What happens when you send reporters in with the troops?
‘And we’re advancing, we’re advancing – oh! I’ve just heard we’re retreating, we’re retreating ….’ And it all fades out into a somewhat excitable fuzz.
This was my first encounter with an ‘embedded’ journalist – or at least, with his broadcast, on early-morning UK radio at the beginning of the war. Since then, we have become used to the bizarre images of reporters sitting chatting happily to camera in the midst of squaddies aiming rifles into the shells of buildings, and the squabbles between the TV anchorman and his frontline reporter (‘Of course, you have to say that because of Iraqi reporting restrictions.’ ‘No I don’t. This is really going on!’).
A cynic might point out that, no matter how close the journalists are to the scenes of battle, we never know what is really going on. It’s all just another propaganda stunt, isn’t it? But what is interesting about the phenomenon of ‘embedded’ journalists is how quickly the USA’s new propaganda technique has become a mixed blessing for the coalition forces.
The Pentagon’s embedding strategy means that it has authorised about 500 journalists, from the USA and other national news organisations, to spend the war living, eating and sleeping among military units in the field. This is a departure from the trend since the Vietnam War, where the USA has held the press at arms’ length, wary of journalists talking up bad news for the West.
This was not, of course, motivated by a newfound sympathy for press freedom – it was a new propaganda strategy designed to win the hearts and minds of the public, by showing them first-hand how well the war was going. Like the $400million Hollywood-style glitzy press centre set up by the Pentagon in the Gulf state of Qatar, the US/UK coalition from the first was aware that special treatment of the media was crucial, to boost support for this unpopular war.
According to one report in the Washington Times, General Tommy Franks, commander of US central command, still supports the strategy. It ‘permits the viewership, the listenership and the readership to get a sense of what’s going on in the battlefield’, he said on 24 March. ‘We’ll see how it plays out.’ (1) But so far, it is playing out rather less comfortably than the Pentagon presumably predicted.
If you really believed that Gulf War 2 would be short, sharp and clean, involving happy Iraqis being liberated and no civilian casualties or unfortunate friendly-fire accidents, sending the journalists out with the troops must have seemed like a damn fine idea. As Christian Lowe, a staff writer for the US Army Times Publishing, wrote in the Daily Standard back in February, ‘The Pentagon has now all but admitted that it wants reporters in the field to reveal Iraqi deception and act as witnesses to their potential atrocities. The military wants positive stories about the grit and resolve of its troops’ (2).
The Pentagon clearly hoped that the success of its military strategy would spark awe and admiration among journalists, who would also be shocked and appalled by the barbarous behaviour of the Iraqis. ‘Which is all well and good until the military makes a mistake’, states Lowe, who then goes on to talk about reportage of military cock-ups during the Afghan campaign (3). One week into this war, there have been no shortage of military mistakes – and having journalists in there among the troops simply compounds the sense of chaos and confusion.
Furthermore, promoting reports from the ground makes it harder to deliver straightforward propaganda. The much-vaunted Qatar press centre has been under-utilised – not least because generals delivering positive press briefings are contradicted at every turn by journalists who have heard a different message, first-hand. And that’s before you get out into the newsrooms of the world.
Writing in the UK Guardian, Catherine Bennett describes a recent broadcast on Sky News. ‘Dismissing a briefing from General Tommy Franks, the in-house strategist snapped “I’m wondering if the rest of us are watching a different war”’, Bennett reports (4). Because if we’re (allegedly) getting the real-life truth from the frontline, surely we’re less likely to go for all that stage-managed propaganda nonsense.
Now there are signs of an overreaction, which will make matters even worse on the propaganda front. In a more recent article, on 21 March, Christian Lowe describes the experience of journalists embedded with a couple of US military units, where apparently, ‘reporters are being hounded by military public affairs officers who follow their every move and look over their shoulders as they interview aviators, sailors, and maintainers for their stories’ (5).
So far as Pentagon propaganda goes, then, it would seem that its ‘embedded’ journalism strategy is a double-edged sword at best. It might make the viewing public feel more at one with the troops: particularly in the USA, where reporters tend to be more gung-ho. But it also helps to give the folks back home a keen – indeed, exaggerated – sense of every problem. Eyewitness accounts are never the absolute truth – at best, they give a partial and personal sense of what is going on. And from an individual perspective, war is always chaotic and frightening, particularly when that individual is a journalist not a soldier, and has had no such experience before.
From the Pentagon’s point of view, the advantage of having journalists ‘embedded’ in real-life action should mean that the public is less able to dismiss Western war coverage as lies, damn lies and propaganda, manufactured by politicians and fed to the press pack. By applying the principles of transparency and openness to its rules about war coverage, the US/UK coalition leaders are saying to the public, ‘See, we’re the good guys. We’ve got nothing to hide’.
Unfortunately for them, having reporters in the battlefield makes the propaganda war far less easy to spin. The embedded journalists’ unvarnished footage of chaos, their clashes with the leaders of their military units, and their obvious lack of understanding about what is going on helps to feed the ambivalence about the war among the viewing public at home. Meanwhile, there is much talk about the ‘credibility gap’ between official press briefings and the stories coming from the ground.
A strange mix of wishful thinking and abject defensiveness led to the Pentagon employing a strategy of ‘embedded media’. Conscious that the public might pooh-pooh their propaganda, they allowed dreams about a best-case scenario to lull them into a false sense of security about how good it would be to get the reporters to live life with ‘our boys’. Now, as the embedded journalists get embroiled in the mess, somebody somewhere must be thinking, ‘Why didn’t we see this coming?’.
spiked-issue: War on Iraq
(1) Embedded media get mixed reviews in early war stages, Washington Times, 25 March 2003
(2) The Pentagon and the Press, Daily Standard, 20 February 3003
(3) The Pentagon and the Press, Daily Standard, 20 February 3003
(4) And now over to Fairford where there is nothing to see, Guardian, 27 March 2003
(5) All Embeds Are Not Created Equal, Daily Standard, 21 March 2003
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