By: Joe Strupp
Veteran military leaders and journalists agreed that the embedding of reporters with U.S. military forces in Iraq had been a success during a panel discussion at the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference here. But they offered mixed opinions on specific elements of the war coverage and differed over how the press had handled some sensitive issues.
The panel, which included two veteran Washington journalists and two retired U.S. generals, offered mostly praise for the embedding process, which had more than 600 reporters, photographers, and broadcast media traveling with coalition troops.
“I was very skeptical about the embedding process, but it worked remarkably well,” said Carla Robbins, a news editor in the Washington bureau of The Wall Street Journal. “It was a lot better than I expected.”
The two military veterans, Gen. Charles Horner, a retired Air Force commander, and Gen. Robert Scales, who led forces in the U.S. Army, also supported the embedding system. “Thanks to this terrific idea, the American people are seeing what those young people [in the military] are doing,” Scales told the audience of dozens of editors. “It’s almost like 500 Ernie Pyles. The embedded reporters are getting it first hand.”
Gen. Horner said the embedding process went so smoothly that it eased tensions between the press and military that will likely make shape future operations relations. “We have historically been afraid of the press,” he said. “We are no longer afraid of them.”
Michael Getler, ombudsman for The Washington Post, agreed, saying, “It has been a very important war for the press and the military relationship with the press.”
But when it comes to certain elements of embedding and press-military relations, disagreements arose. For instance. while Robbins supported the embedding process, she said reporters stationed at Central Command in Qatar were given very little information from military spokespeople.
“The embedding was still just a soda straw,” Robbins said. “They had decided they wanted to respond much faster, but they did not at Centcom. They had to say that they did not have a lot of answers.”
Horner criticized some journalists for allowing criticism from within the military about the overall operation to be reported. “That should be conducted in private,” he said. Robbins countered, saying “There were a lot of guys in the Pentagon, and field generals, raising those questions. Some were talking about things as if it were inevitable, and there was no guarantee.”
Robbins also defended the media’s performance when asked how well journalists had challenged the Bush administration’s effort to link Iraq to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. “There were moments when they were unchallenging,” she said. “But I think we did quite a good job showing how different the rest of the world view was on this.”
Nearly all the panelists agreed that newspapers did a more in-depth job of coverage than television, particularly cable news networks. “They had the people with the big hair asking questions on television,” said Robbins. “I would cringe whenever they asked really smart people really dumb questions.” Horner agreed. “Reporters missed trying to describe shock and awe when they hadn’t read the book,” he said. “They don’t know what they’re talking about.”