The dangers of embedded journalism, in war and politics

By David Ignatius
Sunday, May 2, 2010

The American news media has made great use in recent years of a practice called embedding, in which journalists travel with the U.S. military to cover wars.

I've taken advantage of this chance to see the military up close. I have traveled to war zones with Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; with Gen. David Petraeus, the Centcom commander; and many others. I've spent weeks at a time visiting U.S. units in the field, hopping C-130s and Blackhawk helicopters and Humvees. As a result, I have seen more of Iraq and Afghanistan than I possibly could have otherwise, and I think my readers have benefited.

But embedding comes at a price. We are observing these wars from just one perspective, not seeing them whole. When you see my byline from Kandahar or Kabul or Basra, you should not think that I am out among ordinary people, asking questions of all sides. I am usually inside an American military bubble. That vantage point has value, but it is hardly a full picture.

I fear that an embedded media is becoming the norm, and not just when it comes to war. The chroniclers of political and cultural debates increasingly move in a caravan with one side or another, as well. This nonmilitary embedding may have a different rationale, but there's a similar effect that comes with traveling under the canopy of a particular candidate, party or community. Journalists gain access to information and talkative sources, but also inherit the distortions and biases that come with being "on the bus" or "on the plane."

The larger troubles of the news business are complicated, but this problem is simple: We can't understand what we don't see; we can't explain a conflict if we hear from only one side.

Embedding arose because American journalists requested it. During the Persian Gulf War, many reporters were stuck covering the action from the rear in Dhahran or Riyadh. A few managed to travel with U.S. units into the battle zone, producing vivid reports, such as Molly Moore's Washington Post dispatches from the forward outpost of the Marine commander. But many of the embedded reports were delayed or clumsily vetted by the military.

After the war, U.S. media outlets pleaded that this sort of access be expanded. And the next time, it was. The Pentagon realized that having journalists witness war from the limited but exhilarating perspective of a Humvee racing toward Baghdad was very much in its interest. So as we prepared to cover the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, my colleagues rushed to make arrangements to be embedded with the commands that would see the most action.

Indeed, I think one reason for the news media's inadequate examination of the rationale for war in late 2002 and 2003 was that we knew President George W. Bush had already made his decision -- the Army was lined up in the desert, after all -- and most editors were focused on figuring out how best to report it.

I covered the war as an unembedded or "unilateral" reporter, entering Iraq two days after the invasion with colleagues in rented SUVs. That experience taught me two things: First, it is too dangerous, in most cases, to cover modern warfare without protection from an army. Second, although my visits were brief, I was able to see things that the embedded journalists could not. I remember visiting villages in southern Iraq after the U.S. Army rolled through and finding local people who were intimidated by the beginnings of the insurgency. (And yes, you could see in that first week that there would be an insurgency, as I tried to indicate in my reports.)

As violence spread throughout Iraq in late 2003 and 2004, and as insurgents employed kidnapping as one of their weapons, it became all but impossible for Westerners to travel freely. To move anywhere outside central Baghdad, it was wise to embed. American reporters typically embedded with U.S. units, spending a week or two with them. Some Arabic-speaking reporters working for the Iraqi or international media were able, in effect, to embed with the insurgents and report what the war looked like from their side. A few brave Westerners did that, too.

This counter-embedding was dangerous, to put to mildly. The most graphic evidence is the horrifying footage of a U.S. helicopter attack in Baghdad in 2007, posted recently by WikiLeaks, which shows the deaths of a Reuters camera crew and about 10 others.

I should also note that my brave colleagues residing in Kabul and Baghdad do not embed on a permanent basis. Living out in the Red Zone, as it were, with normal people, they have earned the right to be called free and independent journalists, at great personal risk. But they also know that to cover the action -- to get to Kandahar, or Marja, where I was a month ago -- they usually have no alternative but to embed.

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