Pajamas Media, in the course of a casual conversation with a Marine Corps information officer who tracks the number of embedded reporters in Iraq, learned the real number of embedded reporters covering the Iraq story on September 19, 2006. It was, according to the officer, a fairly typical day. To illustrate his point, he provided Pajamas Media with the illustration he uses to brief with on the state of media embedding in Iraq.
What was that number? Take a guess and then see the truth. No peeking.If you guessed 9 reporters, you guessed right.
Of the nine, four were from the defense department's own media operations, Stars and Stripes and Armed Forces Network, and one was from Poland. There was one each from the Charlotte Observer, the BBC, AP and RAI.
Note: this is not the number of reporters in Iraq, it is the number embedded with units carrying out operations. As PJM adds, there were scores of "reporters hunkered down in the hotels and other locations under the rubric "Baghdad News Bureaus.'" But those reporters are not reporting news they personally cover other than inside their own narrow bubble.
Most journalists are in the Green Zone, or some well-guarded hotel. There, they depend on Iraqi stringers to gather information, and take pictures for them. In reality, these reporters could do this from back home, and many more media organizations are doing just that. Nothing new about using local stringers in dangerous areas. It's common sense, given that the bad guys are in the habit of kidnapping, or just killing, foreign reporters. The problem is, the pool of available Iraqi talent is mostly Sunni Arab. Many of these folks side with the bad guys. And all Iraqi journalists, especially those working for foreigners, are subject to intimidation, or bribery. While some of the foreign reporters may be aware of all this, some aren't, and many of the rest don't care. The truth won't set them free, but supplying stories their editors are looking for, will.
Those cowardly, profit-motivated reporters and news organizations are just screwing the troops, right?
Well, not so fast.
You might think it's easy to gain permission to embed with a combat unit. After all, as Strategy Page also notes, "U.S. troops continue to be mystified at the odd reporting coming out of Iraq. What the troops witnessed is not what reporters are sending back." So common sense would say that the military would embed as many reporters as it can and plead with news organizations to send more.
But there is, as Paul Harvey likes to say, "the rest of the story." Here is San Antonio Express's reporter Sig Christenson, with lengthy embedding experience since OIF began in 2003. He spent the invasion embedded with 78 other reporters in the 3d Mechanized Infantry Division. Did you get that? There were 79 reporters embedded with that single division for the invasion. Now there are nine in all Iraq.Sig returned not long ago from another embed tour, the most recent of five altogether. Sig blogs for the SA Express and writes,
So how did we go from 79 reporters with the 3rd ID, one of them ABC's Ted Koppel, to 11 with 147,000 American troops in all of Iraq? You can start with the fact that editors are damned nervous about sending their reporters into Baghdad. This is the town where, morning after morning during our recent reporting tour there, bombs went off by the hour. One day last month the first bomb detonated at 6 a.m. When the third one rocked the town at 8 a.m., I got up from bed in disgust. You don't need an alarm clock in Baghdad, thanks to insurgents who kill everybody who gets in their way in the name of Allah on the hour and half-hour. Sad and weird, but true, I am sorry to report.
Okay, it's dangerous to embed, let us grant that, and no reporters or any other civilians have a special obligation to risk death or injury as part of their job. Nor should we discount that assignment editors are understandably reluctant to send one of their reporters to a war zone, volunteers. Those are the facts and the public's bona fide need to know what is happening doesn't obviate them. But that's not the whole story. DOD's public affairs office still treats embedding as an ad hoc arrangement.
Almost four years after the Pentagon unveiled the embedding program, there is no clear-cut way to cover the troops in Iraq. I'm an expert on this after having set up embeds for myself and, last year, for photographer Nicole Fruge and reporter Jesse Bogan. There is no simple, one-step process.
You have to send e-mails to the Combined Press Information Center in Baghdad. You have to e-mail local commanders with units you wish to embed with, and they have to accept you. You have to e-mail the Air Force to set up the flights. At some point, you deal directly with someone from the Air Mobility Command, which flies cargo and people into and out of Iraq. This time I also had to e-mail the Air Force Theater Hospital in Balad and Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany so we could do the reporting on a series about military medicine. If I do an embed next year, I'll have to start with a new set of public affairs officers because all the old ones have left Iraq.I'll also have to get a new CPIC identification card. Been there, done that.
Sig writes a lot more about this issue. Having been an Army public affairs officer at the Pentagon for three years, I can tell you that until the top military and civilian bosses there make facilitating embeds a priority for PAOs and commanders, nothing will be done to change the stifling bureacracy that Sig explains. For DOD, that means Donald Rumsfeld will have to be the engine of change (fat chance). In World War II commanders weren't asked whether they wopuld accept a reporter, they were told. Yes, I know the media were different then - no one could seriously ask which side the Associated Press was on, for example, and there was wartime censorship of news reports. But the mechanism of embedding was well established and smooth. And that's what's broken now. Sig is doing something, though. He is a founder of Military Reporters & Editors, which,
... will host an Embedded Reporting Summit at the close of its 5th annual conference, to run Oct. 26-28 in Chicago. Military officers and war correspondents will pore over the issues and see how things can be fixed. MRE will later issue a report calling for a series of changes in the way embedding is handled by the Pentagon. We'll do that because we believe the media and military have good reason to improve the system, that modifications would benefit everyone concerned.
Read Sig's blog, it's well worth the time. Page on down and read his interview on the scene with soldiers of Iraqi army unit.