Tim Sullivan: Good evening. I’m Tim Sullivan, and I am president of the College of William and Mary. I am very honored to be here to introduce a forum co-sponsored with our good neighbors upstairs, the Council on Foreign Relations. Our topic tonight could hardly be more timely. We are going to hear, I think, a learned and lively discussion about the role of embedded journalists serving with active-duty troops during the war in Iraq.
The program this evening is part of an ongoing series of international speakers coordinated by William and Mary’s Washington Office, which is upstairs, right next door to our good neighbors at the Council on Foreign Relations. I would like to introduce a representative of the Council, active in matters such as that we’re discussing tonight, General Bill Nash. General Nash, would you—there he is, back there. Thank you, sir.
I needn’t tell anyone in this audience that we live in uncertain times. Great challenges, perhaps not the greatest in the history of this nation, but certainly we are facing issues and difficulties that are unique in the history of our country. Certainly none more important than the role of the press in reporting events, which will shape the future of this nation and indeed the world.
I think at this point it would be not irrelevant to quote the late James Reston, a brilliant journalist who happened to work for the New York Times, who said, “The rising power of the United States in world affairs requires not a more compliant press, but a relentless barrage of facts and criticism. Our job in this age, as I see it, is not to serve as cheerleaders for our side, but to help the largest possible number of people to see the realities.”
I think that sets the proper tone for the discussion we will have this evening. It’s my privilege to introduce to you the moderator of this evening’s program, Mr. Thomas Shanker, who is the Pentagon correspondent of the New York Times. He has very kindly agreed to serve as the manager of this evening’s discussion. He joined the New York Times in 1997. He was assistant Washington editor, responsible for managing the newspaper’s coverage of foreign policy, national security and economics from the Washington Bureau, before being named Pentagon correspondent in May of 2001. I think the best thing I can do to advance the cause of this evening is to get away from the front and let the people who caused you to be here talk about the subject, the discussion of which we’re gathered here tonight. Thank you all.
Thomas Shanker: Thank you very much. On behalf of all the panelists and myself, I want to thank the Council on Foreign Relations and the College of William and Mary for having us here this evening. Thank you all for taking the time to join us to discuss what’s truly a very interesting topic. It will be curious for me to see which journalists enjoy talking about themselves and which don’t. We sort of fall into two categories in that regard.
The topic of embedded media is one that we spend a lot of time discussing in our newsrooms. It’s important for you, as informed citizens of this country, as well to understand the process and its impact.
After decades of battling reporters who demanded access to frontline troops during combat operations, the Pentagon finally relented and allowed 500-odd journalists to join the vanguard of Americans fighting the war in Iraq. (I say 500-odd journalists; a couple of them weren’t so odd, and they’re the two that we’ve invited here this evening.) While Defense Department and military officials say they were simply answering demands from the media and our First Amendment rights, which would require greater direct access to American military missions, there was certainly an element of self-interest in what the Pentagon did. Pentagon officials had lamented that the military had all too often damaged its image by failing to engage the news media. The result, these officials realized, was the military found itself surrendering the fight over world opinion to propaganda and to its very adversaries.
So in planning their media strategy for Iraq, Pentagon officials conceded they might have benefited in Afghanistan, for example, from news reports by witnesses who could describe the difficult, complicated, and yes, even bloody operations, with the credibility that comes from independence. Something that’s simply beyond the power of those who wear the uniform or carry the portfolio of government spokesmen. Despite the great victory in Afghanistan, these officials realized, they had risked squandering public opinion on a number of controversial fronts, including questions of civilian casualties, treatment of detainees, and alliances with less than savory warlords. When it came time to go to war in Iraq, they made a decision, and thus the embedding program was begun.
The embedding program, like the phase of heavy combat, is now over. We’re here tonight to dissect and analyze and discuss what went right and what didn’t. Was the embed program a benefit, and if so, to whom? What were the tradeoffs between those who covered the war from an embed within the military, like Mr. Branigin, and those like John, who traveled Iraq independently? What were the challenges of viewing the war from an embedded position, which gave you a very deep and very rich reporting experience, but a very narrow one—what General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, calls “the soda straw view of war”? Most view the embed program as a success, but so was the combat portion of the war. What would have happened if the war had gone very, very badly? And what does it mean now that with the combat over, so few correspondents have remained embedded with the military, even though as we all know so well, American forces are attacked, come under attack and are dying almost every day. And finally, will the military do it again? As Marines are steaming toward Liberia, we’ll probably find out very soon.
We have a very distinguished panel to join us tonight to discuss this. Starting at my far right is Lieutenant Colonel Rick Long of the Marine Corps. His current title is Director of Public Affairs, Marine Corps Combat Development Command. He’s done about everything his service has to offer, from being a battery platoon commander to deputy director of public affairs for Marine Corps forces in Japan, to public affairs of the International Peacekeeping Force for East Timor.
I guess for tonight the experience most relevant is he was the public affairs officer for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which as you know spearheaded the drive to Baghdad. I’ve never worked with Colonel Long before, but I know people who have, and they describe him as an advocate not just of semper fi, but of “semper gumby,” which means, “be flexible.”
Our second speaker tonight will be a colleague from the Washington Post, who I’ve never met before, but as I look at his rÃ©sumÃ©, it’s clear that if you ever land somewhere, and William Branigin’s in town, you ought to leave right away. He’s covered the Lebanese war, the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the war in Cambodia, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Afghan war, the revolt of people power in the Philippines, Operation Just Cause-Panama, the Gulf War the first time around, of course, the war in Afghanistan, the capture of Pol Pot, the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq this time around. He’s the winner of many significant journalism awards, including the Sigma Delta Chi Distinguished Service Award for foreign correspondents.
Finally is John Donvan of ABC News, someone with whom I have crossed paths many times, mostly in awful crummy or very, very cold places. He’s a correspondent of great humor and professionalism, which are always welcome in difficult climates. He is now ABC News Nightline correspondent, based here in Washington. He has served as Chief White House Correspondent for ABC News and he’s also covered issues involving politics, race and the economy for World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. He’s a veteran foreign correspondent, having covered the Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq War, the U.S. bombing raid of Libya, as well as time on the streets of Belfast. He’s the recipient of an Emmy Award, the Overseas Press Club award, the David Jane fellowship. He graduated magna cum laude from Dartmouth and from the Columbia School of Journalism.
After their presentations we will, according to our rules as always, be happy to take your questions. I’m under a hard deadline from our sponsors tonight to end at eight o’clock, so we’ll finish then. Colonel?
Richard Long: I didn’t truly come with any prepared remarks, so I’m just going to kind of extemporaneously jump off and try to figure out really what people are interested in. The first thing really I picked up tonight is that a lot of people thought that the embedded media were looking at the war through a straw. They were, for a large extent. Most of them were set with troops down at the lower level. But we did have a lot of people who were, for instance, up with me at the MEF and got a very large view—as a matter of fact, your colleague at the Washington Post, Peter Baker—and wrote some really good pieces that tried to capture everything. So there were some agencies who tried to take their people and put them in different places, and then get all that information and then try to get a coherent view of what was going on. We had some of those people at MEF and there were some of those people at CFLCC. So there was a lot of that.
Then also, so people understand, a part of the embedding program was embed for life. So you go and you embed with a unit and you experience that unit and those people and those individuals from start to finish. You understand their essence, if you will, because if you just go in and you walk into a room full of people like this and you really try to understand who all these people are, you certainly aren’t going to do that in any short period of time. It’s going to take a while. That was a part of the program, where you go in there and you stay with them.
Now, why did we really want to do that? To be honest with you, we just couldn’t move you. We have a hard time moving ourselves and trying to get the things that we need to certain places. So we really had to put media with people, attach them there, have them stay there. That unfortunately was the only experience they were going to have, was with that unit, because we just couldn’t be moving people around and around. There’s all types of reasons for that.
And that was a failing. I think that if we could do it over, we would set proper expectations with people. I think a lot of people had good expectations. We tried to set them as good as we could. But I would have liked to have done is had the time to talk with the senior executives and the other people and say look, this is what they’re going to get. This is what they’re going to see.
Nobody knew—you’d have to be clairvoyant to know really what was going to happen. But at least kind of tell them that this reporter is going to be stuck at this level, he’s going to see this amount, you may want to put someone else over here, you may want to put someone else over there, and then take all that information. Get one at the wing, the air unit, get one at the ground unit, and get one at headquarters. So that may be something that we could do better in the future.
Another thing in the press that I’ve read is that there was almost too much connection with the people that you were with. Just as I said, you understand the essence of the people that you’re with, and I think that’s what happened. It’s kind of like the airplane wreck situation, where when you’re all in an event in which you all have to sacrifice greatly together, then you become closer. You really understand people and who they are and what their beliefs are, where they come from and what they really want, what they’re about. What the whole organization’s about, because the whole organization is nothing more than all the people that are in it.
So there was an argument, I think, that a lot of the media became a little too close to that and were not objective. I don’t know that I saw a lot of that. I saw media reporting, being the professionals that they are. No one can be totally objective. Everybody is always writing a story about what they see. I might write a story about tonight and it’s going to be very different than what these gentlemen may write about tonight. That’s what it is; it’s the reporters’ expression of what they see and feel and just transpired in history. So it’s hard to go into a group of Marines, young men and women, dedicated, professional, hardworking, willing to sacrifice their lives for what they believe is a just cause, and not get attached to them. I think there was a little bit of that reporting that was out there.
Overall, I thought that the embedding program was a success. I think what happened was, people became closer, and that’s what really happened that I think that was of great consequence, is that the media came to understand the military a little better and the military came to understand the media a little better.
How important is that to the world publics and the audiences of the world? I think it’s tremendously important. The way we approached the whole situation was, look, do you work hard? Yeah. Are you doing what you’re supposed to be doing? Yeah. What do you have to fear? You have nothing to fear. People like other people when they’re themselves. It’s when we act like we’re someone else that you have problems. So embrace the media. Bring them in and show them who you are. Pull back the covers and let it go, and have no fear. Go forward and do your job. We tried to pull away that barrier of fear.
It was tough for a couple of people. We were having a discussion earlier about a senior intelligence officer. He said to me the first day I got in there, he said, look, if you get any of the media by me, I will cut them up and put them in a box. I don’t talk to the media, I despise the media. All they do is misrepresent. They wouldn’t understand the truth if they ever saw it. By the end of the war, this very same man was coming by my office every day, and one day he said to Peter Baker, why don’t you do a story about me? A 180. Why? Because Peter built rapport with this guy. That’s what it starts with, is rapport. You walk up to somebody and you’re honest and you’re straightforward and you make a connection. Peter did that, and he was good. Good reporters do that.
The next thing you do is you have trust. You get the trust of the person. That took a lot, because I had to jump in and go, look, I’m going to put my career on the line. We want to open Peter up, we want to put Peter in the COC. What’s the COC? That’s the Command Operations Center. That’s where you—first of all, we told him the entire war plans before we even stepped over the line of departure. He knew exactly what we were going to do the whole way, him and three other journalists. Then we put him in the COC and he watched things like the Jessica Lynch rescue on a Predator video, a video feed. He saw the people land—he saw us call in air strikes when artillery was going—and he knew exactly where they were. He knew all kinds of things.
How could you get to that point of trust? You started with a little bit of trust, and then he demonstrated that he was trustworthy. He wrote several articles, and we looked at those articles, those first few articles. He did not disclose the things that we were concerned about, that were secretive. All the reporters did that. I will tell you right now, 99 percent of the 337 media we had embedded with us abided by the ground rules. There was very few that violated them. And if you’d asked guys like this guy that I was telling you about, that wasn’t so happy about the media, he’d have said about 99 percent are going to lie. Well, that wasn’t the truth, it was the opposite. That’s hurray to the professionalism of the journalists, and I think it’s a huge step forward. I’ll stop there.
William Branigin: Let me start with a bit of background. This was actually the second time I’ve been embedded, the first was during the first Gulf War in 1991. I was assigned then to the 1st Cavalry Division, which did the famous left hook. My most memorable experience there was that we drove through the desert for thirty hours and stopped without firing a shot, which made it kind of a challenge to come up with a story out of that. Aside from that, in some other ways, it was pretty miserable from a journalistic point of view. There didn’t seem to be a lot of trust at that time. There was censorship. There was a very unwieldy pool system, where we had to show written copy to officers who would then approve it and it would be sent by the military to a central location. It was very unwieldy. I also had a captain who was a public affairs officer dogging my every step.
But it was a valuable experience in some ways, because I learned how not to cover a war. There were some things that I took away from that that I vowed if there were ever a next time, I would try to learn from these mistakes and not repeat them.
One thing I learned was to be proactive in getting assigned to a unit. I consulted with colleagues who covered the Pentagon and succeeded in getting assigned to a particular unit that I had in mind, which was the 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division, a unit that was already in Kuwait and had been there for some time. I also learned that I needed to get aboard a tracked vehicle rather than one with wheels.
The most important thing was to make sure that I was on the military communications network of my unit. That meant that I would have basically a radio headset that I could use at any time, because one of the things I learned in the first Gulf War was that it’s much more important what you can hear than what you can see.
So during the run-up to the war, it did become clear that the Pentagon’s mindset had changed dramatically from the first Gulf War, and even from Afghanistan, which I also covered. In Afghanistan, I was in a location north of Kabul, in the Panjshir Valley, and there were a couple of hundred journalists who were basically a captive audience. Yet the military, the Pentagon, did not have anybody there who would talk to us. There were Special Forces people running around, helping the Northern Alliance, but they were invisible. They would literally run away if you would ever approach them.
I think the Pentagon learned a lesson from that, which was that up until the fall of Kabul, they were losing the information war. The Taliban was putting out all sorts of propaganda that, inside Afghanistan anyway, just had no rebuttal. Like I said, we would have been a captive audience for just one PAO.
I became more aware of this change of heart when I attended the first media boot camp at Quantico. Like a lot of other journalists, I was pretty skeptical at first. There was some skepticism that this was a process designed to weed us out. There was also some fear that it was also designed to get us used to obeying orders from the military. But it worked out well and it turned out that the Pentagon was really true to its word in that they had recognized the need to have independent journalists embedded with their forces, in order to be able to have credibility.
Then during the run-up to the war after that, I eventually went over to Kuwait and linked up with the 3rd Infantry Division. I was embedded at the company level, which is important to know, because I did not have the overview of information that some other reporters did who were embedded at higher levels in the military. For example, there were some who were at division level and would spend all their time talking to generals. In fact, I never met a general the whole time I was over there. I spent most of my time with sergeants and privates and never met anyone above the rank of colonel during the whole seven weeks I was there.
That gave me a different view of the war than some others. Even within the Washington Post, we had people like Peter Baker who were embedded at a higher level, and Rick Atkinson, who was with the 101st Airborne Division. In my case, I’m reminded of something that David Bloom said to me the day before he died. He was in the same battalion but in a different company. He said, we’ve essentially made the decision to trade information for pictures. In a different way, that’s what I did also. I was trading the overview information for the ground-level, grunts’ eye view of the war.
So I was with this company, Bravo Company, when we crossed the berm, and through a disastrous day when soldiers killed eleven members of a family at a checkpoint. Then up through the entry into Baghdad, when the 2nd Brigade that I was part of took over the presidential palaces and essentially the center of Baghdad west of the Tigris River. After I left—I left the unit sometime after that in Baghdad to go join some colleagues on the eastern side of the Tigris. When I came back, I went back that way when I was finally ready to leave Iraq, and stopped by the unit to say goodbye. I spoke to the 2nd Brigade commander, Colonel Perkins. I remember he said to me that the whole embedding experience exceeded his expectations. That was also the feeling that I had.
Thomas Shanker: Thank you very much. John?
John Donvan: I’m here, I think, because I was unembedded. From my point of view, I just went out and covered this war like I had some in the past. I’m not what I would in any way describe as a war correspondent, at all. But my turn comes up every now and then, and this was one of those times. Initially when I heard about the embedding program, I thought that that sounded like an interesting way to see the war, because we often ask for access. We would love to spend the day with the president, through his day.
We would make all kinds of agreements not to share certain sorts of information. We would love to spend the day in the office of the chairman of General Motors. We would love to spend the day in an ER unit. We would love to see, because we never really get to see this, if someone wants to take and share the risk, we would love to see what happens in a military unit.
I don’t really have a problem with the embed system, although I was not embedded, despite whatever compromises needed to be made, because we make those compromises all the time for access. I think there was a unique perspective that the Pentagon offered this time around. If they benefited from it, so be it. I think so did we, to a certain degree.
Why wasn’t I embedded? Because ABC News didn’t really know for sure whether the Pentagon would keep its word. We invested a lot of people in training. We invested a lot of money in equipment to make this embed system work. There was a real fear, what if the shooting starts and the troops out there, the officers, just panic and shut it all down? What if things go bad and they shut it all down? We need to have a backup. We need to have somebody out there who isn’t attached to the military.
Because I had spent time in Iraq over about twenty years, at various times, I speak a little Arabic, I had covered some wars in the Middle East, my turn came and they told me that I was going to be not embedded—which I took to mean I was going to be not embedded—the Pentagon actually has a term, if you’re not embedded, you are unilateral. This was a new experience for me, because this was kind of—it was kind of a brand in the negative sense when you were out there, as far as the military was concerned, because all of the troops that we would deal with, and particularly their officers, had been geared for, you’re going to see journalists and they’re going to be embedded and it’s going to be great, if it works out.
I rolled up from Kuwait City to the northern border and encountered my first Marines, at the checkpoint that led into southern Iraq, and they said, who are you embedded with? I said, I’m not embedded with anybody, and they said, then you can’t get into Iraq. You can’t come in. So I snuck into Iraq, through—
Audience: Good for you.
John Donvan:—through very nefarious means over several days, because it was incredibly dangerous to be a unilateral—more so than I bargained for. I reached the conclusion after the first day that I didn’t want to spend the night there, so I would go in in the daytime, leave, go back to northern Kuwait, where we rented a house, drink water, find gasoline, put it on top of the car, eat food, do my stories, get some sleep, and the next day when the sun came up, go up to the border again and hope I could find another way across. That worked for about five days.
What I learned as a result of being a unilateral reporter is that—it didn’t really surprise me, but the experience that I had, the kind of war I saw, was entirely different from what the embeds were seeing. Not just in the obvious sense that they were seeing the frontline action and had this close and intimate contact with the troops. But more importantly from what the story that was getting out during the first days of the war in particular, where embedded reporters who were seeing Iraqis at all were seeing them waving and cheering. The word went out from the Pentagon that we’re being welcomed as liberators. Certainly I think the news media back here, from what I gathered from calling back—I didn’t witness what was on television here, but I would call back—and the word was, great moment in Safwan, there was a guy with his slipper slapping Saddam’s face—that’s the image of the war, that’s the image.
Well, the first day I snuck into the war, the first town I ended up in was the town of Safwan, and people were not happy. They were not happy with us, the Americans. They were not happy with the British. They were not happy that five people in town had been killed. They were not happy that their electricity was off. They were not happy that big guys wearing camouflage helmets were telling them where in their town they could go. They were not happy that I was there asking them questions.
Any illusion I had that I could do what I had done in other wars, and say I’m just here as a neutral observer and I want to hear your story too, was incredibly naÃ¯ve. They completely saw me as one of the invaders, in part I think because of the embed system, because somehow word was out that reporters were with the troops. The first day as I was interviewing kids on the street in one group, the rest of them stole our camera from our car, telephones. I think we were the first looting victim, at least among the foreigners.
But the message that we picked up was that this town that had welcomed the troops was not welcoming to the coalition. I picked up a rumor the first day that I reported about four days later as a rumor, after hearing it repeatedly, that the young man who had slapped the poster of Saddam had been assassinated later that night by Baathists, and they had also murdered his mother. So the story of this triumphant move and this welcoming of liberation, was not at all the story I was picking up.
Truthfully, for the first twelve hours or so, I had a very difficult time convincing ABC News that I had a story. They had seven embeds feeding material back to them. The embeds were showing something that nobody had seen before. Again, calling back, I did have very good communications to the States, probably better than many of the embeds, because I had options. I could carry my own equipment.
We had four different ways to communicate with the States. I was phoning back, and the message I was getting from my editors, from my wife, from my mother, was it’s going great and it’s amazing, it’s amazing you can see war happening in front of you, it’s amazing, it’s amazing—why aren’t you on? I was trying to get a signal out and the story that—and I could get a signal out, but my story was, things aren’t looking so good in Safwan.
I was doubting my own perspective, which I do all the time anyway as a journalist. Is this an aberration what I’m seeing here? Everybody else is seeing welcoming, but I’m not, but I’m going to tell this part of the story. I couldn’t get it on the air for seven or eight, maybe twelve hours—for a combination of technical reasons, but mostly an inability to kind of get it through that I was seeing something different.
Finally Jennings put me on his program and found this fascinating. We had had a very bad day. It was the day that I entered Safwan, I saw Terry Lloyd ahead of me on the street interviewing some people. He was dead two hours later. There was a Lebanese film crew who had headed towards Umm Qasr about seven miles—word came back that they had been shot at. Scott Johnson, the Newsweek reporter, and three of his colleagues, twenty-five miles north of us, who had only entered about two hours before us, were chased by Iraqi troops and nearly captured.
The New York Times folks had checked with some British troops, can we go down that highway? The Brits said sure, that highway’s clear, we just cleared it two hours ago. They drove down the highway and it was already in broad daylight covered with landmines. There was a huge sense of things being wildly out of control at the same time that the embed message, the message that the embeds were experiencing, was just one of progress, of relentless progress and a warm welcome.
Jennings was fascinated by that. I was rather shaken up. That was communicated, I’m told, I haven’t looked at the tape, in the first broadcast I did, where Peter just said, what’s it like? I told about people in the street calling me Satan and that kind of thing.
After that, ABC became very interested in that story. I never knew—to this day, I can’t really claim that I know—how much of what I was seeing in Safwan was representative of an Iraqi sentiment broadly, although I think as we now know it wasn’t so rosy, and that maybe I had a thread of a story that had some legs to it because I moved on to the town of Umm Qasr and found the same thing. Ultimately I moved up to Basra and witnessed the looting of Basra, the day that happened.
So as a result, and in all of my effort, I figured the embeds had incredible access to the military, I wasn’t going to try to be a unilateral reporter of what the military was doing. I was going to try to do how this is playing to the Iraqi people. So as much as we could, considering some of the risks that were involved—and when I say we, I was with a group of—television is a group effort. There were eight of us, myself, a producer, a second producer joined later, an editor, cameraman, soundman, and a producer from Kuwait who was a journalist, who was translating for us, and a satellite engineer. As much as possible, we tried to tell the story of how this was playing with the Iraqis. You could not do that as an embed. You couldn’t leave your unit. For the most part, if the Iraqis weren’t waving at the troops, they were probably afraid.
You couldn’t do it that well as a unilateral either, because as I say, they saw us as part of the occupying force, which led to some very fascinating experiences. For those three or four weeks the United States represented undaunted power to the Iraqis, so they thought if we could knock Saddam out in ten days we could do everything. People would walk up to me, carrying their children—my daughter’s wounded, where do I take her? Can you get me into the military hospital?
A guy came up with cancer of the mouth, he had run out of medication. Opens his mouth, I see this horrible glob. Can you help me? Why aren’t you people helping? Why can’t you help all of us? My Kuwaiti translator—he insisted I not call him a translator, because it was below his station, he was a producer—was handing out money to people, just because he was so moved by it.
It was a very different experience from what the embeds were reporting, which you could only get in this way. In its own way it was a soda straw, because we had profound limitations on what we could do, that were above all security. It was so unsafe to be knocking around the south of Iraq this way. In part—I had done other wars like this, they’re all unsafe. But we were—I was from one of the countries that had a dog in the fight. It was also relatively undeveloped, unsophisticated part of the country.
We were not welcomed particularly by the British to be there at all. The British were commanding that part of the area. We found that the British troops were somewhat flexible, their officers were not. We found the opposite when encountering American troops. The American officers were quite flexible in dealing with us and their troops were not.
But we would try to make deals with—we wanted to have it both ways. We were trying to make deals with military units. Can we sleep inside your encampment tonight and tomorrow we’re going to leave and go do our thing and maybe we’ll come back at night. Ultimately we struck a deal that way with an American reserve unit, who did it very unofficially. We have mixed feelings about that. Those guys took a risk for us. We worked outside the system.
We treated them very fairly, very honorably. We told them exactly what we were doing. They were willing to take that risk. That made it possible for us, after that fifth day, to stay in southern Iraq. That meant we wouldn’t run out of gasoline halfway to Basra, which was our great terror, because there was no gasoline there, or water; or be mobbed by a bunch of kids who would take all of our water or our food or just—kids were throwing rocks at us, that kind of thing, or just deflate our tires, whatever it was.
We also had nonstop dialogues in the car, should we go down this road, is it safe, is it not safe? But one of the dialogues we had constantly in the car was, what are we going to do if we get into trouble? We came here, we’re working outside the system that the Pentagon offered. What if we get into trouble? Do we have the right to call for help, which is what the Newsweek guy did? We ultimately concluded that we didn’t. If we chose to come in this way, we didn’t have the right to ask for help. As one of us said, how are you going to tell some Marine’s mother that he died trying to extract some idiot journalist who got himself into trouble?
Nevertheless, in the real world we also knew that if we got into trouble, my ABC News Division president would be on the phone with the Pentagon within ten minutes, and within about half an hour the Marines would be doing something. So we were kind of kidding ourselves by taking that moral stance. Nevertheless, it was one we took in order to—ourselves to justify the kinds of crazy risks that we were taking.
Ultimately, I think it was worth it, because we were able to tell that story that I think was the beginning of an aspect of the story that has turned out to weigh very heavily on the reality that we now know to exist over there, at least to some extent. I left on April 10, mostly because of a family commitment. I had no sense whatsoever, reporting from the south of Iraq, that the war was over. The one thing where I would disagree with the embed experience is that because they are covering the military occupation to get to Baghdad, the embeds got to Baghdad and left, and stopped covering the war, which I think created a false impression that the war ended when everybody got to Baghdad. If you were in the south of Iraq, you had the impression that a war started on March 21-22, and if you’re in the south of Iraq you still have the impression that that war continues, and the first three weeks there was a lot of fighting, but that the war continues. A lot of the fighting may have calmed down, but that the war still goes on.
I think the embeds had the illusion—and I think most Americans had the illusion—that the war happened and it ended when the statue came down, and everybody went home—except everybody didn’t go home. There are 140,000 troops there and they’re still in the middle of something that’s still being worked out. As a unilateral reporter, I have a much stronger sense that we’re as much at war as we were in March and that the heavy fighting, the relatively easier fighting, is over now. Now the toughest stuff begins. That would be probably the bottom line I would bring to it as a unilateral reporter.
Thomas Shanker: Thanks to all three of you for sharing your wisdom and your insights. Lots to think about and question. All I would ask is that you stand up, please give us your name and identify either your university or your affiliation, so we know with whom we’re speaking.
Audience: My question is regarding mostly to the journalists and to the colonel. What has changed since Joe Galloway and Peter Arnett went into the Ia Drang Valley back in the 1960s? Were any of the reporters armed? Did they have access to arms, as Joe Galloway and General Moore documented in the book, We Were Soldiers Once, and Young? Thank you to the journalists for going to Iraq, and thank you, Colonel, for your service to the country.
Richard Long: Thank you. What’s changed since Vietnam? A lot. I guess a little bit of it is what these gentlemen were talking about, is there is value in the military in having media there. There’s value towards our information operations campaign. There’s also value in informing the taxpayer what their military is doing, so they can ultimately make the decision on what happens and what doesn’t. There’s value in them understanding what we’re doing. So that’s a lot of what drives it.
Did they have access to weapons? No, they did not. What’s changed? The culture’s changed. We’ve all changed. The military has changed. The military is changing. I explained the change of one colonel, just in a short period of time. It’s all about understanding each other. I hope that that’s what happens a little more, is that—you know, the media certainly shouldn’t be the conduit between the military and you, the taxpayer. We’re there to understand and to talk to and if you see somebody, walk up and ask them a question.
The thing is, people look at the military sometimes, and maybe I’m getting off on a tangent, which I’ll have a tendency to do—like they’re different, like there’s some kind of aggressiveness about them or there’s some kind of thing that makes them want to go do things that are destructive. That is exactly opposite. If you are the one that is in the fire, you want to do everything you can to stop that before it ever even turns to fire. It’s just like getting in a fight with somebody when you were a kid. The smart thing is to talk your way—God knows that’s what everybody wants to do, and any kid, anybody that’s ever been shot at, that’s what they want.
So I think that the general public, and maybe even the media, think that the media—there’s this paradigm about them. There’s this change that’s taking place. I don’t know, I don’t think so. I think we’re just citizen soldiers, just like you. I could have been a journalist, my God, and you could be wearing this uniform.
William Branigin: I was never armed. I can’t speak for Geraldo Rivera, but I wasn’t. None of the journalists that I knew were armed. That doesn’t work that way, especially if you’re embedded.
John Donvan: We talked a lot about carrying weapons, because we were out there on our own. Ultimately decided not to. We also had a security—British security guy who supposedly was ex-SAS. I have my doubts. But he wanted to go buy a weapon in Iraq, because he said I’m supposed to protect you and I don’t feel I can do it—if we come under fire, I can’t stop the bullets with my hands.
We vetoed it, but I have to say we wrestled with it, because—again, there are certain niceties I think that we’ve—and this might be a contrast with Vietnam—that we’ve become accustomed to over the last ten to fifteen years, especially of televised war. We’ve experimented and developed techniques covering a lot of other people’s wars, particularly over the last ten years, and I would say especially the Yugoslav war. War has become televised.
When we didn’t have a personal, a national stake in the war, we found it very easy to cover both sides of the story, and as I was saying before, to claim that we were neutral. I wasn’t neutral in this war. I would try to be fair and honest, but I wanted the U.S. to prevail, once it got into it. I’m not neutral to that degree, and I can’t claim neutrality on the battlefield out there.
But I think we were in this habit of, oh, let’s go cover a war, and we’ll put some reporters in the south, just like in Bosnia, we’ll put one reporter in the capital city, in Baghdad, and ideally we’ll get some reporters on the other side. Can we get some reporters embedded with the Iraqis, would be the logical conclusion of the way that we have been wanting to cover war before, because we had gotten into this habit. Well, that wasn’t going to happen, beyond putting a reporter in Baghdad.
I would say in Vietnam, I don’t think there was any pretense whatsoever to cover the Vietcong side, except maybe by some American communist reporters. But by and large the mainstream media went to tell the story of the American enterprise—is it good for America, is it bad for America. When people turned against the war, either in the media or here at home, it was never really the Vietcong are right or the North Vietnamese are right. The story was, this is wrong for us or we are wrong.
It ultimately was the same thing in this war, I think, but it was more diffuse, because there were reporters on the other side. There was al-Jazeera television on the other side telling the personal narrative of what the Iraqi civilians were going through. I saw a lot of that television during those first five nights that I would go back to Kuwait. Watching al-Jazeera, you saw an entirely different—as you were saying, everybody comes back with a different perspective.
I think the al-Jazeera reporters did a very honest job. I had never seen it before, had only heard how terrible al-Jazeera was. I came away very impressed by their enterprise and journalistic honesty. But they told a different story. They told the story of what the civilians were going through.
That sort of sense of, there’s just a war and everybody’s a player in it and let’s try to tell all sides, is more of a modern creation which I think we entered this war hoping to repeat once again, but it just didn’t really work out. Where that comes down to weapons was, we had our serious discussion about weapons because that whole game wasn’t going to work for us this time. Ultimately we decided not to carry weapons, hoping that we could still fall back on that system of our security being in our—I can’t say neutrality, but our security lying in our claim to be noncombatants on the battlefield.
Richard Long: Do you remember who went up to Tikrit first? It was CNN. But they went up there ahead of the military and got into a couple firefights on CNN.
Audience: And fired back.
Richard Long: And fired back, yeah. It was interesting.
Audience: And they might not have survived if they didn’t fire back.
Dan Prieto: Dan Prieto, I’m a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, currently serving on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. There were clearly benefits to embedded journalism, really bringing unprecedented access to the American public, to the war. But there seem to have been two costs to me that are notable. Number one is objectivity. You have journalists in the field referring to themselves and the soldiers as “we.” It certainly makes sense sociologically, but on the other hand, other countries look at the American press as a model and view it as a free press. There are potential costs to that when people feel, as you felt on the ground, that the media is viewed as sort of part and parcel of the military that they’re traveling with.
Then the second cost I see was this tradeoff of analysis for pictures. You oftentimes, with the military action, lost a sense of the strategic importance of different battles, because so much of the reporting was simply, here I am, I’m a reporter and I’m getting shot at, regardless of whether that had any strategic, tactical or war-fighting importance in the overall scheme of things.
How do you address those two costs to the embedded journalism trend going forward, in terms of its implications for journalism generally? Thanks.
William Branigin: You seem to be talking more about television, as far as I can tell. I wouldn’t read too much into reporters saying “we.” To me it’s sort of like shorthand. It’s like saying “my newspaper” instead of “the newspaper that I work for.” I know there was some rah-rah journalism, particularly by some TV reporters. I don’t think you can read too much into that example that you gave.
As for objectivity, that depends on the reporter and how you’ve been trained. It’s a mental discipline to try to remain objective, even though you’re with a unit that you depend on for your protection, in some ways. But to do an honest job, you need to maintain as much objectivity as you can. I think reporters were able to do that. I feel that I was able to do that.
Thomas Shanker: Let me sharpen that question, if I could, because you’re going to such an important point. John, you sort of mentioned it. The embeds are also blamed for being responsible for a mood swing back home. For the first couple of days, the TV images that everyone saw was of a mechanized assault rolling unimpeded across the desert. There were people who were already talking about catastrophic victory, before the first serious engagement.
Then when there were sandstorms and problems in the rear, and there was a report from one embed about a supply line problem, that his company didn’t even have enough MREs to eat, suddenly that became viewed as across the entire front.
So how can the media, next time around, try to bring the broader view from this collection of soda-straw images?
John Donvan: I think the best way to do that is try to constantly remind everybody that everything is soda-straw. I think that’s the only answer to that. We talked about this after the war when we came back to ABC. We had this soda-straw discussion and talked about how it was really the job of our editors back in New York to bring everything and filter it and compare it with what the Pentagon was saying, compare it with what the Iraqi government was saying, compare it with what the Europeans were hearing, what the satellites were telling, etc. If that didn’t happen, it’s no single embed’s fault, certainly.
I think the problem maybe with what happened this time around was that the sheer novelty of the embed system blew away the audience. When there’s a live television picture, people I think experience it as though they are at the event. When you feel that you’re at an event, I think there’s a sense that you’re seeing everything you need to see. It doesn’t occur to you that there’s stuff you’re not seeing. It doesn’t occur to you that there’s things right over there that the camera lens isn’t seeing. You’re only focused on what’s happening right now.
So I’m also an advocate that the audience needs to do some work and readers need to do some work—watch more than one television station, read more than one newspaper, read newspapers that you don’t agree with. Watch television stations that you don’t agree with. Filter and compare.
Also to the point of objectivity, where I would use different language from Bill—I don’t really believe in objectivity, even as an ideal to aim for, because I think it’s impossible. I think the claim of objectivity is misleading and that readers and television viewers so often feel betrayed when they recognize that the human being who’s reporting to them does have a bias.
I would say that rather than objectivity, the goal should be to be honest and fair, to examine your own prejudices, to not make stuff up as the far extreme, in Jayson Blair, but also, in terms of honesty, to really ask yourself, have you made the extra call to make—do you really know this fact, have you checked it out. If you’re saying you know it, do you really know it? Fairness means, have I listened to people who are presenting me with a view that doesn’t necessarily fit what I think is the view. If somebody’s saying something horrible, am I going to censor that or am I going to give them full vent?
To me, those are the questions that come to bear. But I also almost think that there’s a value to allowing subjectivity to enter into journalism, if you are clear with the audience that that’s what you’re doing. I think I did that personally in Safwan, when my report essentially—it’s not that it was solipsistic, it’s just that I was an American who had landed in Safwan and found this startling storm, and I shared what it was like to be me or our crew essentially. It wasn’t me, me, me, me, but it’s here what happened to an American reporter who happens to have been me, so I can tell this with great authority. I think that kind of sharing of this subjective experience has meaning, as long as you’re clear about that’s what it is, and as long as you don’t make claims for it to have more significance than it has.
As for reporters on television saying me or us or we, I agree with Bill. That minor slip-up is not really that significant. If people say that it is, I think they make too much of it.
Adrian Castellati: My name is Adrian Castellati, I’m from the College of William and Mary. You kind of took part of my question, but what it was is that, being as you were, one of the embedded reporters, did you ever—or any of the others you were working with—ever have an issue with the fact that, you know, beyond the stuff that you weren’t—able to tell at that time, have an issue with these are the people that are protecting you every day, maybe saying something negatively against them? To you sir, being that you were one of the unilateral reporters, did you feel more compelled to go after the Iraqi side, just because they had such the American troop, war side, trying to get more of a round picture?
William Branigin: I tried to just report what the unit that I was with was doing. I don’t feel that I pulled any punches when things went wrong, as they occasionally did. The one notable example of that was on March 31, when a Bradley opened fire on a civilian vehicle that was approaching a checkpoint and they apparently thought that it was a suicide bomber or feared that it might have been. Ended up killing this family.
I just reported that straight, included the context that two days before there had been the first suicide bombing south of there, in a place that the unit I was with had already passed through. The word had gone out to be wary of these vehicles. The vehicle, unfortunately, fit the profile. In my story, I portrayed it as the tragedy that I thought it was.
After that, there were no repercussions. There was obviously no prior censorship. The only comment that the battalion commander made after that was, he said, I read your story. That was all he said. But I never had any recriminations or any repercussions from the unit I was with.
John Donvan: I hadn’t met Bill until tonight, but I was quite pleased to, because the story he just told, I remember the day that we heard it. We were in Umm Qasr. Again, as I said, I could talk to New York quite frequently. They read this story to me, and I shared it with my colleagues. We all sat there and talked about it for about an hour, because number one, it answered to us the outstanding question, are they going to censor the embeds. If they were ever going to censor the embeds, they would have censored that story, and they didn’t.
Number two, this goes back to your question about whether we were deliberately covering the Iraqis—yes, we were, and as a result, the Iraqi folks were flesh and blood to us in a way that I don’t think it came across on television too much. We had been out at checkpoints and seen people being stopped and saw how frightened they were of us, as they would approach a checkpoint, or approach a British checkpoint.
I have to say, it’s sort of an American thing I think, initially I found that the American troops, the Marines up there, tended to be more wanting to make this a positive moment of interaction with the Iraqis, and so there would be a little bit more smiles on the face at the checkpoints. The British were completely professional and were very jumpy and were very scared. So particularly approaching British checkpoints, the Iraqis would be very nervous. I could see how nervous they were and I could imagine somebody getting jumpy and shooting at the wrong car.
When Bill reported that that had happened with his unit, it hit us not just as a tragedy for the guys who did it—and it’s our sense that that was read back home, that that story was told back home, as those poor guys killed some Iraqis. It must be horrible for them. I’m not saying you wrote it that way, but I’m saying that a large part of the whole war effort, we were the protagonists in a narrative and the Iraqis were this diffuse mass out there. By going out to cover the Iraqis, we were able to see them much more as flesh and blood and to understand their fears and their tensions, etc.
So to answer your question very bluntly, yes, we did try to cover the story of the Iraqis. Not that we succeeded all that well or that it was all that easy, because of all the obstacles I talked about before.
Jason Torchisi: My name is Jason Torchisi, I’m an attorney. Were there foreign journalists with American military units? How do you think that affected world opinion of what we did in Iraq?
Richard Long: Let me just say very briefly, you did not want to be a French unilateral reporter. I did an interview with a French reporter right when we were embedding everyone. Boy, he was very antagonistic. The first question was, how can you sleep at night killing little boys and girls? It was just terrible. No, we treated the French as fairly as we could. I was going to pull up my list of all the different—we had al-Jazeera, we had Saudi Arabian—
Audience: Is this the Marine Corps or is this the military of all services?
Richard Long: All services. I’ll talk about the Marine Corps, because that’s what we had, but the Army had the same. We didn’t get as many as we wanted. I’m just going to flip through here—here’s one from Egypt, Japan, Spain, India, Canada, of course Britain. That’s just with the division. Here’s for TV, al-Jazeera, Canada CBC, Australian. So there was not as much as we wanted, but there was a fair sampling.
I would say, just a wild guess, about 15 percent, to 20 maybe, international. Not as much as we wanted, I think. But we had some good ones. Abu Dhabi and—I agree with you on al-Jazeera. I thought that their reporting was accurate and fair. They have their view and that’s what reporting is about, is listening to somebody’s view.
William Branigin: There were some embedded foreign journalists in the brigade that I was with, including a couple who were killed on April 7. One German reporter, fairly young guy, who was covering his first war and had the misfortune to be in a place where the 2nd Brigade headquarters was. That location was hit by a missile.
Matthew Smith: My name is Matthew Smith, I’m with—university. My question has to do with the way the war was perceived at home because of these journalists. You made it pretty clear about how the military and the press benefited from this relationship, but it seems like the benefit to the public in terms of actually understanding what was going on seems to be somewhat more unclear, whether it be because they’ve been getting a very narrow view, because of the embedded journalists, or as you quote David Bloom, trading information or analysis for pictures. So my question to all of you would be, do you think that the embedding program made the actual journalism and covering the war a more honest enterprise?
Richard Long: Let me start with that, if I can. I had this discussion with someone the other night. It’s really a good question. After giving it some thought, I thought there’s probably only a handful of people that really understood what was going on, my general, General Conway, at CFLCC level, maybe General Franks. In order for you to take all of these very dynamic things and to put them into a military perspective and understand the totality of what is taking place takes years of experience. You can’t articulate that to the public in a news story. You can’t capture that degree of totality, of what’s happening on the battlefield. I think Michael Gordon will capture some of it in his book. He wrote some really good pieces for the New York Times. He was at the CFLCC level. I think that some of the other journalists—
Audience: That’s the Combined Forces Land Component Command.
Richard Long: Yeah. That is I guess the general of the land war, if you will. So I don’t know, that’s my stab at it. It’s just so hard to capture the total picture. I would struggle to explain it to you now. I’ve been in the Marine Corps for seventeen years, I’ve been from artillery to public affairs. It’s very, very dynamic. That’s the best I can do.
William Branigin: It’s hard to comment on perceptions back home because I wasn’t getting any of that. I wasn’t seeing what was on TV or reading what was in the papers. I just had all I could handle just trying to report and transmit my own stories. But I think taken together, if you take the totality of what was reported, I think the American public got a pretty good picture. In the Post, in addition to people who were embedded, we had unilaterals and we had someone in Baghdad and we had people taking the information from CENTCOM and doing lead-alls to try to get the overview. Doing the overview wasn’t really my job.
Although I think one way that it could be improved would be if the—for example, if the 3rd Infantry Division had a public affairs officer at division level whose job was to keep in touch with the various embedded reporters and give them that overview of what the division was doing. It would have been very helpful to have that context. As it was, I didn’t have that formal channel. I could only get that from talking to my editors on a satellite telephone and listening to the BBC and things like that.
John Donvan: I’d be curious to know if you feel that you were misled or misinformed—I’m not sure if you’re saying you were or if you don’t know if you were misinformed or not.
Matthew Smith: It seems from what you’ve been saying that the American public, because we were shown an overwhelmingly—this footage from embedded journalists, if we were getting a soda-straw view we weren’t always told that.
John Donvan: Right. When Tom asked that question before, I think the solution to that is basically to answer it. Also I agree with Rick about—it not only takes years of experience to understand what’s happening in front of you, it takes years of study to figure out what just happened as well. I didn’t understand what was happening right in front of me at times. I did a whole piece about—I don’t know if you recall there was—the Kuwaitis sent some food aid up to the southern towns and the people went crazy and ripped all these white boxes off the truck. The young men in the crowd began to chant, “Saddam, Saddam, we’ll die for you, with our blood and with our soul.”
I did a report trying to explain why they were saying this. Ended up really saying that I had no idea. I had no idea if they were saying it because they meant it. I had no idea if they were saying it because they were afraid there were Baathist agents around. I had no idea if they were saying it because they don’t like being invaded and they were angry. I have no idea if they were—I asked a man in the crowd, why are they saying this? He said, because the only way they’ve ever been taught in their lives to celebrate anything is to chant Saddam’s name, even on their birthday. I immediately and in the broadcast sounded very skeptical about that, but nevertheless, the reality was that I couldn’t understand completely what was happening in front of me.
As far as being overwhelmed by the pictures, again, that’s your work to do. There were other reports on the air. There were reporters from Baghdad. There were other ways to see it. I don’t think the embedding program has in itself led to significant distortions, if you watched closely. I actually think it was a whole new dimension that hasn’t existed since the Vietnam War of access to the front line of the battle, and that that was a positive step.
Richard Long: I think that if it was a distortion, soon as they got unembedded, they’d clean it up real quick.
John Donvan: And I don’t think that even happened.
Richard Long: No, I thought that the after-action kind of shows on CNN and everybody else were right on the money.
Melissa Mott: My name’s Melissa Mott, I’m from the College of William and Mary. Mr. Donvan touched on this before. Since most of the embedded or all of the embedded journalists left after or on or about May 1, do you think that the coverage in Iraq has suffered since then, since there has certainly been more attacks on U.S. forces every day?
William Branigin: Yeah, I think that coverage has suffered from that. But one thing I would point out about that is that—and this was a shortcoming. After Baghdad was captured, the situation changed. The military didn’t quite adapt to that in a way that they had adapted to embedding. For example, the unit that I was with, I tried to stay there for a while afterwards, but I just wasn’t getting the kind of information that I needed at that point. Because you’re no longer involved in long road march and daily combat operations, at that point you need to have—there should be some sort of central location for information about what the military as a whole is doing.
There just wasn’t; it was dangerous to try to get that information. I had a u