Putting the Media in Soldiers Shoes
May 2003

by Susan B. Markisz

It was a daring experiment. Embedding journalists with troops during the war in Iraq is not the first time the United States government capitalized on the American media to try and influence public perception. But for the first time in history, the Pentagon hammered out an ambitious agreement with media bureau chiefs representing national and international media, designed to give journalists unprecedented access to daily combat operations in Iraq, with minimal restrictions.

In a telephone interview on May 6, Bryan Whitman, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, and one of the co-authors of the plan, addressed the motivations for the embedded journalists plan. “As the potential for military action increased, there was a conflict on the horizon,” he said. “We were getting information from media managers and reporters that they wanted to cover alongside the troops, up close and personal and we needed to find a way to bridge that gap while protecting our position.”

One of the factors which ultimately motivated the Pentagon to allow embedded journalists was Saddam Hussein himself. “Our potential adversary was a practiced liar, who used deception to fool the world community and what he was up to. The question was how to mitigate,” said Whitman. “We believed by putting a trained observer in the field---which I think is the definition of a reporter---to report in near real time, we could counter some of the disinformation coming out of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense.”

In its official policy, posted on the Department of Defense website, The Pentagon acknowledged that “media coverage of future operations will to a large extent, shape public perception of the national security environment now and in the years ahead.” (www.defenselink.mil/news/Feb2003/d20030228.pdf)

While the embedment process offered narrow coverage from a particular vantage point, it offered reporters the opportunity to develop close relationships with the troops and therefore the ability to report in depth from that position. “We are proud and confident in the professionalism and experience of our forces; how well-trained, equipped they are; and the dedication and care used to execute their duties to avoid collateral damage,” emphasized Whitman. “It was a good way to let Americans and the world community witness what our troops do. In our experience it is inescapable that after spending some time with our troops, reporters would see their professionalism and determination.”

On the surface, the results of this broad experiment appear to be a win-win situation for all concerned. But further review may yet determine whether agreement to restrictions in the Pentagon policy hindered journalists or compromised their objectivity, whether the embedding process lived up to expectations of journalists and their media affiliations, and whether accredited unilateral journalists encountered difficulties because of the choices they made.

From a content perspective, what resulted from embedded photojournalists was no less than a riveting portrait of the U.S. military during combat in the war in Iraq, with journalists reporting and photographing alongside troops as they advanced on Umm Qasr, Nasiriyah, Basrah and Baghdad. There were spectacular images from journalists representing many media organizations. David Leeson and Cheryl Diaz Meyer, staff photographers with the Dallas Morning News, were embedded with the Third Infantry Division and the U.S. Marines of the Second Tank Battalion respectively. New York Times staff photographer Vincent Laforet, embedded on the USS Abraham Lincoln, produced stunning images of night time sorties, life on the flight deck, and feature stories below decks, reproduced in the New York Times 16 page daily Nation at War section, with some images running 24 inches across the page. Todd Maisel, of the New York Daily News, embedded with the Seabees, spent most of his six week assignment in a waiting game, laden with NBC gear, 3 cameras, lenses and laptop, for a combat assignment that never happened, photographing instead, Seabees engaged in a variety of humanitarian and support activities. There was no provision in place for a journalist to switch to another unit, to go off in pursuit of another story and return to their unit, something that would have been highly impractical, given the logistics involved, but it might have made the idea more palatable for those who wished to have a little more flexibility in their reporting.

According to Navy Chief Petty Officer Diane Perry of the Defense Department, there was a broad range of media representation. “The Department of Defense issued invites for more than 800 embedded media positions, of which more than 600 were deployed from 220 media organizations,” she said. “70% of media allocations were slated for domestic national print and electronic media, 20% for international media representing more than 60 countries in Europe, Asia and South America, including news agencies such as Sky News and Al Jazeera, and the remaining 10% of the embedded positions were allocated to local and regional media.”

The experiment could have gone horribly wrong for both media and military, had the outcome not been swift and casualty numbers low. But a quick glance at some of the headlines in the Nation at War section of The New York Times, revealed that the story of embedded media covering the war in Iraq was almost as big as the story of the war itself:

Reporters Respond Eagerly to Pentagon Welcome Mat; In Europe, War Coverage is Everywhere, All the Time: Page B3 March 23, 2003; Television Producers are Struggling to Keep Track of War’s Progress, or the Lack of It, Page B14, March 26, 2003; Hot Disputes over Images of POW’s Held on Each Side, Page B6, March 26, 2003; Reporters New Battlefield: Access Has Its Risks as Well as Its Rewards, Page B2, March 31, 2003; News Organizations Remove Some Reporters from Units – Reassigned to Begin Reporting Independent of Military Oversight, Page B12, April 11, 2003.

Largely credited to Victoria Clarke, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, Bryan Whitman, and other service chiefs of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps units in the Pentagon, and approved by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the embedment process required journalists to agree to certain restrictions or risk termination of their placement. Restrictions included an embargo on time sensitive operations and locations that could possibly compromise troop movements, classified material and a rule prohibiting “photographs or other visual media showing an enemy prisoner of war or detainees’ recognizable face, nametag or other identifying feature,” citing provisions of the Geneva conventions of 1949. “The Geneva convention is a legal document,” said Whitman, “There are different interpretations. But our lawyers felt that it was the basis for a ground rule that established guidelines for photographing epws from a distance, so we had to strike a balance while trying to provide an appropriate level of access.”

The Defense Department was serious about following through on consequences for journalists who did not abide by the rules. Whitman said that only a handful of embedded journalists, including one or two unilaterals, were pulled from their positions. “It was rare,” he said, “and [it was] mainly for rules protecting operational security.” But a compelling close-up image of an Iraqi detainee being strip searched by marines, taken by Cheryl Diaz Meyer, of the Dallas Morning News, ultimately led to the loss of her embedded position with the Marines Second Tank Battalion. The image ran 2 columns by 3 inches in the Dallas Morning News on April 10, and on the same day, it ran as the lead photo on the front page of the New York Times Nation at War section and was seen by an unhappy Pentagon.

Ken Geiger, Director of Photography of the Dallas Morning News said that most of the requests in the Pentagon’s policy on media coverage were reasonable and the arrangement worked out well for The Dallas Morning News, allowing them to cover the war from positions they otherwise might not have been able to cover unilaterally. “We signed the agreement that if we embed, we’ll abide by the rules as set down by the embedment process,” he said in a telephone interview earlier this week. “We had a long debate on whether to show faces. We told our photographers that if there was a question, to shoot it and we would examine them later on a case by case basis.”

The image in question of an Iraqi, who, according to Geiger, was later released, was a haunting and compelling image of the Iraqi opposition, contrasting with the hundreds of photos that were being transmitted by photographers across Iraq, of American soldiers beating a path to Baghdad’s door. The Pentagon responded on April 11 by advising the Washington office of the Dallas Morning News that Diaz Meyer would lose her position with the Marines of the Second Tank Battalion, a position she had reported from since the beginning of the war in Iraq. Geiger says it was the one restriction that was “hard to swallow.”

“We broke the rules,” said Geiger. “In our haste to share images as Baghdad fell, we were wrapped up in the bigger picture and we lost sight of our agreement. We should not have published it. We should have been better gatekeepers, given our agreement with the military.”

Ultimately the Dallas Morning News sent a request to the wire services and the New York Times to kill the photo, and DMN editors pulled Diaz Meyer from her embedded position prior to her being terminated, and reassigned her to Baghdad to pursue other stories independently.

Geiger says he has heard the argument from the larger newspapers about the objectivity issue with embedded journalists, but says the price of having someone working unilaterally on the outside, for the Dallas Morning News, who had four embedded positions, was enormous. “We don’t have the deep pockets like other larger newspapers,” he said. “We had an opportunity to tell the story from one perspective and we used other means to tell the other side of the story. It is a finite way of saying that our photographic staff didn’t tell the whole story, but our newspaper did.”

Although Diaz Meyer was not the first female photojournalist to cover the front lines in war, her photographs and dispatches, sent to family, friends and colleagues via email throughout her assignment, offer a poignant account of the marines of the Second Tank Battalion. They add a humorous and uniquely female perspective of what it was like to be surrounded by hundreds of Marines in battle, living in close quarters. In World War II, 127 American women had secured official military accreditation as war correspondents, some of whom had managed to get to the front lines. But there is little evidence of the level of adversity faced by photographers like Diaz Meyer, 1 of 60 female journalists embedded in Iraq, whose nom de plume was either The Reporter or The Poncho Queen, depending on whether she was transmitting pictures, or taking care of personal business.

Vincent Laforet, a staff photographer with the New York Times acknowledged that although the embed process was largely positive, it did not go well at first. Personnel aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln were initially wary of journalists, subjecting them to unannounced blackouts, resulting in some missed deadlines in the early stages of the war, 24/7 Public Affairs Officer escorts, rules which were eventually relaxed. “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,” he said in his photo essay “The Carrier,” published on The Digital Journalist last month. But, he added, “One thing had become clear in terms of the embedment process, this is NOT a place where one can be expected to release breaking news.”

Transcripts of meetings between Victoria Clarke, Bryan Whitman, Service Chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps Units, with media bureau chiefs on January 14 and February 27, 2003, and posted on the DOD website revealed that the blackout restrictions for Navy embeds were conveyed up front to media managers. (http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Feb2003/t02282003_t0227bc.html). In a humorous exchange, Rear Admiral Steve Pietropaoli, Navy Chief of Information who was at the Feb. 27th meeting acknowledged that the Navy was going to impose the “arbitrary and capricious reporting windows rule” as military action began and that in all likelihood, there would initially be blackouts in order to maintain an element of tactical surprise. “You guys would like to be able to go live 24/7 and we would like to be able to control your timing,” he said.

Todd Maisel of the Daily News, embedded with the Seabees, expressed frustration as members from his unit left him behind at Camp Fox during their early missions, citing safety reasons. Rule 3G of the Pentagon rules governing embeds states that “commanders will ensure the media are provided every opportunity to observe actual combat operations. The personal safety of correspondents is not a reason to exclude them from combat areas.” But not all embedded journalists saw combat, though the Pentagon’s intentions were to allow them the opportunity if possible. Maisel spent nearly five weeks at Al Jaber Air Base in Kuwait waiting for deployment orders with his unit, and when they came, the Seabees headed to Umm Qasr where Maisel photographed them building roads, removing explosive water mines and building a park for local Iraqi children, in addition to sending email for many of the Seabees in his unit. While the embedment process fell short of his expectations to be part of the advance on Baghdad, Maisel said being assigned to cover the war in Iraq was a highlight of his career.

Vince Laforet sums up his embed experience: “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 every day, while not forgetting that this is all about what happens when those bombs are released. 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.”

Photojournlist Peter Turnley, who covered the Gulf War in 1991 outside of the pool system, chose not to embed with a military unit during the current war, preferring instead to cover it as a unilateral journalist in search of a broader view. In a telephone interview on May 7, Turnley said he entered Iraq from Kuwait in the first days of the coalition force invasion, and spent a little over three weeks in southern Iraq covering the siege of Basrah by the British military, heading north to Baghdad where he witnessed the fall of the city and its aftermath. “My choice to work unilaterally was a personal one, and I make no judgment about anyone else’s choice to work in any other way. I have the impression that many of my colleagues did extremely important work as embedded photojournalists,” he said, adding “I do think, though, that it is essential that in the coverage of war, that there is a group of journalists and photojournalists that work independently of being attached to a military unit, enabling a greater opportunity to often linger and witness the full effects of war on people in the country involved.”

Turnley, whose photographs offer a different perspective outside the confines of being embedded in a military unit, says there were some difficulties that he encountered as a unilateral. “I have the impression since returning from Iraq, that much of the public is not aware that officially, it was very difficult for unilateral journalists to work in Iraq. The military, both British and U.S. military officials and the Kuwaiti officials did not officially allow journalists carrying unilateral accreditation to cross the border from Kuwait to Iraq freely. It was more or less the official military position of the coalition forces that unilateral journalists did not have a place covering this most recent war in Iraq. I feel strongly that the unilateral coverage of this war and all future wars is essential for the public to have the full picture of what transpires in conflict.”

Given Americans’ concern for human life, and the military’s determination to avoid unnecessary loss of life and collateral damage, it will be interesting to observe whether the Pentagon will incorporate this thinking into their after-action review and lessons learned, and will make provisions – or allowances, for journalists wishing to work independently of the military in the future.

For now, perhaps one of the greatest benefits of the embedding program has been an altered perception of the media by many in the Pentagon. “Although I’ve always viewed the media as hard-working,” said Whitman, “it gave many military members and commanders newfound respect for their dedication and willingness to assume risks and put their lives on the line.”

© 2003 Susan B. Markisz
Contributing Writer


Write a Letter to the Editor
Join our Mailing List
© The Digital Journalist