Detail provided by embedding invaluable, haunting

NEAR KARBALA, Iraq, March 31 -- As an unidentified four-wheel-drive vehicle came barreling toward an intersection held by troops of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, Capt. Ronny Johnson grew increasingly alarmed.

By Jim Bettinger

NEAR KARBALA, Iraq, March 31 -- As an unidentified four-wheel-drive vehicle came barreling toward an intersection held by troops of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, Capt. Ronny Johnson grew increasingly alarmed. From his position at the intersection, he was heard radioing to one of his forward platoons of M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles to alert it to what he described as a potential threat.

“Fire a warning shot,” he ordered as the vehicle kept coming. Then, with increasing urgency, he told the platoon to shoot a 7.62mm machine-gun round into its radiator. “Stop [messing] around!” Johnson yelled into the company radio network when he still saw no action being taken. Finally, he shouted at the top of his voice, “Stop him, Red 1, stop him!”

That order was immediately followed by the loud reports of 25mm cannon fire from one or more of the platoon's Bradleys. About half a dozen shots were heard in all.

"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!"

So it was that on a warm, hazy day in central Iraq, the fog of war descended on Bravo Company.

-- The Washington Post

When I read William Branigin's chilling account of this attack over breakfast on April 1 I thought, “Bingo! This is the payoff for embedding. This lets us see something we wouldn't otherwise see.”

And I especially thought so when I contrasted Branigin's story with other accounts that had been filtered through official spokesmen. Indeed, one was deep in Branigin's story that same day:

[In Washington, the Pentagon issued a statement saying the vehicle was fired on after the driver ignored shouted orders and warning shots. The shooting, it said, is under investigation. According to the Pentagon account, the vehicle was a van carrying 13 women and children. Seven were killed, two were injured and four were unharmed, it said, without mentioning any men.]

We all know that the Pentagon's embedding program was controversial among journalists. Would reporters, videographers, still photographers and producers turn into acolytes for their units -- or could they maintain their independence? Would they be able to file without being censored --- or would embarrassing incidents prove to be off limits? Would they really be near the action -- or would they end up in units on the fringes?

The answer, to some degree, was all of the above.

Here are conclusions about how well embedding worked in the invasion of Iraq. I've drawn on my own observations and those of several Stanford Knight Fellows -- some of whom have extensive war correspondence experience. They were on sabbatical at Stanford but were keen observers of the fighting and the coverage.

Embedding gave us stories we wouldn't otherwise have had: This is the biggie, and the one that trumps many other considerations. There is no substitute for the kind of eyewitness reporting that this kind of access provided. Branigin's account of the attack on the van is a prime example, but it's hardly the only one. Just before the fighting began CNN carried a memorable video of an incoherent young soldier in the desert who had apparently been overcome by the physical and mental stress, and was clearly not battle-ready. Jules Crittenden of the Boston Herald recounted an incident in which three soldiers snuck off to get dangerously drunk on a bottle of high-proof alcohol, and the discipline meted out to them. And so on. While incidents like these are not earth-shattering, coverage of them provided a richer picture of the troops.

Beyond that, embedding gave readers, listeners and viewers vivid views of the battles themselves. “What worked was they provided colorful human descriptions of soldiers, local populations and Iraqi tenacity,” said Stanford Knight Fellow Arieh O'Sullivan, defense correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. This is such an obvious point that it's easy to glide over it. That many newspapers and broadcasters chose not to use the most graphic images doesn't negate the impact of those that were used.

Some embedded journalists identified too closely with the troops: Crittenden said his first reaction to the drunken-soldier incident was to reassure the platoon sergeant, “Don't sweat it. That didn't happen.” He later got the agreement of the platoon sergeant to report the incident, and wrote about his change of heart. And when a painting and other souvenirs that Crittenden brought back from Iraq was were confiscated, he dismissed it as part of “the time-honored tradition of among soldiers [my emphasis] of bringing home reminders of some of the most intense experiences of their lives.”

It was this identification with the military that worried many journalists, before, during and after the actual fighting. “Once we crawl inside the Abrams tank and trundle our way to Baghdad with the boys, we should not kid ourselves about ‘objectivity,'” Stanford Knight Fellow Julie McCarthy, NPR's London correspondent, told me. Former war correspondent Chris Hedges, author of “War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” said the lack of war-reporting experience among embedded journalists served the military's purpose: “People like that are very pliable, which is why the military likes them,” he said to Poynteronline. “Most probably don't want to get very near fighting, and I think the military will be only too willing to oblige.”

Top prize for getting too close to the military goes to the young reporter for the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer who accepted her boyfriend's marriage proposal while they were in Kuwait -- he as an Army officer and she as an embedded reporter in his unit. Her newspaper brought her home -- but not until a week after it learned about the engagement.

OK, so that has a high snicker factor. Other line-blurring incidents involving journalists and soldiers were generated by being in battle in the same place -- but with very different responsibilities. Former Stanford Knight Fellow Meg Laughlin, a Knight Ridder reporter embedded with the 7th Combat Support Group, was offered an M-16 and asked to help guard the unit's perimeter. (She declined, saying: “Are you crazy? We're all in trouble if you're depending on me to guard you.”) Ron Martz, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, found himself holding an I.V. drip bag and kneeling by a wounded civilian, according to the New York Times. “I am a human being first and a journalist second,” he told the New York Times. Journal-Constitution deputy managing editor Susan Stevenson told AJR magazine, “I don't know exactly how you keep that distance when you're drenched in somebody's blood. That's something that we, as editors, have to guard against.”

Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon and CNN medical correspondent embedded with a U.S. Navy Medical Corps unit, operated on a 2-year-old Iraqi boy who had been hit by shrapnel, when no other neurosurgeon was around. Gupta's situation was complicated by his Hippocratic Oathoath, which requires him to act to save a life. But, asked Bob Steele of Poynter and others, should his responsibilities as a physician always outweigh his duty as a journalist not to become part of the story?

None of this is to suggest that Martz and Gupta did the wrong thing. But embedding hundreds of journalists virtually guarantees that some -- and maybe most -- will be sucked into situations where observing from a distance will be impossible. Moreover, ways to maintain your independence that work if you're covering the Senate or the police department may seem hopelessly irrelevant in battle.

Gee-whiz and because-we-can reporting chased out more significant stories: Television's need for visuals meant hours of live-from-the-field reporting, using videophones and satellite links inconceivable in the first Gulf War -- but for long periods of time there wasn't much to report. Anchors went ga-ga over the mere fact that they were able to get images at all, even though many of those images (think of the advancing forces at night) seemed more like Rorschach tests than informed journalism. And too many newspapers devoted an inordinate amount of space to high-tech ordnance and low-tech features. Meanwhile, every day it became more frustrating to get an overall sense of what was happening from either medium.

“Unilaterals” provided some of the most compelling coverage of the war: A number of outstanding reporters wanted no part of embedding, for the reasons enumerated by Julie McCarthy and Chris Hedges. This especially included those who were in Baghdad before the invasion began, including John Burns of the New York Times and Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post, and other reporters who chose to operate on their own -- unilaterally -- rather than leash themselves to a specific unit. The challenges and the risks were immense. The two journalists killed when U.S. forces fired on the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad on April 8 were the grimmest testimony to those dangers.

Embedded journalists and online access gave civilians an unprecedented view of the invasion: No one was limited to a hometown newspaper, or to a single cable television network. The New York Times had 9-1/2 million visitors to its website in March 2003, a 24 percent increase compared to the year before, and the Washington Post showed a 31 percent increase. That's an option that simply wasn't available in Gulf War I, nor was it possible to monitor coverage from international media such as the BBC or Le Monde.

And for some, truly “local” news came from distant sources. O'Sullivan, the Knight Fellow from the Jerusalem Post, reported families around the U.S. had logged onto the Post's site to read dispatches from Post reporter Caroline Glick who was attached to the U.S. Third Infantry Division in order to read about their sons, brothers and fathers.

Embedding was a roll of the dice for individual news organizations and individual journalists: There was no guarantee that any given unit would be at a key location, or for that matter that it would see action at all. And there's not many things more frustrating than to have a reporter or photographer in the field, but miles away from the action and no way to get there. (The embedding regulations forbade journalists to have their own means of transportation.)

But the overall effect of 600-plus embedded journalists and the internet access mentioned earlier meant that any reasonably interested observer could find out quite a lot -- and that means the public was served.

Any discussion of how well embedding worked has to pose the question, compared to what? There is little question in my mind that the amount and quality of reporting on this invasion was substantially better than the 1991 Gulf War, aptly characterized in John Fialka's book, “Hotel Warriors,” as “a war that the great majority of journalists saw from the vantage point of the briefing rooms of posh hotels in Riyadh or Dhahran or from the gray metal chairs in the broadcasting studio on the E-Ring of the Pentagon. The ‘truth' for most news consumers during the war came from Pentagon-produced videotapes or on the fancy charts prepared to explain each bite-size chunk of war.”

Communications technology advances, combined with the embedding, made a significant difference. Again, Fialka's account of the military escort system and communications challenges during the l991 war:

“Accounts of major battles took three to four days to reach New York because of a haphazard military courier system aptly dubbed the ‘pony express.' One reporter's copy took as long as two weeks to make the eight-hour drive from the battlefield to Dhahran. A news photographer's film took 36 days. A television correspondent's videotape of two stories never got back at all.”

The more recent example is the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and two Stanford Knight Fellows who covered that conflict agree that embedding is preferable to the situation there, where “most reporters weren't able to get anywhere near the war except from the Northern Alliance side,” as Hannah Bloch of Time magazine noted. “But at best, it's been a double-edged sword.”

Editors should ask their embedded journalists to evaluate how well the system worked: Debriefing returning reporters and photographers like this may not be standard procedure, especially in busy newsrooms where the attention is on today's edition and tomorrow's challenges, not yesterday's war stories. And asking people who put themselves in danger to critique their performance -- and even examine whether they were self-censoring -- may seem like something only a journalism fellowship director could dream up.

But what we've had here amounts to a massive experiment in access, and we owe it to ourselves to explore its pluses and minuses. This new system is likely to be the model for future conflicts, and it's important to get a reading on its impact on the people most directly affected -- the embedded journalists. There are 600 people out there who are our best authorities on the impact on them and their stories.

Embedding must not become the only way the military deals with the news media: If the military is as tickled as it seems to be with the policy, and news organizations pronounce themselves satisfied as well, mission creep might lead to further hurdles for journalists who choose not to be embedded. The official purpose of the embedding program, editors should remember, was linked to the military's desire to get its side of the story out quickly: “We need to tell the factual story -- good and bad -- before others seed the media with disinformation and distortions, as they most certainly will continue to do,” the Pentagon's policy declared. “Our people in the field need to tell our story -- only commanders can ensure the media get to the story alongside the troops.” Embedding was an admirable solution to this problem, and it mostly served the news media and the public well, but it's not quite the same commitment to informing the public that editors should have in their DNA. If embedding becomes the only way the military will permit access, you can bet that more restrictions and regulations will accumulate barnacle-like on it.

Embedding identifies reporters and editors with the military in a potentially insidious way: “I am really sad and angry at this new way of journalism on in the field,” former Stanford Knight Fellow Serif Turgut, a Turkish television war correspondent who has been studying this year at George Washington University, said in an email. “'Embedded journalism' destroyed a ‘real journalism.' Many of those journalists were wearing a military uniform, using words like ‘enemy side' or ‘enemy line' and following the military rules. They were (sounded and looked) more like soldiers than journalists.”

Knight Fellow Juan Castillo, national editor of the Austin American Statesman, cited the impact on the public's perception of the news media. “We have a credibility problem, and the embedding of journalists -- and the allegations that the news media's job was to sell the war -- only seemed to exacerbate it.” Castillo conceded that with all his misgivings, he'd still take the access. “I'd just like to see embedding supplemented with much more thoughtful and substantive reporting, more questioning, more analysis and ultimately, a broader perspective.”

I agree with those criticisms, although maybe not as strongly as Turgut. Embedded journalism did not destroy real journalism. But the tendency to descend into us-and-them phrasing and the adoption of military catchphrases like “shock and awe” is the kind of lapse that does dilute the perception of our independence. Embedded reporting provided a new vehicle to inform the public, and journalists can always be in favor of that. But the cautions are there.

Let me close with the comments of Meg Laughlin, the former Stanford Knight Fellow embedded with the 7th Combat Support Group. Laughlin praised the unit's commander, Col. John P. Gardner: “I used to wander all over to get stories and Gardner supported me. He never said ‘you're supposed to write about us.'

“I wrote a lot of stories about the US Army killing Iraqi families and no one ever called me on it. But I had to disembed to see for myself in detail what our bombs and mortar attacks were doing in nearby Najaf. When the Army civil affairs soldiers went to hospitals on goodwill missions, they never saw war wounded. When I disembedded and went to Najaf I saw ward after ward -- hundreds of war wounded. Children screaming in agony -- their limbs blown off.

“I did see the pain and suffering of the war and I wrote about it at [a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital], but to get the larger fuller picture I had to disembed and move into Najaf.

“I am still haunted by it.”

Jim Bettinger is director of the John S. Knight Fellowships for Professional Journalists at Stanford University