Embedding reporters: a brilliant Bushian stroke

Posted: Mar 27, 2003 12:00 AM

Operation Iraqi Freedom has spawned a new use of the word "embed" - in the sense of attaching media types to coalition military units for on-site reporting of action. The Bush administration's decision to embed 500 reporters is yet another brilliant stroke.

(Time out. Let's talk lingo. The division between the written press and the electronic media long has been a chasm - members of the press disdaining television news as an entertainment realm inhabited by empty suits selected primarily for those traditionally valued journalistic qualities of hair, face and voice. Perceived resented pay discrepancies between the press that does the work ("the working press") and big-time TV have made the chasm only deeper and wider.

(Spurning the word "media" as awkward - not least in its being a plural frequently employed in reference to a singular - and unwilling to include newsreaders and microphone-holders under the revered "press" umbrella, this space insistently has employed phrases such as "the press and television" or "the press and the electronic media." No more. The jobs being turned in by TV reporters attached to coalition military units have won for television reporters at last the privilege of calling themselves "members of the press," too.)

Embedding reporters is brilliant for two primary reasons. (1) It informs the public about war developments instantaneously, thanks to the wonders of satellite, cell phone and videophone communication. And (2) it greatly enhances respect for the military not only among the public but also within the press cohort that tends viscerally to diminish those in the military and much of what it stands for. Let's come back to this.

Of course, informing the public is what a diligent press should be all about; democracies with informed citizenries function best. Intrepid war journalism - as exemplified by many such as Ernie Pyle and George Polk, Marguerite Higgins and Bernard Fall - is a noble genre. And for the most part the best writing, the best reporting, has concentrated on, principally, men in combat - their anguish, their courage, their love for their country, their gallantries and sacrifices.

(Yes, reporters have written extensively on women, too - but should America allow its women into combat? Right now, the Iraqis hold among their POWs Army Spc. Shoshana Johnson - a single mother of a 2-year-old girl; in the Gulf War, of the 21 U.S. prisoners taken, two were women who later testified to molestation possibly including rape. Is this the sort of circumstance - the dismal fate - to which any civilized society not facing extinction should willingly subject its women?)

Vietnam recalls the downside. Though some reporters (e.g., Fall and Peter Braestrup) wrote tellingly, much "reportage" - both written and electronic - was but cut-and-run peacenik leftism in disguise. Putting the war in American living rooms hugely helped build among the populace an eagerness to throw in the towel and lose the war because of micromanagement from D.C. and the dissipation of political will.

With different and stricter ground rules in Iraqi Freedom, the embedding of reporters is likely, rather, to build support and sympathy for the war and those who fight it. Those embedded can report on the troops and what they have done; they emphatically cannot give some of the game away by reporting on what, strategically or tactically, they soon will do.

The other key aspect of embedding is the consequent sensitization of the press to the military - what it is, what it does, and how well.

The deep-running leftism of the mainline press is categorical and beyond dispute. Working reporters naturally draw on what they know and from the environments in which they have lived. Too many, in both newspapers and television, have known little but privilege, rarefied liberal arts schools, and easy complaint uninformed by life in the real world; few have any military experience in their background, and few ever hang with those who do. They tend to write from the left with too often an insolent, mindless hostility to right reason on everything from abortion to the environment to war because they are reflecting the views they hear - and share - in the circles and milieu where they have spent - and spend - their time.

Those in the military are engaged in an innately conservative enterprise - defending the nation, conserving liberty. The literature of sociology (itself essentially a leftist enterprise) is full of dire analyses of the yawning gap between the nation's military and civilian sectors, complete with grim laments about the extent to which neither understands the other. Several studies have cited as positively dangerous, in partisan terms, the lopsided Republicanism of the military vote.

The American military boasts some of our best people - some of our best educated, most dedicated, most courageous; yea, verily, some of our most virtuous and most sacrificial because they may offer up even their lives in defense of freedom and this land of liberty. Time spent with them usually is exhilarating, uplifting and awe-inspiring. Forced "embedded" proximity to them could well moderate or "conservatize" some attitudes toward them on the part of a traditionally leftist and cynical press.

If it accomplishes anything close to all that, embedding reporters will prove yet another bit of Bushian genius. By putting the press at the battlefront rather than keeping it out of the loop, he may have provided the model for the future.