effectively making it impossible for her to file. Another reporter missed the opportunity to get her story on the start of the war from this carrier into her newspaper -when the blackout was announced as she was pressing the "Send" key on her e-mail.

Satellite connections are nearly impossible out here - the ship makes constant turns at irregular intervals - as they have to remain within a virtual grid in the Persian Gulf. The only predictable thing is that the ship would line itself up with the wind for take-offs and landings. Therefore by the time one was able to get a sat signal and start to send a
picture - the ship would invariably turn when the photograph was 99% complete - resulting in a lost signal. Sat Phone voice calls also required one to scream over the roar of the jet engines - an impossible feat.

Overall my experience has been very rewarding - albeit with a significant caveat. I have been able to tell the story of the 5,500 men and women on this ship with relatively little interference by the Navy. But it has been an extremely one-sided story - after all, we can cover the bombs being assembled, loaded up, the planes taking off - but we will never see the effect of those bombs from here. I do find solace in knowing that I am part
of a team - and that my colleagues at The New York Times are on the ground in Iraq - and will be able to complete the circle, and present a full report.

I think that most of the friction between the media and the Navy - is a result of a fundamental misunderstanding of what the other is trying to do - not out of mistrust or malice (although there has been some of that at times - and a healthy amount of it in my opinion.) The Navy wants to ensure secrecy and surprise - while the media is looking to be the first to break the news. Af first, it was apparent to me that the Navy did not understand that we were simply trying to tell daily stories/features about the aviators
and sailors on this ship - some of the PAOs and sailors assumed we had a pre-determined agenda. Also - the Navy still doesn't understand that once the news has been broken - it is no longer "NEWs." Information about events that took place two days ago is no longer considered relevant by our editors back at home - if ANYONE else has previously reported on it and/or if they don't provide any fresh information.

One of the fundamental misunderstandings by the Navy is their inability to comprehend that we need to witness events happening - not learn of them after the fact. This is particularly relevant to still photographers of course. As the first wave of aircraft taking part in "Operation Iraqi Freedom" catapulted off this ship - we were yanked off the flight deck for a mandatory meeting. The PAO who pulled us off the flight deck had not been
told - nor had anyone one the ship been told - that the war was starting. But as we came down the stairs into the media room - we saw the images of those same planes live on CNN announcing that these were the first flights of the war. To be fair, the PAO who pulled us off the deck didn't know - BUT that's why we photographed every major sortie for days on end - journalists understand that we often don't have the luxury of being told of events before hand and have to work defensively. The Navy still doesn't understand this - they just seem to think we're workaholics or over-eager. Ultimately we caught the last two planes of the first wave - after a heated argument.

Also: Live television should simply be banned from the front lines/embed process. They make it impossible for the rest of us to do our jobs. Serious restrictions must be put on Live TV - because they have little to no delay in what they report. Unfortunately, we all have to live by the same rules - and no dispensation is given to newspapers or non-live media -even though the pictures/stories have no chance of making it to print for at
least a few hours - sometimes over 24 hours. I think it's clear that people are sick and tired of seeing pixelated video of sand for hours on end with no information - why don't the news television networks understand this and start to produce quantitative reports - albeit a few hours late? One can only dream. I guess it's a good thing they don't - so that people continue to pick up newspapers and magazines that provide content which in turn drives journalism.

One of my goals has been to make sure that being part of the embed - does not mean that I am "in bed" - with the Navy. This has been difficult as these are some of the most impressive young people I've met - the average age on this ship is 21 - and I challenge you to find any group of young people who will agree to work 14 hour shifts, 7 days a week, for over 9 months straight. This is grueling work - both physically and mentally.
Many babies have been born in these nine months - with the fathers away in the Persian Gulf - and many marriages have dissolved - I have personally heard the stories. The pilots here are also a rare breed - sure many of them could step into "Maverick's" shoes (From the film Top Gun) in a heartbeat - but they also have incredible responsibilities to make sure their bombs don't hit "friendlies" or civilians. They also risk their lives every time they take off or land from this ship - let alone fly into fireworks over Baghdad.

In the end my challenge has been to try and tell the story of the people on this carrier accurately and objectively - to show the incredible sacrifices these men and women put in everyday - while not forgetting what this is all about - what happens when those bombs are released.

© Vincent Laforet / The New York Times

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