Embedded Media Give Up Independence

By Robert Jensen

Published in Dissident Voice · April, 2003

[This article ran as “Beware the sources of official info” in Newsday, March 24, 2003, and San Jose Mercury News, March 26, 2003.]

Just as the Pentagon has developed increasingly sophisticated munitions for the battlefield abroad, it has perfected propaganda to secure public opinion at home.

In that battle, American citizens need critical, independent journalists if they are to get the information necessary to participate meaningfully in the formation of policy. Never has that been more crucial, as the United States unleashes an attack on Iraq that signals a new era of the use of force. Unfortunately in the first few days of the conflict, and the months leading to war, American journalism has largely failed, on several counts.

What should citizens in a democracy expect from our journalists?

–a trustworthy source of facts gathered independently of powerful institutions;

–the historical, political and social context to help make sense of facts; and

–the widest possible range of opinion to allow people to test their own conclusions against alternatives.

The factual information from journalists in the first days of the war has come overwhelmingly from government briefings and the reporters “embedded” in military units. Such briefings are never a source of trustworthy news; reporters have few ways to verify what the military officers and government officials tell them, and history suggests we should expect officials to omit crucial information and fudge on facts. During the Vietnam War, Pentagon spokesmen kept insisting in press briefings that they could “see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

The embedded journalists will be allowed to report most of what they see, at least so long as the war is going well for U.S. forces. But as part of the deal reporters accept censorship as the military deems necessary, and they must travel with their units; an attempt to secure independent transportation will get them shipped home. If Operation Iraqi Freedom runs into trouble, will the Pentagon make it easy for reporters to cover the ugly side of the war?

By accepting the Pentagon system, journalists trade independence for access to troops and a front-row seat to the battles. So far, the embedded reporters have sent back mostly human-interest stories about the lives of the troops and celebratory accounts of high-tech weaponry. Some of this is poignant and dramatic, but it also creates an image of war quite different from the chaotic, brutal reality, as we saw yesterday when coalition casualties began to mount and footage of American POWs was broadcast on Iraqi television.

The context and analysis necessary to turn facts into real understanding is largely missing, especially from television news. When Bush administration officials talk of bringing democracy to Iraq, for example, few reporters explain that the United States has supported – and continues to support – undemocratic regimes in the region, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Why does the U.S. commitment to democracy surface only when it serves as justification for war? Some history and analysis here would be helpful, but journalists rarely press such points.

The range of opinion in journalism, particularly on television, stretches from A to B. Current government officials are “balanced” by former government officials on the talk shows. Retired military officers “critique” current military officers. Super-hawks debate regular-strength-hawks, joined by an occasional conflicted moderate. Critics of U.S. policy do appear – usually only in sound-bite footage from protest rallies, a format that makes it difficult to develop an argument that sounds sensible.

None of these observations are meant to disparage the excellent work of many war correspondents. But journalists are constrained by the demands of the institutions in which they work (more concerned with ratings and profits than fostering critical reporting) and the ideology of the society (which in wartime tends to demand conformity to reflexive patriotism and nationalism). In such a world, the routines of so-called “objective” journalism – which overwhelmingly rely on official sources, mainly from government, military and corporations, and the intellectuals who serve them – not surprisingly produces a view of the world skewed toward the powerful.

At times, this system produces TV reports in which it is difficult to separate journalists from the government. Last Wednesday, CBS News’ Jim Axelrod, embedded with the 3rd Infantry, discussed an intelligence briefing he sat in on and said, “We’ve been given orders.” Realizing the implications of what he said, he revised himself “Soldiers have been given orders.” On that same day, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw began reporting on “how successful we were” in a battle before correcting himself how successful “the United States was.” Yesterday the anchors were similarly American-centric as they had more somber news to report, including Marines engaged in heavy fighting in southern Iraq and a British jet shot down by a Patriot missile, killing two airmen.

Journalists should worry about what those slips of their tongues say about their ability to be independent and honest. So should the American people, if we are serious about democracy.