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Can the Means by Which War Is Covered Be Changed to Be Less Biased?

Tuesday, Apr. 01, 2003

In recent days, the media coverage of the war on Iraq has become intensely controversial. Running parallel to the tempest over the war itself, is a tempest over how the war is being covered.

In particular, the pro-war, pro-Coalition bias of the embedded reporting program and the limited amount of coverage of anti-war protests have both been criticized. But those who make such criticisms should be challenged to be constructive.

They must answer this question: Given modern media realities, are there any workable alternatives that might correct the inherent bias of certain types of coverage?

The Embedded Reporting Program as Inherently Pro-war and Pro-Coalition

Slate's Jack Shafer has recently argued that "the Pentagon officer who conceived and advanced the embedded journalist program should step forward and demand a fourth star for his epaulets." I believe he's right.

The embedded reporter program lets journalists travel with troops to report what they are seeing, while simultaneously restricting what they can report (to prevent classified information from leaking). As a result, reporters who are "embeds" inevitably tell primarily the story that the U.S. military wants viewers to see.

Footage and information on the war is shot and filtered through the perspective and experiences of their military hosts: the obstacles, victories, and defeats their units encounter, become the stories seen and told by the reporters. By marrying what seems like independent reportage with a reality that is highly dependent upon the experiences of Coalition forces, embedded reporting inevitably ends up blurring the boundaries between reporting and our military's point of view.

Unsurprisingly, then, as Shafer notes, the embedded journalist program has produced a great deal of pro-war coverage. Mostly, the pro-war bent of the coverage has come from what it leaves out: The events as seen from any other point of view than that of the Coalition forces.

For instance, when Apache helicopters were sent out for a mission in which they took heavy fire, and one did not return, the embeds could not report on the POWs' experience or show the battering the helicopters took. Instead, we only saw footage of the helicopters leaving, and soldiers from the POWs' unit saying their prayers were with their missing comrades, while assuring viewers that everything was otherwise fine.

Of course, Iraqi television later showed footage of the troubled POWs, but that was probably a violation of the Geneva Conventions, as Anthony Dworkin explained in a recent column for this site. And we should not be counting on Iraqi television to balance U.S. coverage. Balance doesn't mean introducing contrary bias.

Alternatives to the Embed Program: A Difficult Dilemma

Granted, embedded reporting from the front certainly is better than reports gleaned from piecing together information released through Pentagon briefings and newswires. It's also an improvement over the limited coverage journalists and viewers were afforded during the Gulf War.

Yet given the unavoidable pro-war bias created with embedded reporting, are there alternatives that would allow reporters the same access to the war front, while at the same time allowing for reporting that depicts a more balanced view of both sides in the war?

One alternative could be to simply give each team of journalists a military escort. Rather than requiring them to stay with a particular unit, the journalists themselves could choose their destinations. After all, it's dangerous for reporters from Coalition countries to travel on their own. And it seems unfair to expose unarmed journalists to more danger than even armed soldiers face. But this alternative could prove very problematic.

For one thing, soldiers have signed up to fight for their country, not protect journalists. For another, travelling as a unit in Iraq has proven to be much safer than traveling as a small group, even when that group is armed. Iraq has chosen to attack supply lines stretched out across long distances, not grouped units that are defended from every side. Its forces also captured a maintenance crew that was temporarily separated from its unit. A set of reporters travelling with a small number of soldiers might end up just like that maintenance crew - defended, but isolated, and ultimately captured.

There is also another alternative, and it's admittedly a strange one. Perhaps, in addition to the embedded reporting program, news organizations should make an attempt to covertly employ Iraqi civilians as journalists so that both sides of the story are told Sound crazy? Consider the advantages.

The Iraqis have no choice but to be there; it's terrible that they are at risk, but it's a fact. Unlike Coalition journalists, they won't have trouble blending in, and won't be automatic targets. The U.S. has repeatedly emphasized that Iraqi civilians are not enemies, but rather are being "liberated." Thus, it is not as if we are putting reportage in the hands of an enemy: Saddam Hussein and his government, the U.S. Government has repeatedly emphasized, are the only enemy.

Obviously, Iraqis can't overtly film in the streets of Baghdad without great risk to their lives. But what about supplying them with covert cameras, and satellite phones to be used in secret. Or what about reading their dispatches (filed via blog if possible) over the airwaves?

And what about giving cameras to Iraqis in outlying Iraqi cities that come under U.S. protection, so that they can film their lives there? There's no reason to have all the reporting to U.S. media outlets being done by Americans.

In sum, the alternative to embedded reporting is civilian reporting - and since U.S. civilians cannot do it, perhaps Iraqi civilians should. It's all too easy for the U.S. media to take advantage of the embedded reporting program, but they shouldn't stop there.

Roving reportage by Iraqi civilians may be the only independent reportage we can get. At the very least, if this type of reporting were combined with embedded media reporting, the media would be able to show more than one side of the story.

Blogging as Inherently Anti-war

Interestingly, just as embedded journalism is inherently somewhat pro-war, blogging seems to be inherently anti-war - even, I think, when posted by a soldier.

Coalition soldiers' blogs - check out "Live from the Sandbox," for instance - have afforded a way for parents, relatives, and friends to check in on how the bloggers are doing, even when they cannot directly contact them. But they have also allowed many other interested persons to get snapshots of the soldiers' lives (without, of course, seeing confidential military information).

These blogs do not question the war; if anything, they affirm the need for it. But their pro-war sentiment, no matter how strong, can't affect the fact that if we know the soldiers individually, through their blogs, we'll worry more about their families, and, if they die or are wounded, feel more profoundly the human cost.

Inevitably, I believe, feeling this human cost is bound to amplify doubts about the war, even if that is the reverse of what the blogger may have intended. Consider how reading a person's blog makes him (or her) seem much less a stranger, and more like someone you know. And then consider how much more devastating the deaths of ten people you feel like you know would be, compared to the deaths of ten strangers whom you know nothing about.

Blogging also makes similarities across cultures clear: If I can read, understand, and empathize with an Iraqi civilian's blog, how different are we, anyway? What appears to be one Iraqi civilian's blog has already gotten substantial attention - getting so many hits it has tested the capabilities of its host sites. Because the blog has covered concerns both daily (are the bakeries open? How many windows of civilian homes have been shattered by nearby bombing?) and long-term (what if one dislikes both Saddam and the Coalition?).

The blog makes it easier to imagine oneself in Iraq - taking care of basic daily needs, while at the same time worrying about the future. As a result, it makes it easier, in a sense, to imagine oneself an Iraqi. And once one imagines oneself an Iraqi, the devastation of the bombing is brought home: What if, in your neighborhood, you had to wonder about how to get access to basics such as bread, and watch beloved landmarks being shattered?

In sum, blogging sketches a world of individuals, of life and death and suffering and desire, just as embedded reporting depicts a world of military objectives and campaigns, victory and defeat. If the two could somehow carry equal weight, perhaps their opposite biases might cancel each other out, or at the very least provide for a greater balance in news coverage. As it is now, embedded reporting is plainly the order of the day.

Should Coverage of Anti-war Protests Be Expanded?

Critics of embedded reporting also complain about the networks' limited coverage of anti-war protests.

Even CNN anchor Aaron Brown, in the midst of the melee, has commented, "I think we were a little late to come to [the anti-war movement]. There were some reasons why. It didn't seem to have a center we could focus on. The Democrats in Congress rolled over on the issue. Then [the movement] seemed to coalesce, and once it did we started to cover it."

Brown's comments may come down to this: The anti-war movement suddenly got much more photogenic, with large marches in a number of major cities finally offering an easy focus for coverage, and a good source of footage. Yet the movement was always there; it was the marches that "coalesced:"

To some extent, it's understandable why this delay may have happened. Stations know they will always get less flak (and lose fewer viewers) if they cover protests, rather than give anti-war positions airtime. NBC's recent firing of Peter Arnett - while complicated by other important issues - shows, among other points, how much the networks fear being perceived as supporting anti-war views.

There's another reason, too, that it's the marches that are being covered: Video footage of marches makes for more interesting viewing than does listening to individuals, or organization representatives, talk about their anti-war positions.

Nevertheless, it's important for the media to fight the tendency to privilege video over interviews when it comes to anti-war sentiment. Watching similar crowds chant the same anti-war slogans, holding up similar placards, in different cities is not very informative. In contrast, hearing what, specifically, knowledgeable anti-war activists have to say about the war is very informative indeed.

But that seems to be what the media are afraid to do. Again, creative solutions are necessary. Rather than having former generals (guess what: they tend to be pro-war) comment on what embedded journalists report, why not have an anti-war protester critique it on occasion?

Numerous news commentators themselves have by now complained about the ways in which war coverage has been biased. For the media, self-examination is the order of the day. But endless talk won't help: it's time to do something about the problem. Unless the media soon take action, and consider innovative alternatives to current coverage, they might as well declare themselves the new Stars & Stripes.

Julie Hilden, a FindLaw columnist, practiced First Amendment law at the D.C. law firm of Williams & Connolly from 1996-99. Currently a freelance writer, Hilden published a memoir, The Bad Daughter, in 1998. Her forthcoming novel Three will be published by Plume Books in August 2003, by Bantam in the U.K., and in French translation by Actes Sud.

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