By: Joe Strupp
A dispute between The New York Times and the Pentagon over publication of a photo of a wounded soldier in Iraq, who later died, is another reminder of how poorly many of the rules regarding embedded journalists in Iraq are structured and enforced, veteran embeds said Thursday.
“This is something that has gone on for some time and has caused problems in the past,” said James Crawley, a Media General military reporter, former Iraq embed and president of Military Reporters and Editors. “Different commanders interpret the rules differently. One commander will interpret the rule one way while another will interpret them in the opposite way.”
The renewed debate centers on the coverage by reporter Damien Cave of the New York Times and photographer Robert Nickelsberg of Getty Images, who was on assignment for the Times. The duo had been embedded with an Army unit in Iraq on Jan. 24 when Staff Sgt. Hector Leija was wounded.
The Times ran a photo of the wounded soldier, while its Web site posted a lengthy video of the incident. The reporting sparked a dispute with military officials who said the actions broke an embed rule that barred the publication of such photos without the soldier’s permission, or images of a dead soldier prior to his or her family being notified.
Conflicting reports have said that the journalists were suspended from their embed privileges, although the Times, in a statement, has said they were not. As the dispute continues, the Times has agreed to write a letter to the soldier’s family apologizing, although it claims the family had been notified of the death prior to any images being published or posted.
Embed veterans said Thursday that the military reaction is not unusual, noting it highlights how many of the embed rules are unclearly and unevenly enforced. “One of the problems from the beginning has been that rules were interpreted the way a commander wanted them to be,” said Ron Martz, an Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter who embedded in 2003. “Part of the problem with those rules is the ambiguity of them.”
Monie Basu, another AJC reporter who has embedded three times and plans to return to Iraq later this month, agreed. “It is true that you are sort of at the mercy of whatever unit you go to, the operating procedure changes from base to base or unit to unit,” she said.
Still, Basu stressed that rules are often changed or interpreted differently throughout the embedding experience. She cited an incident during her first tour in 2005 with a Georgia-based national guard unit that had suffered a string of deaths. At first, she said the military would only reveal the number of deaths in a unit, not names. But when the reporters were able to track down the names on their own, the Pentagon officials stopped even revealing which units they were from.
“If you wait for the Army to tell you who they are, it could take weeks,” she recalls.
Lou Hansen, a reporter for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk who embedded in 2005, recalled losing his embed privileges when his paper published a photo of a combat-damaged Humvee in Kuwait that upset Pentagon officials. The incident, which drew national attention at the time, makes this latest case unsurprising, he said. “At the end of the day it is the Army’s call,” he said about such rules and enforcement practices. “You sign a contract and the interpretation of it is subjective. But people should be on common ground going into these situations, you should know what to expect.”
Crawley said part of the problem is that today’s embeds are not usually with military units for weeks at a time, as in the past. The usual embed stint is a matter of days, he said, which can make it more difficult to keep close communications with unit commanders and, therefore, understanding of rules.
“It makes it more likely that problems will exist because the military officers aren’t having regular contact with the media,” he said. “So they don’t know the people as well.”
Related story: Two from ‘NYT’ Threatened With Loss of Embed Over Images from Iraq