The military and the media
April 14, 2003
As “embedded” war correspondents accompanied American troops into downtown Baghdad last Wednesday, I realized how much the Pentagon has learned about media relations since I was the U.S. public affairs officer during the Grenada invasion nearly 20 years ago.
Back in October of 1983, the military virtually declared war on the media when the banty rooster admiral who commanded the Grenada operation re-fought Vietnam by “capturing” several veteran Latin America correspondents on a beach and holding them incommunicado on his flagship for more than 24 hours. The correspondents angrily charged the admiral with violating their First Amendment rights, and I was dispatched to the war-torn Caribbean island to repair relations between the military and the media in what quickly became my most challenging Foreign Service assignment.
I eventually succeeded in repairing the damage with a little help from my friends, including the correspondents themselves and the deputy military commander, an Army general with whom I had served at the American Embassy in Madrid, Spain. Today, however, as the ongoing war against what’s left of Saddam Hussein’s outlaw regime winds down, it appears that the Pentagon has finally figured out how to get along with the media during wartime by assigning journalists to front-line military units. I agree with Appeal Editor Barry Smith, who endorsed embedding as a “brilliant” public affairs strategy despite the transgressions of journalistic “cowboys” like Peter Arnett and Geraldo Rivera.
Arnett, a New Zealand-born American citizen, wasn’t actually embedded with the troops. Instead, as he did for CNN during the Gulf War, he reported from Baghdad for NBC. Always overly solicitous of his Iraqi “handlers,” Arnett stepped over the journalistic line when he agreed to a fawning interview with Iraqi TV during which he challenged U.S. war plans and said the American public was turning against President Bush and the war, when the truth was just the opposite. As conservative columnist Mona Charen commented, Arnett’s interview “could have been scripted by (Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister) Tariq Aziz.”
After NBC fired him, Arnett promptly signed on with an anti-American Arab satellite TV channel and the London Daily Mirror, a tabloid vehemently opposed to the war. As for the Fox News Channel’s flamboyant Geraldo Rivera, who thinks every story is all about him, he was thrown out of Iraq for breaking military rules by outlining troop movements in the sand.
No longer embedded and thoroughly chastened, he’s now reporting from Kuwait after offering a public apology. “I’m sorry that it happened and I assure you it was inadvertent,” Rivera told Fox viewers last Sunday. OK Geraldo, we accept your apology. Now, just go away. Given a choice between Geraldo and another high-profile Fox war correspondent, Col. Oliver North, I’ll choose Ollie every time.
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In contrast to misguided celebrity journalists like Arnett and Rivera, at least two American correspondents — David Bloom of NBC and Michael Kelly of the Atlantic Monthly and the Washington Post — were among a dozen correspondents who paid the ultimate price in order to report the war accurately and responsibly. Bloom died of a heart attack while accompanying our troops into Baghdad and Kelly was killed on the battlefield. Any real journalist wants to be where the action is and both of these correspondents died with their combat boots on.
All in all, embedded journalists have done a good job in bringing the Iraq war home to the American people. Clark Judge, managing director of the White House Writers Group, also agreed with our own Barry Smith when he wrote that the idea of embedded reporters is “a brilliant strategy by the Pentagon — one that should echo in the rules of corporate communications.” Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Judge reached the following conclusion:
“Against the odds, the coalition (news) perspective has become the unchallenged standard of truth. It counts as the first major victory of the war in Iraq.” He added that “the essential strategy for becoming the standard of truth when no one believes you is to open your operations to the kind of risk that no one would take if he were planning to lie.” U.S. military commanders could have saved themselves a lot of media grief if they had acknowledged that fact right from the outset of the Grenada invasion in 1983.
Today, despite embedded journalists, media second-guessing by anti-Bush commentators and retired generals is an ongoing problem for the U.S. military. Last week, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called such second-guessing “bogus” and said it was unhelpful to our troops on the ground. U.S. News & World Report publisher Mortimer Zuckerman tried to put things into perspective when he wrote that “media reporting of the war … has been rather like the (Iraqi) Republican Guard, occupying positions rapidly rendered untenable by our armed forces. … There has never been a more vivid dramatization of the real-time reality of war.”
The future will be rosy indeed if our public diplomacy is as effective as the embedded correspondents’ news coverage, but so far we have been unable to convince foreign audiences — especially those in the volatile Middle East — that our war is against Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime and not against Islam. One of our main postwar challenges will be to convince skeptical Muslims that this war was fought to liberate the Iraqis from a brutal dictator rather than to occupy Iraq’s rich oil fields. Because, as Zuckerman noted, “We will ‘win’ in the end; it will be a matter for pride but not for celebration. Too many lives have been sacrificed. Too much remains to be done.” And that’s for sure.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.