Being a War Correspondent Isn’t What It Used to Be

By: Rafe Bartholomew

Being a war correspondent today isn’t what it used to be, said the Associated Press’ Richard Pyle Monday night while participating in a panel discussion on media coverage of the Iraq war organized by the Medill Club of Greater New York. (Medill is Northwestern University’s journalism school.)

Comparing reporters’ experiences in Vietnam to those in the current war, Pyle, AP’s Saigon bureau chief from 1970 to 1973, said back then “embedding was something you might do when you got home and hooked up with a friend.”

Joining Pyle on the 10-person panel were representatives from a range of news and news-related organizations, from The Wall Street Journal and Reuters to Al-Jazeera and the Pentagon’s media outreach office.

Most panelists agreed that embedding was generally a success while also expressing the concern that it was impossible for embeds to be truly objective. T. Sean Herbert, head of the CBS News analyst’s desk, said embeds “couldn’t help but lose their objectivity” when they lived with soldiers and relied on them for protection. “Embeds [and troops] became a band of brothers,” he said, and the close relationships between reporters and soldiers led to “giddy and excited” reporting. “I don’t believe that the people really got balanced coverage,” he said.

The discussion was somewhat disjointed due to the size of the panel, with speakers given three-to-five minutes to comment on others’ statements and express their opinions about war coverage. The issues of embedded reporting and balanced coverage were probably the most discussed, though many other concerns such as the war’s effects on President Bush’s chances for re-election and the shared experiences of Arab and American journalists also came up.

Edith M. Lederer, another veteran AP reporter and currently its chief United Nations correspondent, joined Pyle in comparing coverage she observed of the current war to her experience in previous conflicts. The ability to move freely through the war zone during the Vietnam conflict allowed “the kind of freedom [for journalists] that hasn’t existed in any conflict since.” Lederer said that the practice of embedding reporters, which dominated coverage of the current war, was far from perfect but better than the “military censorship” that reporters faced during the first Gulf War in 1991.

The problem with embedding reporters, she said, was that “it was really the luck of the draw what unit your reporter got assigned to.” If embedded reporters weren’t near the front lines, they didn’t have access to the best stories, she said.

Lora Western, foreign news editor of The Wall Street Journal, said the reporting from embeds could have been balanced with more coverage from unilateral journalists in Iraq. Unfortunately, she added, many unilaterals, including Journal reporters, were stuck in Kuwait and northern Iraq and couldn’t get close to the action. This kept them from filing stories about the war’s effects on Iraqi citizens, and the result, at least in the first two weeks of the war, said Western, was coverage that overemphasized American military efforts.

The last word belonged to Bill Weinberg, a self-described “left-wing blogger” and editor of the online weekly World War 3 Report (www.WWW3Report.com), who dismissed the entire notion of objectivity in reporting. “There’s no such thing as objectivity in anything in the human realm,” he said. Instead, Weinberg preferred that media be up-front about its biases. “All media is descending to the level of propaganda,” he said. “If they’re going to be doing this they should at least be clear about their biases.”

See E&P‘s complete coverage of Iraq and the Press.

E&P welcomes letters to the editor: letters@editorandpublisher.com.

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