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From AJR,   February/March 2004  issue

Embedded Obstacles   

Some say reporters "embedded" with Miami police during recent trade talks to cover the ensuing protests were too quick to adopt the law enforcement line.


By John Pacenti
John Pacenti is a reporter for the Palm Beach Post.     

When the city of Miami declared de facto martial law while hosting a trade summit late last year, its plan for keeping so-called anarchists and other protesters at bay included putting the media on the front lines.

Police Chief John Timoney, who was chief of police in Philadelphia when civil unrest marked the 2000 Republican National Convention, took a page from the Pentagon's blueprint for coverage of the Iraq war. Journalists would be "embedded" with police units during the Free Trade Area of the Americas conference, a meeting of diplomats from Western Hemisphere countries to discuss removing trade barriers.

Vowing that Miami would not mimic Seattle and Cancun, where street violence marred previous international trade talks, Timoney engaged some 2,500 officers to keep the peace. And he invited reporters to tag along with dozens of police units. It's not unusual for reporters to ride along with officers during news events, but the FTAA embedding was taken right from the war plan, with the specific purpose of getting the police point of view into the papers and onto television.

"I believe that every reporter I have spoken to that was embedded said that they were able to see things from our point of view," says Miami Police Department spokesman Lt. Bill Schwartz. "I think during the event, and you go back and look at coverage--particularly television coverage--you will find it very positive and pro-police."

Schwartz says the FTAA embedding plan was adopted almost word-for-word from the U.S. military's media plan for Iraq. "We just adapted it to the situation," Schwartz says. "We kept it pretty close to their form."

While police call the strategy a raving success, one they now plan to make general practice, less thrilled with the concept are some news organizations and media experts who say embedding added little to the coverage, and numerous antiglobalization groups who insist the tactic was essentially the police co-opting the media.

Grassroots groups who came to the FTAA to demonstrate, along with the AFL-CIO, senior citizen organizations and others, say embedding gave the police an unprecedented platform to denounce them as violent anarchists, and that the media focused on that message rather than their objections to free trade, which they say leads to loss of jobs and damage to the environment.

Some embedded journalists say the reporting setup was a waste because their colleagues on the street got the stories on their own, particularly when the one real skirmish broke out between police and demonstrators.

Embeds included reporters from the local television stations, the Miami Herald, South Florida's Sun-Sentinel, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, Reuters and the Associated Press. Up to 24 reporters and photographers participated during the week of the event, November 17 to November 21.

Police insisted each reporter have a helmet and a gas mask. Police prepped them with a power-point presentation on the threats anarchists allegedly posed.

Unlike in Iraq, Miami embeds were free to leave their units at will. But a waiver adopted from the military that each reporter had to sign caused some confusion when it said journalists must always stay with their units during the night for their own safety.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says when authorities allow reporters access, "in almost every instance it's likely to provide a positive view for whomever you are embedding with." She says reporters are in even more ambiguous territory when they embed during a domestic news event.

Just by dressing as police, they could be compromising their objectivity, Dalglish says. "It's very difficult for a reporter or a photographer to be viewed as an independent observer of the news whey they are dressed like a cop."

Lorna Veraldi, who teaches journalism ethics at Florida International University in Miami, says the embedded reporters in Miami seemed to take a "gee-whiz" approach to covering the police, focusing on their high-tech gear and crowd-control weaponry, which included rubber bullet guns, tear gas and tanklike vehicles.

In one television report, a newsman embedded with a water patrol unit gushed about the new technology available on the boat, she says. "They were like kids at an amusement park," says Veraldi, who also serves on a legal committee advising the ACLU.

Veraldi adds that the media bought into the police spin that the young protesters were the enemy.

For weeks before the event, news organizations reported on what police expected from as many as 35,000 protesters. Stories reported groups with such ominous names as the Black Bloc would carry squirt guns filled with acid or urine. They would link arms with plastic pipe devices known as "sleeping dragons," requiring police to use "cut" teams to clear the streets.

Adding to the atmosphere of a pending crisis, the cruise lines decided to move all of their passenger ships out of the Port of Miami. Many downtown businesses closed up shop during the FTAA.

Veraldi says television stations stoked the city's fears by replaying stock footage from Seattle, where 500 people were arrested at the World Trade Organization talks in 1999.

Jim DeFede, a columnist for the Miami Herald, wrote about how protesters were being portrayed. He mentioned a news report on WFOR, the CBS affiliate for Miami and Fort Lauderdale, in which the reporter claimed anarchists "don't care for anything or anyone."

When police put down a disturbance following a union march, anchors for local TV stations praised police in interviews for "keeping the peace." Timoney, the police chief, was repeatedly profiled in a positive light as he denounced protesters, calling them "knuckleheads" and other names.

Naomi Klein, a writer and critic of the FTAA, wrote in London's Guardian that TV stations used helicopters to show images of confrontations between demonstrators and police, missing the "voices on the street."

"We heard only from police officials and perky news anchors commiserating with the boys on the front line," Klein wrote. She also took exception to a profile of Timoney in the Miami Herald, which talked about the chief's bravado and how he subsisted on a banana and oatmeal cookie on November 20--the day of the biggest disturbances.

Herald reporter Oscar Corral wrote: "He never put on a gas mask, not even as canisters filled with gas landed around him. He fought off a gust of the acrid smoke by wiping mucus and tears from his sunburned cheeks with a loud 'Argh!' "

Corral was one of the few reporters contacted for this story who didn't refer questions to editors. Most TV stations didn't return phone calls. "It gave me an excellent perspective of a narrow point of view," Corral says of the embedding. "I was aware that I had one point of view out of many that were available."

It was the nonembedded reporters, though, who often got better stories. When violence did break out, embedded reporters had trouble finding their police units. Police said they sometimes left behind embedded reporters for their own safety.

Alice Jacobs, news director of the Miami Fox affiliate, WSVN, says one of her embedded reporters ended up with a unit that was off duty when police started making arrests. "Embedding sounded like a real good idea, but it wasn't always," she says.

"As it turned out, it really did not provide many opportunities at all for enhancing our reporting and photography," says Kevin Walsh, the Associated Press Florida bureau chief. "What worked out best for us was to just be roaming and being where the news was."

In an AP story right after the FTAA, embedded reporters gave the experience mixed reviews. Doug Dunbar, news co-anchor for WPLG-TV in Miami-Fort Lauderdale, said it enhanced his station's coverage: "I think we had a little more than if we were just walking around," he said.

But Taimy Alvarez, a photographer with South Florida's Sun-Sentinel, said she ended up with a sidelined "cut" team. She watched the melees on TV at her police unit's staging area. "We didn't go anywhere," she told the AP. "When you're photographing the cut team, you want to see them cut."

Miami Herald Executive Editor Tom Fiedler says assigning reporters to police resulted in an unusual newsroom tug of war between embedded reporters and those on their own. "We had to balance those conflicting views," he says.

Corral concurs, saying there was a cautious effort not to present the viewpoint of embedded reporters over those on the street.

"I tell you as an embedded reporter I got a well-rounded view of Timoney and his leadership characteristics," Corral explains, "but I didn't get a well-rounded view of what it was like to be a protester or to be a roving reporter."