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Embedded journalists to cover next war

Sam Bauman

You might as well get used to seeing the word “embed.” No, not as in “Please embed the cherry in the manhattan.” No, in this case embed refers to the new Pentagon policy of dealing with the media.

The idea is to hook up media people with specific military units, from which they will not be allowed to roam. No more journalists wandering the battlefield on their own in taxis or white jeeps. No more TV crews free to show highlights of the battle; rather, if the unit to which they are assigned doesn’t get in the battle (as many units don’t) they are dead meat as far as their television producers are concerned.

At first glance this seems to be one more example of the Pentagon heavy-handedly trying to control the flow of news. Nothing new about that. Remember in the Vietnam war an American journalist who had written some critical things about the U.S. military was asked, “Which side are you on?”

Or in the Gulf War when reporters and TV crews were herded away from the action (and in the process reportedly failed to present a picture of what was probably the greatest tank battle in history — thus, few know about it today).

Here’s how one Marine Corps colonel reportedly put it:

“News organizations will be given allocations with the services. Units

within those services will be identified as potential embed

opportunities. …

“The ideal embed is to have a reporter train, deploy and stay

with a unit until they return home.

“The military will provide embedded reporters with the same NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) gear as the troops.

“Reporters will also be provided rations and transportation.

“Reporter transportation should be with normal unit movements, not be

transportation on-demand.”

Media folk will also have to buy their own Kevlar flak jackets, helmets and other items furnished in the past by the military.

Tie me kangaroo down, boy!

On the other hand, who can blame a military for not wanting to have media people wandering around like loose … well, lips … when war is fought at night and at a range of 5,000 meters. War in Iraq and elsewhere will be a far cry from the Gulf War. Remember, in that war one CNN reporter with his crew in a Jeep wandered off the beaten track and were taken captive. Never again, says the military, will media teams be allowed to roam the battlefield at will.

Of course, part of how well media will be able to cover a war depends on what level of unit the “embeds” will be assigned to. If they’re stuck with an infantry platoon, they will be limited to that small unit’s sphere of action. If with a division headquarters, the view might be much more rewarding. At theater headquarters they’ll know what’s happening but be limited to talking heads reporting.

The embed policy takes into account the vast technological changes that have taken place in the media. Today a correspondent can carry a satellite phone and report live from almost any place on earth. And TV camera have shrunk to pocket size, as has the associated equipment. What company commander would put up with a TV crew beaming something back to the network that would reveal tactics, position or other intelligence?

Sadly, one can see why the military is adopting the embed concept. And sadly it means that television viewers will never have the experience as in the Vietnam war of seeing battles up close — and live. It’s a bad plan, but it’s hard to think of a better one for all concerned.

Sam Bauman, a former foreign correspondent for Newsweek, is editor of the Nevada Appeal’s Diversions section.