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The dangers of embedded journalism, in war and politics

Foreign correspondents like to believe that they travel with an implicit "white flag" -- a pledge of independence and neutrality that will be respected by everyone. But we don't live in that world. We live in an embedded world, in which journalists are often required to take sides, or to see things from only one side, as a condition of doing their job. In this world, it is hard to blame an Al-Jazeera viewer for thinking that Fox News cares about only one side of a war, or a Fox viewer for feeling the same way about Al-Jazeera. That is a poisonous and dangerous divide.

It is also an unprofessional one. Embedding may be necessary for war reporters, but it isn't for most other journalists. Yet the culture of observing events from "inside" a community is becoming more prevalent. Partly it is a result of technologies and platforms (the Web, social media networks) that have carved mass audiences into particular niches. When the information landscape was dominated by three networks and a few major newspapers, journalists were trained to report for everyone. Now, niche audiences want more intimacy and connection -- even if that means less old-school independence and objectivity.

When you watch a report on Fox News or on MSNBC, you get a sense that the reporters know who the "good guys" are. I felt that acutely as I watched the two networks' coverage of the Massachusetts Senate special election, won by Republican Scott Brown in January. I feel it in the coverage of Wall Street and its congressional critics; one side or the other is implicitly the home team, depending on what you watch or read. There's a larger narrative, beyond the facts, that is conditioning how a story is covered.

The decline of the old fairness-tethered news organizations -- now derided as the "mainstream media" -- has been accompanied by the rise of more ideological outlets. That's obvious on cable television, where the journalists and viewers of Fox News and MSNBC know who they're rooting for. I saw a CNN ad recently that looked almost forlorn by comparison. "The truth doesn't take sides," the promo insisted. "The facts aren't red or blue." But CNN is getting clobbered in the ratings. It seems that unembedded doesn't sell.

If cable news is ideologically embedded, Web sites such as the Huffington Post and Daily Kos and and the Drudge Report are even more so. There's a similar sense of being inside the clubhouse with Politico and its reporter Mike Allen, who is the town crier for a niche community of Washington insiders.

These sites feel congenial to their audience in part because they rarely challenge readers' ideas and beliefs -- they reinforce them. The message is: You and your values are right, and those who disagree are wrong. In such a situation, the facts can also be up for grabs.

Too often, news consumers don't want to be challenged. They want to be informed, yes, but also bolstered in their views. And here's the part that worries me most (and not just because it threatens my paycheck): Many consumers of news seem to trust the new ideologically embedded media over the traditional independent media. They think The Washington Post has an agenda; they think the mainstream media as a whole are tainted and biased.

I would not pretend that traditional journalists are free of implicit, unexamined biases. In the name of non-ideological reporting, we tend to converge toward the center, forgetting that bipartisanship, in itself, is an ideological statement. Too often, mainstream journalism doesn't see or report what's on the wings, right and left. In the name of open debate, we sometimes have the effect of narrowing it. My own implicit bias for the center is sometimes painfully obvious in my columns. It skews my judgment.

The traditional media is adapting, for better or worse, adding blogs and other features that give readers an intimate feeling of being inside a particular network. One of The Post's fresh young voices, blogger Ezra Klein, clearly has a point of view on the policy debates he covers. If he made a fetish of neutrality, he would be less interesting. But I wouldn't want a news diet of all Ezra Kleins, all the time.

My worries about embedding are one reason I balk at proposals for public funding of important media institutions. Columbia University President Lee Bollinger argues for more government grants, like the subsidies offered to PBS and Britain's BBC. And in a study for the Columbia School of Journalism, former Post editor Leonard Downie and Michael Schudson recommend a mix of private donations, foundation support and a national Fund for Local News, with fees collected by the Federal Communications Commission.

I understand the rationale, but I worry that direct government support would undermine our claims of independence and integrity.

We need to restore the white flag; we need to reassure people everywhere that we have checked our baggage -- national, ideological, cultural, political and religious -- at the door when we become journalists.

The path back to unembedded journalism won't be easy, especially for war correspondents. It's one thing to want to interview both Taliban leader Mohammad Omar and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and quite another to actually get to talk to them. But we should operate under the assumption that we won't always be at war, and try to restore the normal order.

The niche communities and social networks won't go away. There will be continuing demand for their version of embedded reporting. But we journalists have to remind ourselves that in this new world, we are still in the business of upsetting people, including those we know and like best. The conservative columnist who tells off Rush Limbaugh is a kindred spirit with the liberal who blasts Keith Olbermann. Our late Post publisher Katharine Graham once chided some of us, "Just because you are getting attacked from both the left and right doesn't mean you're doing a good job." She was right, but it's still a useful index.

We all need to break away from the caravan and the special access it allows -- even that venerable caravan in the center of the highway -- and try to get the story right.

David Ignatius is a columnist and associate editor of The Washington Post.

From the archives: For recent Outlook coverage of journalistic bias, see Howell Raines's "Fox News: unfair, unbalanced, unchecked" (March 14).

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