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An Embedded Bias?

Media Professionals Debate Iraqi War Coverage

Strange “embed” fellows they seemed: War correspondents pledged to file objective reports while traveling within the ranks of U.S. combatants. Yet, on the proverbial morning after, despite open questions of “rah-rah reporting,” “soda-straw” views and the trading of “information for pictures,” four veteran news professionals agreed that the novel practice of embedding media with troops during the war in Iraq ultimately benefitted the military, the press and U.S. citizens seeking to be informed.

The professionals, Lt. Col. Richard Long, coordinator of embedded journalists for the U.S. Marine Corps, William Branigin, Washington Post war correspondent, John Donvan, an ABC News Nighline journalist and Thomas Shanker, Pentagon correspondent for the New York Times, were brought together July 29 in a forum to address the pros and cons of the Pentagon-initiated embed program by the Washington Office of the College in conjunction with the Council on Foreign Relations.

During the course of the evening, each participant discussed their personal experiences providing coverage of the war in Iraq along with their reflections on the broad issues of objectivity, of making compromises for coverage, and, perhaps most unsettling, why the embed system has seemed to end when the war still is going on.

Panelists (from l) Richard Long, William Branigin, John Donvan and Thomas Shanker shared insights into Iraqi war coverage. Photo supplied by the Washington Office of the College of William and Mary.

From the beginning, the concept of embedding reporters had staunch supporters and skeptics on both sides, according to the dialogue that unfolded.

Shanker, charged with moderating the forum, opened the discussion by explaining that the Pentagon, in allowing some 500 journalists to embed with troops, was not merely responding to media pressure aimed at securing direct access to American military missions but was exerting its own media strategy.

“There was certainly an element of self-interest in what the Pentagon did,” Shanker said. Officials already had conceded that they, “in Afghanistan, for example, could have benefitted from news reports by witnesses who could describe the difficult, complicated and, yes, even bloody operations with the credibility that comes from independence.”

In the absence of such independent witnesses, the military realized it had “risked squandering public opinion” to propaganda statements circulated by the Taliban and other U.S. adversaries about controversial topics including “civilian casualties, treatment of detainees and alliances with less-than-savory warlords,” Shanker suggested.

If, in the end, the Pentagon benefitted from the arrangement, so did the media, which gained a “very deep and very rich reporting experience,” although for the individual reporter, it was a “narrow” one—one described by Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, as the “soda straw view of war,” Shanker said.

In his remarks, Lt. Col. Long took up the concern that embedded troops had a narrow view in terms of the overall military operations. However, those media organizations large enough to commit numerous journalists overcame that by having people embedded at different levels of command--including some at the COC (Central Operations Center).

“A part of the embedding program was embed for life,” Long explained. “You go, and you embed with a unit, and you experience that unit and those people from start to finish, and you understand their essence.”

Even if the military wanted to shuffle reporters from one unit to another to help broaden their context, it could not: “To be honest, we have a hard time moving ourselves and trying to get the things that we need to certain places,” Long said. Admitting that he noticed some reporters did allow their circumstances to color the objectivity of their reports, he explained, “It’s hard to go into a group of Marines—young men and women dedicated, professional, hard-working, willing to sacrifice their lives for what they believe is a just cause and not get attached to them.”

Of the two panelists who had filed stories from Iraq, one, Branigin, was attached, or embedded, and the other, Donvan, was not attached--termed a “unilateral” by U.S. military forces. Each man accepted that they, indeed, were presented a narrow or “soda=straw” view but countered that it was the responsibility of their editors to fit the pieces together into a coherent overview.

For his part, Branigin said the experience, while limiting, was an improvement on previous “reporter pools” in which he had participated. Referring to a stint during the first Iraqi war, which he described as “pretty miserable from a journalistic point of view,” he said there was a lot of distrust and “censorship.” Subsequently in Afghanistan, he was part of a pool of reporters north of Kabul who could find no one from the military to talk to them.

Skeptical entering the embed situation during the second Iraqi war, he came to believe that the Pentagon had changed in its approach. “I think the Pentagon learned a lesson from [Afghanistan], which was that up until the fall of Kabul, they were losing the information war. The Taliban was putting out all sorts of propaganda, inside Afghanistan anyway, that had no rebuttal. … It turned out that the Pentagon really was true to its word in that they had recognized the need to have independent journalists embedded with their forces in order to have credibility.”

Embedded with a unit of the 3rd infantry division, Branigin said he spent most of his time “with sergeants and privates,” a circumstance which colored the perspective contained in his reports. ‘I never met a general the whole time I was over there,” he said. Branigin realized that he was “trading the overview information for the ground-level, grunt-side view of the war.”

A pivotal event which convinced him that the Pentagon’s attitude toward media coverage had changed occurred when he witnessed a disastrous event and reported on it. “I was with Bravo Company when we crossed the berm, and through a disastrous day when soldiers killed 11 members of a family at a checkpoint,” he explained. He wrote the story, which went out uncensored. The next day the battalion commander said to him, “I ready your story.” That’s the only thing that was said, Branigin recalled.

Although Donvan covered the war outside the Pentagon’s embed system—ABC News feared that “what if the shooting starts and the officers out there just panic and shut it all down,” he explained—he was not critical of those who joined it. His own organization had others who were embedded.

“When I heard about the embedding program, it sounded like an interesting way to see the war because we often ask for access,” Donvan said. “We would love to spend a day with the president; we would make all sorts of agreements not to share certain sorts of information. We would love to spend a day in the office of the chairman of General Motors.” Compromises for coverage are part of the business, he suggested.

As a non-embedded journalist, Donvan and his team experienced conditions from which their embedded colleagues were protected—he spoke about “sneaking into Iraq through nefarious means over several days” because it was too dangerous to spend the nights there; he said his crew had equipment looted by Iraqi civilians; he said a great fear was running out of gas.

For their efforts, the news team turned up aspects of the war that were different than what the embedded reporters were witnessing. “Embedded reporters, who were seeing Iraqis at all, were seeing them waving and cheering, and the word went out from the Pentagon that we were being welcomed as liberators,” he said. His perspective, closer to the Iraqi civilians, was that “they were not happy with us, the Americans. They were not happy with the British. They were not happy that five people in town had been killed. They were not happy that their electricity was off. They were not happy that big guys wearing camouflage and helmets were telling them where in their town they could go.”

At first, he questioned the reaction he was witnessing—”in it’s own way, it was a soda straw” perspective, he admitted, but he came to believe it was a valid part of the story of the war, one that embedded reporters would not see. Indeed, one of his biggest criticisms of the embedded system—the weight as squarely on the media as on the Pentagon—he described thus: “Because they were covering the military operation to get to Baghdad, the embeds got to Baghdad and left and stopped covering the war. … I think the embeds had the illusion, and most Americans have the illusion, that the war happened, and it ended when the statue of Saddam [in Baghdad} came down, and everybody went home. Except that everybody didn’t go home. There are still 140,000 troops there, and they’re still in the middle of something that’s still being worked out.”

At the conclusion of the individual statements, a question and answer session elicited comments from the participants on a variety of related themes.

In one response, Donvan compared coverage of the Iraqi war to that in Vietnam: “In Vietnam, I don’t think there was any pretence to cover the Viet Cong side,” he said. “By and large the mainstream media went to tell the story of the American enterprise: Is it good for America? Is it bad for America? And when people turned against the war either in the media or here at home, it was never really that the Viet Cong are right. It was that this is wrong for us.”

A difference in Iraq was that there were reports coming from the other side from organizations such as al-Jazeera, which Donvan recognized for its professionalism. “They just told the story of the war from a different side.”

Shanker, picking up on the theme, said that “embeds are also blamed for being responsible for a mood swing back home. For the first couple of days, the t.v. images that everybody saw were of a mechanized assault rolling unimpeded across the desert. There were people already talking about catastrophic victory before the first serious engagement. Then when there were sandstorms and problems in the rear, and there was one report from an embed about supply-line problems … suddenly that became viewed as across the entire front.” Shanker asked how media professionals could ensure that the broader perspective was being reported.

Donvan answered, “The best way to do that is to constantly remind the everybody that everything is soda straw. That is the only answer.”

“It is so hard to capture the total picture,” Long added. “I would struggle to explain it to you now; I’ve been in the Marine Corps for 17 years.”

Branigin responded, “If you take the totality of what was reported, I think the American public got a pretty good picture.”

by David Williard

© 2015 The College of William & Mary