By LEE KEATH and ROBERT H. REID
The Associated Press
Sunday, October 15, 2006; 2:41 PM
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The number of embedded journalists reporting alongside U.S. troops in Iraq has dropped to its lowest level of the war even as the conflict heats up on the streets of Baghdad and in the U.S. political campaign.
In the past few weeks, the number of journalists reporting assigned to U.S. military units in Iraq has settled to below two dozen. Late last month, it fell to 11, its lowest, and has rebounded only slightly since.
During the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, more than 600 reporters, TV crews and photographers linked up with U.S. and British units. A year ago, when Iraqis went to the polls to ratify a new constitution, there were 114 embedded journalists.
"This is more than pathetic," said Sig Christenson, a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and president of Military Reporters and Editors, a journalists' group. "It strikes me as dangerous" for the American public to get so little news of their military, said Christenson, who recently returned from an embedded assignment in Iraq.
Some journalists blame the decline on Pentagon bureaucracy, the reporting restrictions journalists face, and pressure by some commanders to avoid "negative" coverage. Both journalists and U.S. military officers point to declining interest in the long-running story, and the high cost, both in money and danger, of coverage.
Christopher Paul, a social scientist at the RAND Corporation, said it was natural for the numbers of embeds to drop after the invasion, because when they could safely travel on their own journalists prefer "to act in a unilateral capacity" and pursue stories without military restrictions.
However, after the initial post-invasion lull the war picked up again _ but not the number of embeds.
According to the United Nations, at least 6,599 Iraqi civilians were killed in July and August _ a record high. U.S. troop levels have risen above 140,000, and September was the second deadliest month of the year for American service members. The war has emerged as the key issue in next month's U.S. midterm elections.
Yet in recent months no more than 25 journalists have been embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq.
"This is a canary in the coal mines statistic," said Josh Friedman, director of international programs at Columbia University's School of Journalism, about the decrease. "The statistic actually tells us much more about the investment the media is making in covering the war. It's off the front pages."
The figures on embeds do not provide a complete picture of American and other foreign news coverage in Iraq. Major U.S. news organizations, including The Associated Press, maintain multinational staffs including American reporters in offices in Baghdad, as well as part-time Iraqi correspondents in other cities.
But travel inside Iraq is severely hampered for Western reporters because of security, and the most effective way to cover U.S. military activities is to join American units, either as a long-term embed or on escorted day trips arranged by military press officers.
Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, director of the coalition media center, said there are less media overall in Iraq, where security needs have driven up costs.
"It is expensive and bureaus have downsized their operations. So they don't have enough people, often, to leave the bureaus" to embed with troops.
The Associated Press and other major news organizations with offices in Baghdad do still send journalists on frequent embeds.
"It is an important tool for us in covering this conflict," said AP International Editor John Daniszewski. "It is vital to get a firsthand look at the activities of American forces on a regular basis, to report on their interactions with Iraqis, and to assess the state of fighting in places where it would otherwise be difficult to travel."
The RAND corporation's Paul pointed out, however, that as staff levels fall, editors must decide how to get the most out of the reporters that remain in Iraq. As a rule, "fewer will be embedded, so they can cover the broad range of stories," he said.
Christenson, who has embedded with U.S. units four times since the 2003 invasion, describes the embed program as "broken" and says both the military and editors are to blame. Danger and cost are the major factors.
"You can start with the fact that editors are damned nervous about sending their reporters into Baghdad," Christenson wrote in his blog. "But getting to Baghdad is the main problem. Almost four years after the Pentagon unveiled the embedding program, there's no clear-cut way to cover the troops in Iraq."
The embedding process begins with multiple e-mails to the U.S. press office and to individual military commands asking for permission to embed. If a commander agrees, more correspondence is needed to get aboard a U.S. military flight.
An alternative is to fly commercially to Baghdad. But roundtrip airfare from the United States begins at about $2,000. Once at the Baghdad airport, journalists often need costly security teams with armored cars to bring them into the city.
Local commanders have final say on whether to accept an embed. Getting accepted by a commander into a hot spot like Ramadi, Haditha or Tal Afar can be difficult. Commanders must balance the need to inform the public with protecting their own troops.
Embed dispatches are not censored. But journalists must follow rules to protect military secrets, such as plans for upcoming operations. They are subject to being kicked out if the commander finds a story inappropriate, and there is no appeal.
After a story last year that painted an unflattering but accurate picture of violence and conditions in Fallujah, one Marine public affairs officer said he was not approving any more embeds to that city.
In another case, Associated Press correspondent Todd Pitman, who reported this year from Ramadi, said he was ordered by a colonel to pack his bags after writing about tricks that insurgents use.
"One of the colonel's intelligence advisers advised him that I hadn't given away anything the insurgents didn't already know, so the colonel changed his mind and let me stay," Pitman said.
Antonio Castaneda, who reported from 30 Marine and Army battalions over an 18-month assignment for the AP, had a similar experience. He wrote in April about families fleeing violence in Dora, a Baghdad neighborhood where Sunni-Shiite tension runs high.
"The day after the Dora story was printed, I was visited by a soldier who delivered the message that my coverage was disproportionately negative," Castaneda said.
Castaneda's requests for more embeds in the Baghdad area were ignored until a senior U.S. officer interceded. On his next assignment, Castaneda quoted an Army captain as saying radical Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr appeared more popular than Iraqi authorities in one Shiite neighborhood.
He later learned that the captain had been reprimanded for the remark.
Dexter Filkins, a reporter for The New York Times who was last embedded in July, said he did not think the military was solely to blame for the decrease in embeds although he knew of cases where reporters were turned away.
Filkins, who has been embedded about 10 times for a couple of weeks each time, knows that the military "is not unmindful" of what he writes. He said they are quick to express disapproval of reports they don't like. Still, he said, "I've never been restrained in any way, whether by the military or by myself, in what I've written."
Castaneda said he still found many officers frank and open. "I've met commanders, many in the Marine Corps, who realize the value in keeping the public well informed about both the progress and setbacks in the war," he said.
Keath reported from Baghdad, Iraq, and Reid from Amman, Jordan. Sarah DiLorenzo in New York contributed to this report.