Two comic journalists, David Axe and Ted Rall, have both reported from Afghanistan multiple times–and in very different ways. Axe embeds with the military, while Rall travels on his own, studiously avoiding them. Today Cartoon Movement publishes the first of two opposing columns by the authors on the practice of embedded reporting, with David Axe's following on Wednesday.
By Ted Rall
It was the early '80s. The USSR had recently invaded Afghanistan and the British journalist Robert Fisk was there to cover the occupation.
After he heard about fighting north of Kabul Fisk asked the Soviet authorities for permission to travel to the battle zone. They said no. He went anyway.
Russian troops arrested him and headed back to Kabul. On the way they were ambushed by mujahideen. The situation became desperate. A Soviet officer pushed a gun into Fisk's hands. Faced with a choice between journalistic objectivity and a hail of bullets, Fisk did what anyone would do: he took the gun and started firing. It's not like the Afghans were asking to see press credentials.
In simpler times, we would say that Fisk had been morally compromised. In the parlance of 21st century war correspondency, he had been "embedded."
Rolled out by the Pentagon in time for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the "embedding" of American reporters into U.S. combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan has already become the standard way for print and broadcast reporters to cover the wars.
"Independent" reporting--traveling on your own, relying on your wits and local contacts as you come across them--is now virtually unheard of. Mainly, this is because reporting from war zones is expensive. Most journalists need to be sponsored by a major media organization; these outfits employ lawyers dedicated to limiting legal exposure. These attorneys think it's safer for reporters to travel as embeds.
They are mistaken. Not only does embedding make for terrible reporting, it is dangerous--not just for embeds, who come under fire at the same time as the soldiers with whom they travel and are widely perceived as shills for a brutal occupation, but for independents like me.
Here's how embedding works: Before joining "their" battalions, reporters sign contracts agreeing to subject their dispatches to military censorship.
About 600 reporters covered Iraq as embeds in 2003. Journos on the scene guesstimated that only 50 to 70 saw any interesting combat. Many were assigned to units that never deployed.
Ironically, independent reporters were blocked from picking up the slack. "One troubling side effect of the program was that it created a credentialing system among reporters: The embedded were considered official journalists, to whom the military would generally talk, and the 'unilaterals' were often treated as pests with no right to the battlefield," Jack Shafer wrote for Slate in May 2003. "In many instances, the military prevented unilaterals from covering the war."
The prevalence of embedding means that citizens of U.S.-occupied Iraq and Afghanistan rarely get to talk to American reporters. At most they catch a fleeting glimpse of them buried in body armor, huddled with U.S. and NATO forces as they zoom past in troop convoys.
Editors, oblivious in climatized corporate offices, are happy.
"From what a blinding sandstorm feels like to reporting how one of our embeds broke his unit's coffee pot, we're giving readers a better sense of the field," Susan Stevenson of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution fawned in 2003. But the embeds can't show something infinitely more important: how U.S. occupation looks like to the people on the ground, the Iraqis and Afghans it affects. Why are local people angry? American media consumers have no way to find out. They'll be shocked by the next 9/11.
I spent late summer last year traveling independently through Afghanistan with fellow cartoonists Steven Cloud and Matt Bors. Odd birds who didn't fit into the embedded reporter narrative, we were repeatedly stopped and questioned by Afghan national police who had never encountered a "unilateral" reporter in ten years of war between the U.S. and the Taliban.
When we met Talibs and their sympathizers we had to work hard and talk fast in order to convince them that we were not propaganda tools of the U.S. and the Karzai puppet government. All reporters are perceived as stooges because of the embedding program.
"Frankly, our job is to win the war," Marine Colonel Rick Long commented in 2003."Part of that is information warfare. So we are going to attempt to dominate the information environment," he said.
"Just because the military ended up liking the embed program--General Tommy Franks told Fox News that he was 'a fan'--doesn't mean the program was bad," reasoned Shafer.
"There's nothing wrong with having respect in our hearts for the men and women who are fighting this war," said Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute.
My BS detector disagrees.
Reporters should strive for the impossible: objectivity. When covering a war it is not enough for them to be journalists first, Americans second. They must be journalists, pure and simple. Reporters can't even pretend to search for objective truth when they rely on "their" combat units to protect them, grant them access to stories and transmit them to their organizations.
Because of embedding, the war reporting we get in U.S. newspapers and broadcast outlets is obsessed with the experience of American soldiers. Meanwhile, the stories of civilians and "enemy" fighters go untold. The Taliban are right: American war journalism has been reduced to rank propaganda.
A 2006 Penn State study looked at 742 print news stories filed from the 2003 Iraq invasion for 67 outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and the Associated Press. Researchers found that 93 percent of stories filed by embedded reporters relied on U.S. soldiers as their primary source. The number was 43 percent for independent reporters.
Conversely, independent reporters were much more likely to rely cover Iraqis: 73 percent versus 43 percent.
Not surprisingly, newspaper editors preferred the stories about American troops. Seventy-one percent of stories that appeared in print were written by embeds.
"The majority of war coverage in the study heavily emphasized the soldiers' experiences of the war while downplaying the effects of the invasion on the Iraqi people," said Andrew Lindner, a graduate student in sociology at Penn State.
Any media organization worthy of the name should pull its reporters out of the embedding program and into real life.
Ted Rall is the author of The Anti-American Manifesto. His website is tedrall.com.
Photo courtesy of the author.