Military unfairly blamed for embed problem

Posted: Nov 14, 2006 9:20 AM

The number of embeds in Iraq is so small it’s grotesque. During the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, more than 600 reporters, TV crews and photographers were embedded with Coalition Forces, according to the Associated Press. Last year, during the vote to ratify a new constitution, there were 114. At the end of September, there only 11 and one of them was me.

Embeds offer a unique perspective on the war in that they’re actually viewing it. Contrast this with the mainstream media Baghdad press corps that bizarrely believes it can cover a country of 26 million people and the size of California from hotels in a single city using stringers, phone calls, and email. They may as well be back in the States except for their desire to have the coveted title of “War Correspondent.” Vietnam gave us the first war in virtually real time; Iraq is giving us the first virtual war.

Further, it speaks volumes that war critics like screenwriter-director Nora Ephron has vilified embeds, insisting they’re “too close” to the war. And reporters covering Hollywood should be in Des Moines, right? What Ephron means is that the American public has no right to know what’s happening in Iraq. Embeds, through their actions, declare the opposite.

But what accounts for this dearth of embeds? Writings by Sig Christenson, president of Military Reporters and Editors (MRE), picked up this month by place the blame squarely on the military. But based on my experience from three embeds in the volatile Sunni Anbar Province, I find Christenson’s conclusion lacking and his alleged statements of fact to often be flat-out wrong.

Christenson complains the emailed embed application is laborious. But I've filled out online job applications that take three times longer to complete. If you can’t fill out a questionnaire from the comfort of your desk, you have no business going to war.

Then CNS, citing Christenson, reported on the alleged enormous flight costs. "The reporter must either wait to travel to Iraq [from Kuwait or Amman, Jordan] on a U.S. military flight or fly there commercially. Roundtrip airfares from the U.S. to Baghdad begin at about $2,000."

Actually there are no roundtrip flights from the U.S. to Baghdad. You can fly commercial into Kuwait and hop a military flight for free. Or you can fly commercial into Amman and do likewise. United offers roundtrip non-stop fares from Washington, D.C to Kuwait for $1,250 and to Amman for $999.

Christensen also wrote on the MRE website in September that going in to Baghdad to get credentialed "means risking your life on the 'Highway of Death' from the airport to the Green Zone – if you can catch that 20-minute ride from the airport into town." Yet the armored Rhino van from the airport the International Zone, as it's properly called, is always available and nobody aboard it has even been injured.

Further, as I’ve documented elsewhere at length, the “Highway of Death” is essentially both a name and a myth perpetuated by reporters demonstrating faux bravado. It has become secure to the point that last year a Washington Post headline declared: “Easy Sailing Along Once-Perilous Road To Baghdad Airport.”

Christenson even insists that, “The problem with going through hell to get that card [press pass] is it won’t get you into the KBR dining hall on any forward operating base in Iraq.” Wrong again. That pass gets you into any chow hall in Iraq. Depending on where you’re based, the food may be more delicious than what you’re used to although accommodations vary from comfy-cozy to crummy.

The problem with all this nonsense is that Christenson’s major point about the lack of and yet need for embeds is absolutely true. But nonsense like this scaring off them or their editors can only make the situation worse.

Being embedded in a combat zone – and if you’re not going to go outside the wire and risk your tail, why bother going – is easily the most exciting, rewarding job I’ve ever had. Dangerous and uncomfortable? Sure. But if more journalists realized how rewarding that risk can be, we’d see those embed reporter statistics start climbing again.