The Big Story: Our Embattled Media

Why does a journalist consider following an army to the front lines an attractive rather than a foolhardy proposition? Ernest Hemingway offers this description (in a letter to his future wife) of what he found while covering the Allied invasion of occupied France:

a very jolly and gay life full of deads, German loot . . . hedges, small hills, dusty roads, green country, wheat fields, dead cows, dead horses, tanks, 88s, Kraftwagens, dead U.S. guys.

Hemingway, here quoted by the military historian Antony Beevor in his recent book on D-Day, had attached himself to the 4th Armored Division in its advance toward Paris, taking “risky trips into the countryside in either a Mercedes convertible or a motorcycle with side car” that had been left by retreating Germans. His freewheeling account presents a stark contrast to the situation in Iraq, where reporters have been either pinned down in fortified bureaus or enveloped by the military’s all-embracing and sophisticated media management program.

Embedded journalism, armed security, and fortress-like compounds—along with very recent advances in field technology—have greatly changed the aesthetics and methods of war reporting. But have those of us who cover wars become more effective newsgatherers?

One sultry evening in early 2003, I met with a group from ABC News just outside Kuwait City, within the dusty sprawl of Camp Doha. Thousands of troops were encamped there, readying themselves for war. General David McKiernan, the top commander on the scene, gave us a cautious assessment of events ahead.

We wanted assurances that our broadcast equipment and vehicles would be allowed to accompany our embedded reporters and transmit our video. We still couldn’t quite believe the Pentagon’s promise that we, and our gear, would be taken along in frontline units.

In fact, McKiernan and our team (headed by David Westin, the president of ABC News) were discussing an undertaking that would prove to be unprecedented for both the military and the press in terms of the sheer numbers of correspondents involved and the access they would be permitted.

The U.S. military was taking on board some 600 reporters, and during the next six years of a war that would last longer than either world war, hundreds more would follow. The networks and other media would embed with frontline troops, field hospitals, river patrols, civil affairs units, reconstruction teams, forward operating posts, generals on tour, and foot soldiers on patrol, traveling the length and breadth of Iraq in Humvees, choppers, and fixed-wing aircraft.

Michael Kelly, the Atlantic Monthly editor who died in April 2003 on his embed with the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division outside Baghdad, described the situation prior to the war:

the U.S. military is maybe just grasping this . . . They have never had a real, big, combat covering press corps that was their responsibility since Korea (in Vietnam, an anomaly, reporters were accredited but on their own basically) and in those old days the odds were that 80 percent of the all male press corps would have served in the military themselves.

Kelly went on to quote from a pre-Iraq press briefing, exposing the cultural chasm that existed between the contemporary press corps and the military:

Q: So the third division—it’s a division right?
A: Right.
Q: What’s, you know, in a division?
A: Battalions, in our case 8 of them.
Q: What is a battalion?

Six years on, Iraq is by no means a finished business—130,000 U.S. troops are still there, the government is weak, politics factionalized, and bombings routine. It is too soon to definitively judge our performance there. But it is imperative to draw lessons from Iraq as we turn to looming conflicts elsewhere, most immediately Afghanistan, where more than 68,000 U.S. troops may be deployed by next year.

Iraq has been costly for us. The networks alone have spent tens of millions of dollars maintaining large bureaus in Baghdad and paying security contractors exorbitant sums—far more, in any case, than they have spent on embeds. According to the International News Safety Institute, 255 journalists have been killed in the war so far.

At the same time, news organizations are under mounting financial pressure, wondering whether they can afford to cover another war in the same way they have covered Iraq. In World War II, radio audiences heard the first live reports from the front lines of the Allied advance on Germany. During Vietnam, the most dramatic film was sent home via satellite, then edited with the correspondent’s audio track and “on camera,” often tacked on to the end of a piece to place the reporter on scene. Walter Cronkite and other anchors did brief tours and created half-hour specials, but much of the war news in the daily evening broadcast was a digest of wire reports read out from an anchor chair in New York. The distant war was still distant. It often took days for a report filmed in the field to make its way into America’s living rooms, and it was time consuming for reporters to venture into the field to cover anything beyond the daily military briefings in Saigon.

Live TV reports from positions near battlefronts were an important feature of news coverage during the Bosnian conflict in the 1990s, the subsequent Kosovo campaign, and the Gulf War, where military briefings were carried live from Saudi Arabia. Green-hued nightscope images of Baghdad under aerial attack practically forged the CNN brand.

The military itself has commissioned several internal studies of the news media’s relationship with the armed forces, some predating the Iraq embed program. No doubt, the legacy of Vietnam has played a formative role in their analyses, but so have practical matters, namely how to control live reports that might endanger military operations or divulge tactics to potential enemies, without banning the press altogether, as was done in the first days of the 1983 Grenada invasion.

During the Gulf War, in 1991, most reporters were held back from combat operations, accredited only to distant briefing rooms in Saudi Arabia. Some journalists were tolerated as pool reporters but even they were only able to file their pieces after the events. The most dramatic TV reports came during the war’s aftermath, when the press piled into a Kuwait City that had been ravaged by retreating Iraqis.

Looking back, many in the news media (and the military) judged Desert Storm coverage to be absurdly restricted, and access to frontline troops far too limited for effective reporting. The model quickly crumbled: In Mogadishu in December 1992, a wholly free-ranging and un-embedded media pack covered the U.S. military landings in operation Restore Hope, from camera positions that had been established above the beach well before the troops landed. Lighting from TV crews then illuminated the U.S. soldiers’ blackened faces as they waded ashore, in what became a farcical—and in all senses exposing—scene.

A U.S. Army War College report on the event later concluded, “The beach scene in Somalia represented the essence of every commander’s fears over the violation of operations security.” The report urged commanders to include journalists where possible, stating that while “inclusion represents the most volatile flashpoint” between the military and the press, it also offers an opportunity for “effective reporting” and “understanding.”

By the start of the current Iraq War, television news engineers had developed new field assets: smaller, lighter cameras and satellite equipment and, most importantly, the ability to transmit a moving live shot.

This meant a reporter could travel atop an armored vehicle, speaking live to an audience via a small, gyro-mounted satellite dish as the advancing convoy’s dust trails billowed in the background to great cinematic effect. Such scenes aired on millions of screens, in real time, sometimes for hours, mostly with little news actually unfolding, beyond the reporter shouting at the camera.

These evidently urgent pictures, suggesting rapid military advance and technological wizardry, became the defining images of the first stages of the Iraq War. With new tools and unprecedented access, the TV report was now seemingly as heart-stopping as war itself; the proximity to the very spearhead of an advancing column offering vivid proof of a new kind of collaboration—even kinship—between the military and those covering it.

Later, live shots of cheering Iraqis watching Saddam Hussein’s statue pulled to the ground were transmitted just as U.S. viewers were absorbing their morning breakfast shows. With the war apparently going well, television ratings were up.

ABC News had built one of the highest-capacity technical facilities in the world for taking multiple live television signals into a single control room in New York—a facility originally constructed for the network’s millennium coverage. More than twenty live feeds could be viewed at once on multiple screens.

The pictures of Saddam’s statue coming down in Firdos Square on April 9, 2003, were fed to ABC by a Turkish network shooting from the roof of the Palestine Hotel. They had bravely kept up their live position throughout the assault on Baghdad and charged us handsomely for its exclusive use in North America. As we watched the scene from New York, there was palpable relief in the room. We assumed the war was nearly over, or at least the battle for Baghdad won, even though it was clear that U.S. troops were helping Iraqis bring down the statue, giving the event a manufactured air. Our sense of relief, in retrospect, reveals how little we really understood about what was happening in Iraq.

Those first, live images of tanks and cheering Iraqis did not convey a truer picture of war than did previous reporting of warfare in recent history. Yet the ability to transmit the battlefront live was what competing networks bent their every sinew toward achieving.

After meeting with McKiernan in Camp Doha that evening in 2003, we talked through our own strategy over dinner back at our hotel in Kuwait City, the waiters providing teapots to conceal the spirits being poured into our fruit juice. Would our embeds be able to break away from their units? Could we report from inside Iraq without embedding?

An ABC News producer who had covered Operation Desert Storm circulated an internal memo that summarized our thinking. We wanted to unshackle ourselves from the constraints imposed on reporters 12 years earlier, when most of us were corralled in briefing rooms in Saudi Arabia. Naturally, we wanted to break stories and trump our rivals.

I still have the memo—we still sent them around on paper in 2003: “Whichever network wins the coverage will be seen as the dominant news provider for the coming decade.” This turned out to be another prediction gone wrong. No network has “won” the coverage, and we never properly anticipated the length, complexity, or financial and human costs of the coming war.

Americans still tend to turn to their televisions in times of crisis. A 2007 Pew survey concluded that 60 percent of Americans were getting most of their information about Iraq from TV news, while 16 percent relied on the Internet, 11 on newspapers, and 9 on radio.

With the rapid growth of news and information sources on the Web, those ratios are unlikely to hold for long. News organizations have labored feverishly to generate real-time coverage of global events for their digital platforms and thereby compete in this new marketplace.

Striking pictures help. Back in March 2003, the first embed to send home live images from an advancing battlefront was David Bloom of NBC. ABC had equipment problems and we watched, aghast, as Bloom sat for hours atop his armored vehicle, scooping us from within the sandstorms that engulfed his convoy as it thundered toward Baghdad.

Then, as viewers soon learned, Bloom became one of the first press casualties of the war, dying 25 miles south of Baghdad as the result of a pulmonary embolism that was probably brought on from sitting for hours at a time in a cramped hatch, holding his broadcasting position.

Bloom’s great friend Bob Woodruff was in another convoy, representing ABC, when he heard the news. Later in the war, Woodruff himself was gravely injured, taking a shrapnel wound to the head in an IED attack just north of Baghdad while embedded with a joint Iraqi-U.S. patrol.

But it was local Iraqi reporters who were hardest hit. We were sickened by the murders of two of our Iraqi crewmembers, a cameraman and a soundman, who were dragged from their car at a local militia checkpoint on their way home from our bureau, shot, and dumped on waste ground nearby. For the sake of their families, it is still not safe to publish their names.

In a survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, of 111 journalists working in Iraq in 2007, a full 57 percent reported having had local staff kidnapped or murdered in the past year. While 29 international journalists have been killed in Iraq since the start of the war, 226 Iraqi journalists have died. Threats to staff safety preoccupied those of us managing teams in Iraq and severely hampered our efforts to report the war.

While the overwhelming threat to Western reporters has come from insurgents and bounty-hunting criminal elements, some reporters have died as a direct or accidental result of American firepower.

In April 2003, a U.S. tank fired at the Palestine Hotel, killing two journalists. It was well known to the military command that most of the media were staying there, but to the tank gunner the camera position on the hotel roof appeared hostile.

An un-embedded ITN team got caught in crossfire south of Basra. It later became clear it was U.S. tank fire that hit their car, killing three journalists. Later in the war, in Falluja, a local Iraqi stringer for ABC was cut down by a Marine bullet. The experienced Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana was targeted by U.S. troops as he filmed near Abu Ghraib, his tripod mistaken for a rocket launcher. The Associated Press and Reuters had Iraqi stringers imprisoned by U.S. forces on suspicion of ties to insurgents.

In turn, U.S. forces became alarmed at the uncanny speed with which cameras were appearing after U.S. convoys were attacked, suggesting to them that local journalists had prior knowledge of ambushes via contacts with insurgents. U.S. and British TV networks and agencies met with the Pentagon to address these incidents at a forum in Washington, organized by Reuters.

One U.S. lieutenant colonel present had reviewed the case file on our Iraqi stringer killed in Fallujah and told us unambiguously that if media were not with U.S. troops (i.e., embedded) when inside their area of operations, they may rightly be regarded as hostile. Here was a powerful incentive to ask our journalists to stay embedded. As security deteriorated, embedding became the only way to cover the war. That, or hiring private security teams.

At the war’s outset, at Camp Doha, I had been struck by the Philippine security force on the base. It had been outsourced by the military, along with many basic security functions, to a contractor. Months later, visiting the Green Zone in Baghdad, I noticed Gurkha soldiers from a private firm guarding one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces, which was being used by the State Department.

We, too, were going to have to hire security contractors, though we hadn’t initially planned on ourselves becoming targets for attack.

The networks hired armed security, despite a fierce and long-running debate within the press about whether it was proper for us to do so. The security was also expensive and our budgets were hemorrhaging. Was it worth it?

As one whose convoy en route from Jordan to Baghdad was ambushed by armed men, I would say, unequivocally, yes. Our bodyguards, former British soldiers, were tailing us in a separate vehicle and opened fire on our pursuers with automatic weapons—quite possibly killing one or more of them—before we sped off to Baghdad.

When we reported the incident to the military, they praised the actions of our guards, while some journalists who heard about it were horrified that we had become part of the very chaos and violence we were there to cover.

Four years into the war, ABC moved houses in Baghdad for the third time. Our compound of former guesthouses in Karada seemed too vulnerable as the mixed Sunni and Shiite neighborhood began to tear itself apart. We fortified a large new villa near the Green Zone, close to a similar CNN compound and a house rented by Al Jazeera. Around the corner was the large barricaded Fox compound, and, across the street from it, NPR’s compound, with a hole from a mortar explosion in the pavement outside. CBS reporters later moved in as well, after a suicide bomber detonated himself in the lobby of their hotel.

NBC and some print reporters remained throughout at another hotel compound, even though its perimeter had been hit by a truck bomb. The BBC, Reuters, and the New York Times occupied a cluster of buildings near the Tigris River.

Our new compound had about 60 Iraqi staff—enough cleaners, cooks, and drivers to staff a Victorian country house. There were also a pool, safe rooms with communications links to New York, and a wall of bulletproof glass around the live-shot position that cost thousands of dollars to install.

We constructed heavy machine-gun positions on the roof. Another network had a metal cage atop their building encasing talent and equipment alike. The steel doors could be opened behind a reporter for just long enough to go live at night with lights blazing and quickly shut down before the position became exposed.

Each U.S. network was spending somewhere between $5 and $10 million a year in Iraq. Our street alone was probably pouring about a million dollars a week into the ruined Baghdad economy and the pockets of security companies. We had all estimated large additional costs at the war’s outset; NBC reportedly put aside $20 million, CNN even more. Those early estimates were soon overtaken.

The charge that using armed guards contravened the neutrality of our profession also persisted. At an international news organizations conference in Budapest in 2004, a European news editor suggested that our guards were
trigger-happy, like the Pentagon’s Blackwater contractors. The BBC tied itself into moral and ideological knots over the issue, and only later admitted to having used armed security.

Many people also noted that this sort of heavily armed reporting was only possible for networks and newspapers with deep pockets—and produced a weaker, less pure species of journalism.

We sought out local sources as counterweights to our embedded reporters. To this end, one of our greatest assets became the 60 or so Iraqi staff members who worked with us. Many traversed the city each day, commuting to our bureau with fresh accounts of intimidation and deprivation. But their experiences were complex—and often harder to package for a TV audience than the tank formations and dust storms of the war’s earlier stages. Back home, fatigue was setting in among viewers and program editors alike.

Hoping to control spiraling costs and eager to report more nuanced stories without endangering our staff, we negotiated amongst the networks to form one communal Baghdad mega-bureau, with shared security guards, drivers, and equipment. But the logistics of protecting so fat a target in an embattled city were confounding, and the cable channels had different demands from the network news divisions. Not least, the plan ran counter to a journalistic culture that still valued competitive, independent reporting. So, not for the first time, we passed on an opportunity to save money.

As we turn to other conflicts, we are taking lessons from experiences like this one. So far the networks have generally avoided installing Baghdad-style operations in Kabul or Islamabad. We have relied more on local security, with better local contacts, although we have retained the security companies as advisers. One such company is establishing a type of secure hotel arrangement for reporters in Kabul, and where trips outside the city have recently only been on embeds with U.S. or British forces, this summer the Taliban has begun approaching news organizations to offer “media visits.”

We are reverting to adaptive practices that have worked in the past. In Mogadishu in 1993, journalists stayed together in one hotel, the Sahafi, and shared transmission facilities. We hired wild-eyed, khat-chewing local guards who drove around in dilapidated, open-sided trucks called “technicals,” waving rusty Kalashnikovs. Their allegiance to one or the other of the warring factions that controlled the city center provided the sort of backup no Western security contractor could provide. In Kurdistan, it wasn’t unusual to pay for a band of armed peshmerga as protection on drives between jurisdictions. Similarly, in Afghanistan, armed Pashtun tribesmen have often been paid as guards.

But we will have to keep relying on embeds. The main concern news organizations have about this—often cited by editors and viewers, though much less so by embedded reporters themselves—is that embedded reporters, over time, adopt a military mind-set. Further, these reporters appear to any potential source to be in league with the military.

Relations between the press and the military have been generally positive. ABC’s Mike Cerre embedded with the Marines in Anbar in 2005, at the time of Donald Rumsfeld’s up-armoring debacle. He had also come into Baghdad with them at the start of the war, and had been a Marine forward air controller in Vietnam. He thinks that, by and large, relations between reporters and military in Iraq have been good, with only a very small number of incidents involving reporters being thrown out of their embeds or getting into major disputes with unit commanders or public affairs officers.

Cerre has been impressed by the capability and intelligence of most of the young U.S. officers he has met in Iraq, compared to the ones he met in Vietnam. The only time he felt pressure over a story was after ABC aired his piece about the Marines in Anbar taking sheet metal normally used for road building and cutting it up to bolt on to their soft-skinned Humvees and trucks as crude armor. The story apparently attracted the ire of the defense secretary himself, although many in the military were happy to have the news revealed.

Embedded reporters knew the rules and rarely broke them. Returning to Kuwait on an Air Force C-130 after an embed with a Pentagon correspondent, one cameraman told me he found the plane filled with flag-draped coffins. He looked over to his correspondent to see if he should turn on his camera and got a shake of the head. Those pictures, they both knew, would never air.

As the war dragged on, it seemed to many Baghdad-based reporters more and more difficult to get stories on the main network broadcasts, unless they featured violent scenes and bloodshed. As one veteran cameraman told me, “If you go on an embed these days your stuff doesn’t get on unless you get some bang bang.”

When the 2008 presidential campaigns picked up in the States, and the economy faltered, senior news editors found less space in their broadcasts for Iraq. And when the surge tamped down the violence, even fewer Iraq datelines appeared. In 2003, the three networks devoted just over 4,000 minutes to Iraq on their nightly broadcasts. By 2008, that figure had plummeted to 434 minutes.

We managers had also tied our correspondents’ hands. As IED attacks increased on U.S. patrols, we restricted the number of embeds severely, often to the great frustration of our reporters. After Woodruff and members of his team were injured, ABC News imposed a rule that teams could only go on embeds traveling in heavily armored MRAP vehicles, which at the time were scarce. The military responded to our needs, offering shorter and shorter stays with units: Mike Gudgell, ABC’s longtime Baghdad bureau chief, sums it up this way: “For broadcasters, the system evolved into one or two day [long] trips . . . A year into the war the military adopted the term ‘media visit,’ which was much more accurate.”

Six years on, only CNN and the BBC have a full-time presence in Iraq, though ABC and other networks regularly send correspondents back and maintain local stringers in Baghdad. We have turned our attention to Afghanistan and Pakistan. We are planning our embeds in Helmand, Kandahar, and elsewhere, and beefing up our presence and security in Kabul.

We will go forward with an enhanced awareness that images of war can be manipulated in unpredictable ways. Some of the most potent pictures out of Iraq came from sources over which neither we nor the military had any control—footage of Westerners taken hostage and dressed in orange jumpsuits by their captors, shots of IEDs blowing up U.S. convoys taken from a discreet vantage point and aired on insurgent Web sites.

In February 2006, the networks, after internal debate, aired footage of a series of sniper attacks on U.S. troops, filmed by a hidden camera. It was part of a campaign of explicit, graphic video images that the insurgency created for maximum effect. Alongside this was the almost daily and grisly footage of wounded Iraqi civilians.

Many of the Arab networks that covered Iraq aired this type of footage largely unedited, while U.S. and European TV news channels typically edited out the most gruesome images. These Arab networks also often had access, via international news agencies, to our own footage of U.S. troops: They repeatedly used our pictures of U.S. troops kicking in doors, arresting insurgents, and covering their heads, and gun-sight video of targeted bombings. For their Middle Eastern TV audiences, the images portrayed a country in flames, with the United States and its allies responsible for the carnage. The impact of this kind of coverage on Iraqis and neighboring populations has been profound, and may have helped fuel the insurgency itself.

One evening this summer, I watched a producer in London working on the Iran election story. He was scouring YouTube for images of demonstrations on the streets of Tehran and elsewhere, trying to judge whether some, posted anonymously, were new or had been strung together with older footage. The sky color was his clue to what had been shot that day, when we knew the weather was fair.

This is how news organizations will soon obtain much video from events around the world, even wars. As more people, even in war zones, own camera phones that can upload video to Web sites, we must enlist more unconventional resources and use emerging technology more effectively. In 2007, in part as a response to our Iraq experience, and with an eye to exploiting new digital technology, ABC hired seven new global reporters—in effect, low-cost, one-person bureaus. Other networks have adopted the approach, and we all need to extend the model.

This means multiplying the old-style local news stringer many times over, and providing these “micro bureaus” with new, cheap video technology. Needless to say, we must know our dispersed sources well enough to judge their reliability.

But we probably cannot do this individually—the economics are not viable for any single network these days to pay dozens of micro bureaus in every country.

Here too, the Iraq experience has pointed the way. The effort we made to build a Baghdad mega bureau may have failed, but for the past four years ABC has teamed up with other television networks, namely the BBC, Germany’s ARD, and Japan’s NHK, to conduct countrywide opinion polls in Iraq, to the extent that it’s possible. All the networks have used the polling results. There were problems—cameras and stringers disappeared, there were risks for local Iraqis working for us—but the model is a sound one, and we are applying it to Afghanistan.

Mike Gudgell has been aware of the shifting ground for some time. He says that in late March he met with other bureau chiefs for a drink in the garden of ABC’s Baghdad compound.

“We could all see it coming. CBS was gone. NBC was cutting back. Fox was looking for a less expensive space, and ABC was struggling with how best to move forward.” When he noted that this might be the end of the multimillion-dollar bureau, the others nodded in agreement. Says Gudgell, “It wasn’t just the end for now. It was the end—period.”

As war correspondents converge on Afghanistan, the rooftop live shots, gritty embed footage, and blurry jihadi video of IED attacks are all back. But we would be unwise to underestimate the length and cost of this next conflict—and, given our recent experience, we are not inclined to do so. In covering Afghanistan and whatever follows, we producers need to find, train, and equip a broad network of regional reporters, and sustain and protect them for the long haul. Perhaps a very long haul.

Marcus Wilford is vice president for ABC News International Digital and ABC News London bureau chief. From 2003 to 2008, he oversaw the network’s operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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