Like sipping soda through 500 straws

Is it a good thing to have the White House press corps embedded in Air Force One? Is it a good thing to embed reporters for months in political campaigns?

By Susan Stevenson

Is it a good thing to have the White House press corps embedded in Air Force One? Is it a good thing to embed reporters for months in political campaigns?

Don't both depend, in part, on the conduct and skill of the reporter and the newspaper? All three situations may call for caution, but not enough to rationalize staying home.

It was a very good thing for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to have 12 reporters in the region: Ron Martz, our military reporter, photographer Brant Sanderlin embedded with Charlie Company of the Third Infantry; five embedded reporters whom we shared with CNN with a variety of military units; reporters we shared with Cox: Larry Kaplow and Craig Nelson who remained in Baghdad throughout the war, escorted as all reporters were at all times by Iraqi minders; Mike Williams in Northern Iraq; and three or four other Cox reporters who were in and out of the region from Qatar to Turkey to Jordan to Jerusalem.

But the gift of this staff was also a challenge for editors. It meant piecing together reports from all over the war coming in 24 hours a day.

Some arrived almost instantly; some were delayed by rolling blackouts or the sheer inability to file because of the fierceness of fighting.

Gen.Tommy Franks called sorting out reports from the embeds like trying to sip a soda through 500 or 600 different straws.

So telling the story of the war each day meant a rewrite staff plus editors to combine various embed, staff and wire reports.

What did those editors do with those embed reports from the front that arrived with all the rawness of war? We labeled them and put them in the newspaper. They weren't the whole story, but they were a very human story that needed to be told.

What did those editors do when Martz was commandeered by a medic to carry a wounded Iraqi, when Martz was soaked by the blood of two soldiers shot in front and behind him? We put it in the newspaper. Martz is a professional who rarely if ever wrote in first person before. But when he felt enmeshed in the story, first person seemed the honest way to tell the story.

Carrying the wounded Iraqi and trying to help bleeding soldiers were simple human instincts. Martz wrote the story so readers could make up their own minds.

Martz and photographer Sanderlin and other embedded reporters gave us scenes, photographs, news we would not have had without being there.

Lisa Rose Weaver, a shared CNN and AJC embed, broke the story of a missile unit making the sickening discovery that one of its missiles had shot down an American jet fighter by mistake and killed the pilot. Martz and Sanderlin reported and photographed a soldier who killed an Iraqi who was throwing rocks at him. Sanderlin showed Baghdad civilians in the road after soldiers shot them. Martz blew holes in Pentagon denials that their initial plans had gone astray.

Did such reporting glorify war, Bush, the Pentagon? Only in the minds of folks whose brains arrived to read their newspaper each morning with an already inbred sense that war or Bush meant glory.

Did Martz and Sanderlin care about the soldiers they were with?

Yes, they cared and respected them. So did Ernie Pyle who dug ditches with soldiers in the desert in Tunisia in the early days of World War II – and died with them in the Pacific before that war ended.

The ordinary American soldier under fire is surely more honest than PR generals in Qatar or Kuwait or Granada or Washington, D.C.

And journalists who risk their lives to tell us or show us these horrific and human stories from the front belong to a tradition we ought to honor.

Susan Stevenson, deputy managing editor, directed Iraq war coverage for the Journal-Constitution.