War Coverage Draws Skepticism in Europe | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 26.03.2003
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War Coverage Draws Skepticism in Europe

The Pentagon and U.S. media are very pleased with the way "embedded" correspondents are covering the war. In Europe, the media community is more skeptical.


From the scene: An embedded journalist, Mike Gooding, onboard the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman.

This was a new form of on-the-scene reporting. A wounded U.S. Marine, Josh Menard, was lying on a stretcher this week and talking to Kerry Sanders, a reporter from the U.S. television network NBC.

"I'm all right," said the 21-year-old corporal, whose left hand had been ripped open by an Iraqi bullet. "It just hurts pretty bad."

Then, Sanders popped the question: "Got any family members you want to look in the camera and tell them you're feeling all right?"

Menard certainly did. "Mom, Dad: I'm all right, and we'll be back when we get back," the Marine said.

Pentagon changes thinking

Sanders' stretcher-side interview near the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah was made possible by two sweeping developments -- a change in Pentagon thinking about the media and major advances in video technology. "Embedded" is the buzz word used to describe the more than 600 journalists covering the war from the gun-muzzle perspective of U.S. fighting forces.

Britische Soldaten einer Artillerie Einheit im Süden Iraks

British soldiers

As the war enters its second week, America's media corps are expressing their satisfaction with the results of the sweeping Pentagon public relations effort. But some observers, including those in Germany, are raising doubts about a form of reporting that has journalists living and possibly dying with the people they are covering.

The idea represents a sea change in Pentagon officials' thinking about war reporting. Having watched critical television reports about the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 1970s undermine support for U.S. forces, the leadership decided to keep most reporters at a safe distance from the troops during the first Persian Gulf War in 1991 and the NATO war over Kosovo in 1999.

Today, openness is the priority. "Here's why embedding is important to me," Col. Rick Thomas, chief of U.S. military public affairs in Kuwait, told the British newspaper the Financial Times. "As the public affairs officer, I have a deep and abiding obligation to tell the families of our servicemembers what they are doing. ... My objective is that through the journalists' eyes and through their words and images, mothers and fathers will understand the courage, dedication and sacrifices of their sons and daughters."

Rules dictate reporters' way of working

But before reporters can send out their dispatches, they have to make sure their reports are in line with a 50-point set of Pentagon rules. These rules include a prohibition on "information on effectiveness of enemy camouflage, cover, deception, targeting, direct and indirect fire, intelligence collection, or security measures." The rules also prohibit disclosure of anything involving future operations and discussion of "unique" tactics employed by the military.

A veteran German television journalist, Jörg Armbruster, said in a recent interview with DW-WORLD that he had deep doubts about the new approach. "I think it is very problematic when you can't distinguish between the soldiers and reporters," said Armbruster, who was covering Iraq from Baghdad until the war began.

Such concerns are shared by Andy Rooney, the veteran CBS television commentator who flew on bombing missions over Germany in World War II as a correspondent for military newspaper The Stars and Stripes. "It's very difficult to write anything critical about a guy you're going to have breakfast with the next morning," Rooney told the newspaper USA Today. The famous World War II correspondent "Ernie Pyle didn't write any stories about cowards in World War II, even though there were some. I suspect in this war, we're going to get a lot of stories about heroes."

Armbruster also raised questions about the value of reporting conducted under the cover of the Pentagon's rules. "The war cannot be reported under such conditions," he said.

Despite the restrictions, members of the U.S. media are pleased with the program so far. "In our view, it's working out very, very, very, very well," Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president of news coverage for CBS News, told the Associated Press.

Program could backfire

While German journalists like Armbruster question the value of the program itself, the director of the European Media Institute in Düsseldorf said he suspected that the Pentagon could face another Vietnam-like disaster if the war went offtrack.

Jo Groebel said the war began with a letdown for the Pentagon leaders hungry for images of Iraqis celebrating their liberation from Saddam Hussein's regime. "The big celebration has not happened yet," Groebel told the German news agency dpa. "That is a visual disappointment."

A succession of such setbacks would undermine support of the government's war effort, he said. "Things are starting to get tricky and could trigger a change of public opinion in the United States," Groebel said.

The embedding would not have been possible without a techonological revolution that has given journalists an array of digital cameras, satellite phones and lightweight laptops to transmit their stories and images.

Preston Mendenhall, the international editor for MSNBC.com, recently set off for northern Iraq outfitted with $15,000 in satellite phones and computers. With this equipment, he can file in a flash.

"You get a connection, set up the camera, point it at yourself and just do it — you're live," Mendenhall told the Associated Press in an interview conducted by satellite phone. "But if there's any weapons of mass destruction, I'm outta here."

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