'In Bed'? Weighing Iraq Reporting

Strategies of military journalism must be reassessed in wake of the war in Iraq, a panel of journalists said at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum last night.

The panel, composed of four reporters and political correspondents, a former superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy and a Kennedy School of Government (KSG) professor, told the audience that although embedded reporting was relatively successful within the context of the Iraq war, problems such as censorship and presenting a balanced account of events still need to be addressed.

The KSG’s Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press Thomas E. Patterson said that embedded reporting first came about during Vietnam.

“Vietnam was considered the uncensored war,” said Thomas, who moderated the event. “There were no limits for reporters.”

But he said that the government’s desire to build support for the first Gulf War saw more restrictions placed on journalists, denying them full access to the front lines.

ABC news anchor and correspondent Bob Woodruff, on the other hand, said that he thought the tactic of embedded reporting during the recent Iraq war allowed reporters comparatively more freedom.

“Despite the unfortunate phrase that brings out puns relating to the bedroom, the embedded reporting during the recent crisis in Iraq was successful,” he said.

Woodruff said that one drawback to the embedded reporting strategy was that there were not as many correspondents available to report on civilian reactions and casualties. He said that as a result the biggest failure of embedded reporting was that it did not produce as well-rounded a view of the war.

Inherent conflicts of interest also contributed to biased reporting, because reporters did not want to print negative information about the soldiers that were protecting their lives, according to Woodruff.

“This difference between general beat reporting and embedded reporting creates a less well-rounded picture,” he said.

KSG Stirling Professor of History and Social Policy Alexander Keyssar also said that the focus on embedding did slant the American perspective, which was reflected in the overwhelming support by the Americans for the war, in contrast to the greater opposition harbored in other nations.

But General Tad Oelstrom, who directs the KSG’s National Security Program, pointed out that embedded journalists often have a better idea of what is going on than the soldiers. He said that having this extra knowledge can potentially be advantageous to military strategists on the American side.

“Embedded journalism was certainly of intelligence value for the American side during the war in Iraq,” he said.