By: Anna Crane
What Brian McDearmon thought was going to be an internship offering a glimpse into the world of embedded reporting instead turned out to be a job helping the U.S. Army control its “spin machine,” he claims.
During realistic training scenarios, McDearmon and fellow reporters hounded soldiers at the U.S. Army National Training Center (NTC) in Fort Irwin, Calif., to prepare them for dealing with the media in Iraq. McDearmon, news editor for the University of Georgia’s student newspaper, The Red and Black, spent three weeks in May and June at the training center. The university’s James M. Cox Jr. Institute for Newspaper Management Studies paid for four students to be embedded at NTC.
Located in the Mojave Desert, Fort Irwin brings Iraq to the U.S., complete with mock villages and residents, some of them Iraqi-Americans, who pretend to speak only Arabic or Kurdish. John M. Wagstaffe, the NTC’s director of public affairs, says he likes to let college students come to see the operations of the camp, but also to “play media in the desert. Their primary purpose is to expose the unit to what they would get exposed to in Iraq.”
Indeed, McDearmon found himself acting as an embedded reporter as soldiers and officers engaged in elaborate military exercises in 120-degree heat. But it wasn’t quite the experience he’d been looking for.
“I knew the NTC trained soldiers to go to Iraq, and I figured I’d be attached to some unit and write stories and all that jazz,” says McDearmon. But it ended up that he was interning for an outfit ? the Vulture Team ? in which “we were working for the Army’s spin machine, essentially.” As the soldiers, some of whom had already been to Iraq, went through daily war games that featured real explosions and blank but realistic gunfire, the reporters were “the media element of that war game,” the student notes, but in a more aggressive form than he expected.
Posing as a print reporter for the imaginary International News Network, he traveled with a cameraman and a broadcast reporter and interviewed soldiers during and in between “missions.” After the interviews, he reported back to military advisers, who McDearmon calls the “referees” of the war games, to evaluate the soldiers’ performances.
“We would give little formal reports and then [the military advisers] would talk to the guys between missions,” he explains. “They not only critiqued them on how fast they shot at snipers, but also on how well they spoke to the media and how they came off to the reporters.” Then, says McDearmon, they’d do it all again. He says that you could see the difference on the second attempt, that someone had told the soldiers, “You shouldn’t have said that, or don’t swear like that, or don’t light a cigarette while you’re on camera.”
The print and broadcast crews also produced packages that were sent out to the brigade so that the soldiers could see how they would come across in real news stories through their interviews and behavior during missions.
After spending several days with the Vulture Team, the reporters knew what sort of behaviors the advisers were trying to discourage. “We knew [the soldiers] weren’t supposed to sound too cocky, or belligerent, or look too flustered,” McDearmon says. “We were supposed to watch out for operation security information ? stuff they don’t want the insurgents to find out.”
The reporters were able to ask whatever questions they wanted, but their mission was to get the soldiers to mess up ? get angry, reveal security information, or appear frustrated. In the heat of an operation, as soldiers are “dying” (being hit by blank fire) and bombs are going off, McDearmon might ask an officer: “Do you think this operation is hurting your image with the locals?”
According to McDearmon, this is what the military advisers wanted the reporters to do ? what they called “go kinetic.” But the constant pressure from the reporters and the intensity of the extremely realistic drills ended up turning many of the soldiers against the reporters. He recalls one interview in which a soldier asked him if it was his job to annoy the platoon. McDearmon replied, “Yeah, kind of,” to which the soldier said, “Well, you’re doing a good job, then.”
This antagonistic relationship is why McDearmon believes the program does a disservice to both the Army and to the journalists in Iraq. He says, “I conducted interviews out there in ways that I would never do in real life.” Because the NTC reporters took such an aggressive approach, the journalism major says the soldiers have been given a misperception of real journalists: “When these soldiers go over there, they’re going to encounter real reporters, and they’re going to remember us. They’re going to remember that we got up in their faces when their guys were getting shot, and they’re going to turn the other way. We were training them to deal with the ugliest elements of the press.”
Wagstaffe disagrees that the training misrepresents the media: “You have different journalists with different methods. We’re giving our soldiers a chance to see different aspects of the media.” Al Jazeera reporters, he says, “are constantly trying to trip up” American soldiers in the field. “We’re teaching [the soldiers] to not turn off to Al Jazeera, but to work with Al Jazeera and get the best story we can,” he explains. “And a good story equals an honest story.”
Even so, McDearmon says he and some of his colleagues felt the program doesn’t further the productive spreading of information through the media, but instead increases the control the military has over its image.
“Not to say that we weren’t with good people,” he says, “but by halfway through, we thought, ‘We feel a bit slimy.’ We’re journalism students and reporters, and we’re working on the PR end of things. It definitely was not what we were expecting.”