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By Kalb, Marvin | Editor & Publisher, March 24, 2003 | Go to article overview

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Kalb, Marvin, Editor & Publisher


WAR AND CONFLICT

Reporters at the front are torn between purism and patriotism

When American soldiers go off to war, so too do American journalists. In this war, though, something new has been added. "Embedding" is part of the massive, White House-run strategy to sell a single message about the American mission in this war -- that the United States is liberating Iraq from a bloody dictator, who has used weapons of mass destruction against his neighbors and his own people, and that this is a war against terrorism or states that help terrorists and not a war against Islam.

By the start of the current conflict last week, more than 600 American and foreign reporters were embedded, all of them part of specific military units and many advancing on specific military targets. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, whose fingerprints are all over this new approach to press/ Pentagon collaboration, wants proud, positive, patriotic coverage -- and so far that's exactly what he's gotten. Reporters have functioned like modern-day Ernie Pyles, reporting on military strategy, as expected, but also telling stories about individual soldiers, their professionalism highlighted against clouds of anxiety (and fear), and about their brave commanders -- giving them pep talks, anticipating problems, pointing the way.

All of the reporters, be they embedded or floating on the edges of combat, responsible only to their judgment and instincts, are in danger. The games are over. No longer hotel warriors, as they were during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, complaining about the lack of access to the troops or the front, they are now with the troops. They are on the firing line, facing the same sandstorms, fearing chemical attacks from a desperate Saddam Hussein, experiencing many of the same dangers. They have been warned that their casualty rates may be higher than in earlier conflicts.

The price for this extraordinary access may be high in one other respect. The Pentagon has been remarkably up-front on one key ground rule for all reporting. "Live" coverage will not be allowed to jeopardize the mission or the troops, and only the U.S. military commander on the scene has the authority to make the ultimate call. What that means, clearly, is that a large degree of editorial control over live coverage of the battle rests with the U.S. military, not with the journalist.

While every journalist wants a good story, none wants to undermine a mission or cause injury (or worse) to a soldier. …

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