Sep
01
2003

The 'Sheer Genius' of Embedded Reporting

Pentagon press policy follows a PR script

In the wars of the 1980s and '90s, military planners placed consider­able emphasis on controlling the information that reached the American public. Journalists were excluded from the wars in Grenada and Panama until the fighting was already concluded. This in turn led to com­plaints from journalists, and in the 1990 war in Iraq, code-named Operation Desert Storm, the Pentagon adopted a "pool system" through which a hand­picked group of reporters was allowed to travel with soldiers under tightly con­trolled conditions. Between August 1990 and January 1991 only the "com­bat pools"—about 23 groups of reporters —were allowed access to military units in the field.

The Pentagon's Joint Information Bureau, which was responsible for pool assignments, denied reporters access to some areas of the war zone on mili­tary orders. "For historic purposes, for truth-telling purposes, there were no independent eyes and ears" to docu­ment all the events of the war, recalled Frank Aukofer, former bureau chief of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (News­eum speech, 7/7/01). As a result, the public saw a largely sanitized version of the war, dominated by Pentagon-sup­plied video footage of "smart bombs" blowing up buildings and other inani­mate targets with pinpoint accuracy. Journalists who refused to participate in the pool system, such as photogra­pher Peter Turnley, captured images of "incredible carnage" but were dis­mayed that their coverage of the graphic side of war went largely unpub­lished (Action, 2/03).

By the time of the 2001 war in Afghanistan, however, reporters had come to identify with the soldiers they were covering. Fox war correspondent Geraldo Rivera went so far as to announce on air (11/29/01) that he was carrying a gun (a violation of the rules of war for journalists under the Geneva convention), and told the Philadelphia Inquirer (11/6/01) that he hoped to kill Osama bin Laden per­sonally, to "kick his head in, then bring it home and bronze it." Just as reality TV crossed the boundary between journalism and entertainment, Fox and Geraldo crossed the boundary between reporters and combatants. Rather than exclude reporters from the battlefield, the Pentagon realized that it had little to lose and everything to gain by inviting them in.

From the military's point of view

Torie Clarke, the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, is credited with developing the Pentagon's strate­gy of "embedding" reporters with troops (USA Today, 04/13/03). Clarke came to the military after running the Washington, D.C., office of the Hill & Knowlton public relations firm, which had run the PR campaign for the gov­ernment-in-exile of Kuwait during the buildup to Operation Desert Storm a decade earlier. In a 13-page document outlining the ground rules for embed­ded journalists, the Pentagon stated that "media coverage of any future operation will, to a large extent, shape public perception" in the United States as well as other countries.

The system of "embedding" allowed reporters to travel with military units— so long as they followed the rules. Those rules said reporters could not travel independently, interviews had to be on the record (which meant lower- level service members were less likely to speak candidly), and officers could cen­sor and temporarily delay reports for “operational security" (Progressive, 5/03). Along with journalists, the Pentagon embedded its own public relations officers, who helped manage the reporters, steering them toward sto­ries, facilitating interviews and photo opportunities (PR Week, 3/31/03) .

Overt censorship played a relatively minor role in shaping the content of reports from the field. Far more impor­tant was the way embedding encour­aged reporters to identify with the sol­diers they were covering. Part of the "point of view" of any journalistic account depends on the actual physi­cal location from which reporters wit­ness events. Since much of modern warfare involves the use of air power or long-range artillery, the journalists embedded with troops witnessed weapons being fired but rarely saw what happened at the receiving end.

At the same time that hundreds of reporters were traveling with American and British troops, there was almost no journalistic presence in Iraqi cities. Prior to the launch of war, Defense Department officials warned reporters to clear out of Baghdad, saying the war would be far more intense than the 1991 war. "If your template is Desert Storm, you've got to imagine some­thing much, much different," said Gen. Richard Myers, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Chicago Tribune, 3/12/03).

Although some print journalists remained in Baghdad, almost all of the television networks took the Penta­gon's advice and pulled out in the days immediately preceding the start of fighting (AP, 3/17/03; New York Times, 3/19/03). Of the major networks, only CNN still had correspondents in the city on the day the war began (New York Times, 3/20/03). In the absence of their own news teams, the other net­works were forced to rely on feeds from CNN and Al Jazeera, the Arabic satellite network once derided by Bush administration officials as "All Osama All the Time" (New York Times, 3/20/03).

"Everything they ask of us"

Embedding also encouraged emotion­al bonding between reporters and sol­diers. CBS News reporter Jim Axelrod, traveling with the 3rd Infantry, told viewers that he had just come from a military intelligence briefing. "We've been given orders," he said before cor­recting himself to say, "soldiers have been given orders" (Progressive, 5/03).

NBC News correspondent David Bloom (who died tragically during the war of a blood clot) said the soldiers "have done anything and everything that we could ask of them, and we in turn are trying to return the favor by doing anything and everything that they can ask of us" (3/23/03).

"They're my protectors," said ABC's John Donvan (Washington Post, 4/28/03).

Oliver North, the former Marine lieutenant colonel and Iran/Contra defendant turned talkshow host, became an embedded reporter for Fox, further blurring the line between journalists and warfighters. "I say General Franks should be commend­ed—that's a U.S. Marine saying that about an Army general," he said in one broadcast (Baltimore Sun, 4/12/03).

"Sheer genius," commented U.S. public relations consultant Katie Dela­haye Paine (Measurement Standard, 3/28/03), saying that the embedded reporters "have been spectacular, bringing war into our living rooms like never before. . . . The sagacity of the tactic is that it is based on the basic tenet of public relations: It's all about relationships. The better the relation­ship any of us has with a journalist, the better the chance of that journalist picking up and reporting our messages. So now we have journalists making dozens—if not hundreds—of new friends among the armed forces."

You're on Combat Camera

In addition to embedded journalists, the Pentagon offered combatants-as­-journalists, with its own film crew, called "Combat Camera." In fact, one of the biggest media scoops of the war—the dramatic rescue of POW Jessica Lynch—was a Combat Camera exclusive.

Baltimore Sun correspondent Ariel Sabar (4/18/03) watched the Combat Camera team at work: "A dozen employees at computer stations sift through the 600 to 800 photographs and 25 to 50 video clips beamed in each day from the front lines. About 80 percent are made available to the news media and the public," he reported:

The images glisten from big screens at the news briefings in the Pentagon and the U.S. Central Command in Qatar. A gallery on the Defense Department Web site gets 750,000 hits a day, triple the number before the war. And for the first time, Combat Camera is emailing a daily batch of photographs to major news organizations. . . . In the battlefield of public opinion, experts say, images are as potent as bullets. . . . Photos of sleek fighter jets, rescued POWs, and smiling Iraqis cheering the arrival of U.S. troops are easy to find among Combat Camera's public images. Photos of bombed-out Baghdad neighborhoods and so-called "collat­eral damage" are not.

"We've got a lot of good humanitarian images, showing us helping the Iraqi people and the people in Baghdad cel­ebrating," Lt. Jane Laroque, the officer in charge of Combat Camera's soldiers in Iraq, told the Sun. "A lot of our imagery will have a big impact on world opinion."

Outside the United States, however, the imagery that people were seeing was quite different. Instead of heroic soldiers giving candy to Iraqi children and heartwarming rescues of injured POWs, the television networks in Europe and the Arab world showed images of war that were violent, dis­turbing and unlikely to have the impact that Laroque imagined.

This article is excerpted from Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propagan­da in Bush's War on Iraq (Tarcher/ Penguin, 2003). Rampion and Stauber write and edit the quarterly PR Watch, published by the Center for Media & Democracy (www.prwatch.org).