Close to the Action  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   May 2003

Close to the Action   

After being shut out in previous wars, journalists had extraordinary access to the fighting in Iraq. While not without downsides, the Pentagon’s embedding plan paid big coverage dividends.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

Related reading:
   » Casualties of War

War reporting will never be the same.

After surviving a hail of bullets en route to Baghdad, Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Ron Martz cradled the head of a wounded American soldier in his hands, imploring him not to black out before medics could patch the hole in his chest. Later, Martz collapsed against an Army vehicle, drenched in sweat, mouth dry, his clothes sticky with blood.

Newsweek correspondent Rod Nordland stared in disbelief as an Iraqi army officer approached with hands on his head and surrendered to him in southern Iraq. He turned the man over to a British Royal Military Police officer, who bummed a pack of cigarettes. "It's for them, not me," the officer said, referring to a group of prisoners. Later, in an article about the incident, Nordland concluded, "My POW was in good hands."

USA Today photographer Jack Gruber spent weeks huddled alongside dust-caked combat troops in the steel belly of an armored personnel carrier as they blazed through the desert, sharing everything from bags of Skittles and baby wipes to stark terror when rocket-propelled grenades thundered into their path.

"We sleep with our feet in each other's face," said Gruber, who traveled with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division.

That's how it was in Gulf War II. The media had unprecedented access to America's fighting forces. The press credential dangling from Gruber's neck labeled him "embedded," a Pentagon-sanctioned passport to the front lines.

And despite initial skepticism about how well the system would work, and some dead-on criticism of overly enthusiastic reporting in the war's early stages, the net result was a far more complete mosaic of the fighting--replete with heroism, tragedy and human error--than would have been possible without it.

For military planners, the new approach represented a total about-face. Over the past two decades, journalists have relentlessly pounded the Pentagon about being shut out of Grenada, Panama and, most recently, Afghanistan. During the first Persian Gulf War, correspondents were far from the action thanks to the ill-conceived 1991 Desert Storm press pool. It was only after the fighting had ended that a full picture of what had transpired began to emerge.

Now, correspondents--more than 600 of them--were invited to eat, sleep and ride into battle with combatants under a bold government plan.

Questions swirled after the Bush administration unveiled its radical new approach before the war--hardly a surprise, given the meager media access during recent military campaigns. Would there be military censorship, news blackouts and ethical minefields for embedded journalists? Correspondents, dependent on soldiers for everything, including their own safety, might be vulnerable to emotional bonding that could sway news judgment. Some speculated that embedding was part of a White House strategy to win the propaganda war in the Middle East.

Media experts squared off. Early in the war, Alex S. Jones, director of Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, called embedding "one magnificent recruitment video" for the Pentagon. He likened the process to salted nuts, "very tasty and almost empty of high-quality nourishment."

Los Angeles Times media critic David Shaw saw it differently: "For now, embedding is giving us a rare window on war. The critics should stop carping."

Some thought the best hope for in-depth and unrestricted coverage lay with the "unilaterals," the Pentagon term for journalists who had credentials but operated on their own, without control or protection. But that freedom came with a price: The dangers were greater, and military cooperation less likely.

"These are the ones, who, at the end of the day, are going to be able to write the human story much faster and much better," Roy Gutman, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his Newsday reporting on the Balkans, said early in the war. "The embedded ones cannot do that."

On March 19, as bombs laid waste to Saddam Hussein's strongholds, the unknowns of the Pentagon's daring experiment began to play out as the embedded correspondents headed into battle.

In the early stages, it looked as if the skeptics might be right. Breathless television reporters often made themselves the story. On the second day, CNN anchor Aaron Brown cut away to Kyra Phillips, embedded on an aircraft carrier. Phillips blithely announced she had arranged for a squadron of fighter pilots to wave from their aircraft before they took off. "They basically gave me a thumbs-up," she told Brown.

The TV correspondents frequently used the term "we" as they chronicled the American forces' dash through the desert toward Baghdad, almost sounding as if they were fellow soldiers.

But the major dividends paid by the unprecedented access quickly became clear. Sometimes, accounts filed by embeds contradicted the official line delivered at Central Command in Doha, Qatar, or by government spokespeople in Washington.

In early April, the Washington Post's William Branigin, embedded with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, wrote about a civilian shooting in central Iraq. According to the Pentagon, U.S. troops fired on a Toyota packed with 13 Iraqi civilians at an American-held intersection after the driver ignored shouts and warning shots. Officials placed the death toll at seven.

Branigin, an eyewitness, reported that the Americans had not fired warning shots quickly enough and that 10 people had been killed, five children among them. As proof, he quoted conversations between Capt. Ronny Johnson and his crew. " 'Cease fire!' " Johnson yelled over the radio. Then, as he peered into his binoculars from the intersection on Highway 9, he roared at the platoon leader: " 'You just [expletive] killed a family because you didn't fire a warning shot soon enough!' "

Embedded journalists reported during the trek toward Baghdad that Marines were down to one MRE--Meal Ready to Eat--per day and that the advance had stalled. Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke, architect of the embedding program, promptly discounted the reports.

Some stories provided raw glimpses of war made possible by the frontline access. Matthew Cox of the Army Times, a newspaper owned by Gannett, wrote of 21-year-old Army private Nick Boggs gunning down two boys, no older than 10, in Karbala. The children darted out of an alley to retrieve a rocket-propelled grenade dropped by a dead Iraqi soldier.

" 'I got my gun up. I had my sights on' " the RPG, said Boggs, who was armed with a machine gun that spits out 600 rounds a minute.

" 'I didn't shoot. I didn't shoot,' Boggs said."

Then the child reached down and grabbed the RPG.

" 'That's when I took him out,' Boggs said. 'I laid down quite a few bursts.' When the smoke cleared, both small boys lay in the street, clearly dead."

A New York Times story by Dexter Filkins told of an American Army sergeant who, along with other members of his unit, opened fire and accidentally killed an Iraqi woman who was standing too close to their target. "I'm sorry. But the chick got in the way," the soldier was quoted as saying.

Embeds also produced upbeat stories and images that showed the best of America's fighting forces as they befriended terrified Iraqis, offered MREs to malnourished children and, in some cases, helped to bury bodies of civilians caught in the crossfire.

Across the desert in Kuwait, hundreds of unilaterals were on the sidelines, desperate to get into the game. While embeds cruised in armored personnel carriers and Humvees, independent journalists scrambled to find routes past grim-faced Kuwaiti border guards into Iraq. News of the first two journalists killed, Paul Moran, an Australian cameraman, and Terry Lloyd, a reporter for London's Independent Television News, gave reason for pause. Both were operating on their own.

Around the same time, Newsweek's Scott Johnson survived a near miss when he got too far ahead of a U.S. convoy. In the magazine's March 31 edition, he described crossing into Iraq in an SUV and hiding out with a photographer near the frontier. At one point, he attempted to join a group of Marines. "We were not all that welcome," Johnson wrote. "We drove down a road with mines on either side. At nightfall, the Marines told us that we had to go back south."

Instead, he headed west toward the desert town of Nasiriya. Along the way, Iraqis peppered the SUV with bullets, causing Johnson to lose control of the vehicle. It flipped and rammed into a post. As Iraqis continued to fire, the reporter kicked out the windshield and attempted to crawl away, using the car for cover. He heard the whir of bullets overhead.

When a U.S. convoy rumbled closer, the Iraqis stopped firing. Soldiers found seven men with AK-47s and two with RPGs waiting in ambush. After that, Johnson traveled with the military. "I don't have much chance of going independent again and, to be honest, I don't know if I want to," he admitted in the last line of his story.

Safety issues became paramount for unilaterals, who risked attack from hostile Iraqis as well as U.S. and British fire. About 2,000 had been credentialed by the Coalition Press Information Center in Kuwait City.

In late March, a group of journalists, including Edward Gargan of Newsday and the Washington Post's David Ignatius and Susan Glasser, set out at 4:30 a.m. from the Hilton Hotel parking lot in Kuwait City in a convoy of seven cars. They aimed to sneak across the demilitarized zone into southern Iraq.

Once they did, all sources of supplies would disappear. They carried stashes of cookies, biscuits, ramen noodles, bottled water and canisters of extra fuel strapped to vehicles. They'd already heard rumors that some correspondents had been forced to abandon cars in the desert when they ran out of gas.

Instead of focusing on firefights, they wanted to chronicle how Iraqis were faring in the wake of a superpower blowing through their villages. Interviews with locals could help unravel the mystery of how Saddam Hussein's tyranny played out in daily life. There were tales of notorious prisons, torture chambers and secret hideaways.

There also were follow-up stories to be done. Reporting by embeds tended to portray a cakewalk for coalition forces in southern Iraq. Once the military moved on without securing its flank, violence flared and instability prevailed. "Nobody was telling that side of the story," Gargan says.

Before leaving, the group purchased walkie-talkies and established code names, such as Rosebud and Shamrock, so they could stay in contact without stopping in areas where snipers could take aim. "You're a big fat target, that's obvious, especially with a big group," Glasser says. "You don't want to be by yourself out there."

As the convoy drove further into Iraq that day, the journalists didn't know that ITN's Lloyd had been killed on the same road, possibly by coalition fire. Three of his crew were missing. "It could have been us," Gargan says. "At one point, we ended up driving through a minefield."

They learned of Lloyd's death when they ran into other correspondents outside the town of Safwan. After hearing of so many close calls, they decided to return to Kuwait City. Gargan had an additional worry. Two Newsday colleagues, Matthew McAllester and Moises Saman, ordered out of the country by Iraqis, were missing. After days of interrogation in a notorious Baghdad prison, they turned up at the Jordanian border.

Despite the perils, Gargan swears he would never "in a million years" want to be embedded. "It's like being in a cocoon. You really have an umbilical cord to your unit," he says. "That's not the kind of reporting I want to do."

A few days later, he made it to the town of Zubayr, where he wrote of the fear and intimidation that continued to haunt Iraqis even with their despotic rulers on the way out. On April 8, he was in Basra, talking to victims of the regime's mistreatment and describing cinder-block cells where "unimaginable torture" had taken place.

The unilaterals faced perils beyond whizzing bullets. On April 7, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists sent a protest to Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. operations in Iraq, about the detention and mistreatment of independent journalists, including Philip Smucker, who was working under contract for the Christian Science Monitor and London's Daily Telegraph.

U.S. troops escorted the veteran correspondent out of Iraq for reporting information that "could harm him and the unit." Monitor Editor Paul Van Slambrouck maintains that Smucker did not disclose anything that wasn't already known. Smucker told colleagues he had been handcuffed and had equipment confiscated.

Two Israeli and two Portuguese correspondents were detained and accused of being spies and terrorists, according to CPJ. The four were quoted as saying that it was the worst 48 hours of their lives.

The committee also has requested an investigation by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld into U.S. military strikes against the Palestine Hotel, known as a haven for journalists, and the Baghdad office of the Qatar-based network Al Jazeera. The attacks left three correspondents dead and several wounded. The International Federation of Journalists and Reporters Without Borders also criticized the treatment of media.

The Pentagon said that gunmen in the hotel had been firing on American forces. Pentagon spokeswoman Clarke issued a forceful reminder that being in a war zone was extremely dangerous. CNN's Christiane Amanpour, visibly upset by the incidents, called in an on-air report for a military investigation. "It's not all right for us to be told that journalists were warned not to be in Baghdad," she said. "That is the job of the journalist, to be there."

As the war approached, a handful of American journalists chose to remain in Baghdad, despite the concern of editors back home, to humanize the consequences of the attack. Among them were the New York Times' John F. Burns, the Washington Post's Anthony Shadid and NPR's Anne Garrels. They braved coalition bombs and Iraqi government intimidation.

Many were ensconced at the Palestine Hotel, without food, electricity or service of any kind. They wrote stories by candlelight as explosions rocked the city. They rushed to buy batteries, flashlights, bottled water and canned rations, and to fill their cars with gasoline. Some correspondents slept in helmets and flak jackets.

Prior to Baghdad's fall, the Iraqi ministry of information continued detaining and interrogating journalists and, in some cases, ordering them out of the country. Government minders remained on duty, scrutinizing their every move.

At one point, Shadid learned he was on a list to be expelled. He managed to stay by "pulling strings" with insiders.

These journalists served as eyewitnesses and had a front-row view when the Baghdad regime collapsed. Their on-the-scene accounts tended to be highly graphic, giving voice to those under siege.

"I was looking for the stories that made this war real. It would have been a shame if this was covered from one, instead of all, locations," says Shadid, who speaks Arabic. The reporter was wounded a year ago while covering the conflict in the West Bank for the Boston Globe (see "Bullying the Press," May 2002).

On March 27, Shadid wrote a page-one story on 14 civilians killed and 30 wounded by the bombings:

"Shards of corrugated tin dangled from roofs like chimes, colliding on the winds of a savage sandstorm. Shattered pipes poured sewage into the streets. The charred carcasses of cars sat smoldering, hurled onto the sidewalk.

"Ali Abdel-Jabbar watched helplessly as his friend, Mohammed Abdel-Sattar, lay on the ground, his legs torn off. He lived. Across the street was the severed hand of Samad Rabai, tossed gracelessly in a pool of blood and mud. He died.

"In a moment, two explosions transformed a busy stretch of life today into a junkyard of mangled wires, uprooted trees, toppled lights, anguish and grief."

Garrels also reported from the scene: "A teenager thrust a can at reporters. He said it contained the brains of one of the victims. Others showed off a severed hand. 'Is that what you call human rights?' scoffed one young man. 'Is that what you call liberation?' asked another."

When an explosion rocked a Baghdad marketplace, killing at least 35 and wounding dozens, Burns provided historical context and specific information about victims and survivors that TV reports often lacked.

From a story that ran on March 29: "A poll of the men grieving in the mosque on Friday night showed that they included construction workers, truck drivers, low-ranking policemen, barbers, plumbing workers, farm workers, bank clerks and men who operate street stalls. Many said they were in 'free work,' a euphemism for unemployment. Their salaries averaged around $10 per month."

His account also included gripping details of the funeral of a 6-year-old girl, killed with her mother and brother in the attack.

From the beginning, there were questions about the ethical consequences of embedding. Some viewed the constant contact as a quagmire.

USA Today's Gruber describes having "zero privacy" while traveling with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. There were no secrets from the soldiers. They talked about everything, about wives and girlfriends and high school escapades. "These guys are all brothers, and it's like I'm in their family," he says. But Gruber doesn't feel the intimacy compromised his photojournalism.

"I think they understand that I have a job to do here just like they do, and when they screw up and are reprimanded or blasted over the radio, they know I am listening," the photographer said in an interview in April.

The risks that the watchdog could become the lapdog increased as correspondents bonded and became sympathetic to soldiers who provided a place to sleep and food and helped keep them alive. The hedge against this intimacy affecting their performance boiled down to professionalism. "It's going to be hard, but honorable journalists know their responsibility," says Stephen Hess, a media and terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

It also was a matter of personal credibility--being involved in a cover-up for the military could end up being a humiliating, career-ending experience. "As a whole I wouldn't worry," says Gutman, a veteran war correspondent. "Everybody expects you to do [your job], including the guys you are covering. They know they've got a reporter along."

Journalists have long treasured their roles as outside observers and endeavored not to become "part of the story." For Martz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, though, the decision to help save lives transcended his field's ethical boundaries.

"Talk to them! Have them squeeze your hand!" an assistant medic shouted to the reporter as he held a soldier's head while struggling to peel off his flak jacket and shirt so the medic could bandage him. Martz recalls shielding a soldier with his body to keep dust off his wounds.

In a highly emotional first-person account, Martz later wrote about how the two U.S. soldiers wounded that day had helped save his life. "Had they not been there, I most likely would not be typing this now," said Martz.

Earlier, another incident had raised the issue of crossing the line. Martz and Journal-Constitution photographer Brant Sanderlin were asked to hold intravenous drip bags of saline solution for wounded civilians. The request came when a medic was pressed into duty as a rifleman to round up enemy prisoners and suppress small-arms fire directed at the unit. "I helped free a soldier to do what he's supposed to," Martz said on NPR.

Did he get too close? "I don't know exactly how you keep that distance when you're drenched in somebody's blood," says Susan Stevenson, a deputy managing editor at the Journal-Constitution. "That's something that we, as editors, have to guard against."

Martz, who was still on the move with Charlie Company when he was interviewed by e-mail in mid-April, says he hadn't done much soul-searching. He was more intent on filing daily stories and staying alive.

"I have not had time to sort this all out yet," he wrote from the war zone. He's certain a time will come when the stark reality of his experiences will take a toll. "I just don't know how or when yet."

Embedding represented a stark departure from the past, and media critics placed it under a microscope from the get-go. At times the reporting won applause for providing reality checks on war, such as the Army Times story about Pfc. Boggs. There also were lapses that lent credence to pejorative labels such as "gas mask journalism" and "tunnel vision reporting" coined by pundits.

Often, battlefield stand-ups on the cable news networks, delivered in the fog of sandstorms and in the middle of artillery blasts, lacked context and perspective. Print, it was generally agreed, offered more substance and details. Major newspapers devoted entire sections to the war each day, packed with stories, photographs and graphics as well as the jumps of myriad page-one pieces.

"The war has been reported superbly by newspapers," says Hess. "The stories have been rich in variety, coming at this from so many different angles."

Whatever its shortcomings and pitfalls, embedding emerged as a major plus for the news media--and, more significant, their audiences. The presence of hundreds of journalists in the midst of combat meant a much fuller picture of the war, warts and all. The dramatic snippets that TV provided were supplemented by sophisticated newspaper analysis that helped viewers make sense of what they had seen the night before.

NPR's Bruce Drake, vice president for news, credits embeds with providing important information early on when strong Iraqi resistance entered the picture. "We might not have gotten that same sense from daily military briefings," Drake says. "Whatever downside there might be to this doesn't add up to anywhere near the benefits."

And embedded journalists weren't the only weapon in the media arsenal--the free-ranging unilaterals added invaluable reportage from besieged Baghdad as well as the desert.

Some early critics of the Pentagon plan have reassessed their opinions. The Shorenstein Center's Jones says of the embedded journalists, "In my opinion, they've done a great job." He remembers the precise moment when he changed his mind. "It was when the embeds reported that the Apache helicopter had gotten shot to pieces when they went after the Republican Guard," Jones says. "That was not the official version coming from headquarters."

Drake feels there's been too much "navel-gazing" over the pros and cons of embedding, a system that many would like to see become part of the Pentagon's permanent war-coverage policy.

Sandy Johnson, the Associated Press' Washington bureau chief, directed coverage of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Compared with the scant access allowed then, she says, "This system has worked incredibly well.

"The naysayers," she adds, "will be eating their words."

###