The nominee for the Pentagon’s top public affairs job promised Thursday he will review Defense Department policies to ensure that journalists are not being denied embeds with combat troops based on the tenor of their reporting, a practice exposed by Stars and Stripes last summer.
Douglas Wilson, who is expected to be confirmed as the new assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that he was opposed to rating reporters as “friendly” or “negative” when considering their applications to accompany U.S. combat troops, and will look into the matter when he takes over the post.
In written testimony presented before his nomination hearing, Wilson went even further, stating, “In my view, we should never be a party to efforts to place so-called ‘friendly reporters’ into embeds while blocking so-called unfriendly reporters.”
It’s not exactly news that the embed process distorts war reporting in a way that propagandizes the American public. That’s been its purpose from the start, back when Rumsfeld press aide Victoria Clarke conceived of the program for the Iraq War. A leaked Pentagon memo from Defense Secretary Robert Gates, written in the wake of the McChrystal firing, talks about the embed process as one critical tool for war messaging to be controlled. Mother Jones‘ Adam Weinstein — who happened to be in the Baghdad public affairs office when it happened — recounts the denial last year of embed permission to a Stars & Stripes reporter on the explicit ground that his reporting reflected too negatively on the war and, specifically, that he failed to include aspects which the U.S. military wanted highlighted. It was that incident — as well as the revelation last year that the Pentagon was paying a private contractor to rate the favorability of war coverage of various journalists to determine embed applications — to which the new public affairs officer was responding when he vowed at his hearing to “ensure that journalists are not being denied embeds with combat troops based on the tenor of their reporting.”
But as this Hastings episode demonstrates, the embed process is still being used primarily as a means of propagandizing the public about the war. The superb, courageous war reporter Jerome Starkey of the Times of London — whose independent, non-embedded investigative work forced the U.S. Army to acknowledge its lies about a night raid in Southern Afghanistan which killed five civilians, including three pregnant women, and which had been covered-up with evidence tampering — detailed earlier this year in a must-read piece for Nieman Watchdog how the embed process is used to reward subservient journalists and punish ones who report negatively on the war:
This self-censorship is compounded by the “embed culture,” which encourages journalists to visit the frontlines with NATO soldiers, who provide them food, shelter, security and ultimately with stories. British troops will only accept journalists who let military censors approve their stories before they are filed. Ostensibly, this is to stop sensitive information reaching the insurgents. In my three and a half years in Afghanistan, the British invariably use it as an opportunity to editorialize. . . . .
In Helmand, in August 2008, a British censor attached to the Parachute Regiment threatened to ban me from ever embedding again if I filed footage of a paratrooper firing his heavy machine gun without wearing body armor. This had nothing to do with operational security and everything to do with health and safety, domestic UK politics (reference kit shortages and soldiers’ well-being), and ultimately ‘arse-covering’ within the military.
To my eternal shame, I backed down. Embeds were my livelihood. . . .
The Americans are just as subtle. I was thrown off a trip with the Marines Special Operations Command troops (MarSOC) last year when they realized I had written a story many months earlier linking their colleagues to three of Afghanistan’s worst civilian casualty incidents.
The platoon commander boasted that his Special Forces were “a fusion of weapons and intelligence”. Two hours later he asked me what my name was. Then he booked me on the next flight out. At least we know the weapons work.
As a freelance reporter, as I was then, the NATO blacklist was a daunting prospect. Many journalists I know here still prefer access to truth. Looking back, for me, it was the best thing that could have happened.
I have traveled from the north east corner of Afghanistan to the capital of Helmand province, and every major city in between, independently. I plan hard and take local security advice, and I am lucky that my newspaper supports me. . . .
I take solace from the more experienced and intrepid of my colleagues who have been through all this before. NATO lies and unless we check them, they get away with it. If we check them, they attack us. It’s unpleasant but important. There’s no doubt in my mind that we must continue to question what the soldiers want us to know.
As Starkey describes, reporters who embed with or otherwise rely upon the U.S. or British military see only that which military officials want them to see. Still, that is often the only way that many journalists feel they can safely cover the war, so they submit to those terms. After Rachel Maddow’s well-promoted trip to Afghanistan, I asked her about the influence this process had on limiting and distorting what she was able to see, but for the first time ever, she did not respond to my inquiries. As Matt Yglesias writes about the Hastings case: ”I think it’s pretty obvious that the military’s practice of doing these embeds constitutes a heightened version of the conflict of interest that’s endemic to the reporter/guy-who-talks-to-reporter dynamic.” It goes without saying that not all reporters who embed with the military are corrupted, but the process itself is corrupting and is designed to be.
I spoke with Hastings today and will post a podcast interview with him tomorrow about what is clearly punishment for his having reported negatively on a General, and what this means more broadly about the embed process and war reporting. The military’s response is that embedding is a privilege, not a right, and they decide in their sole discretion which well-behaved reporters get that privilege. That certainly appears to be true, and one thing is clear: Lara Logan — who increasingly sounds as though she’s auditioning to be the Pentagon spokesperson or for a position as Fox News host — is in no danger of losing her embedding “privileges” any time soon, the way Hastings just did.
About all of this, I do have this question: last October, when Fox News claimed (dubiously) that the White House had excluded it from a press pool interview with compensation czar Kenneth Feinberg, the other major news organizations banded together to protest Fox’s exclusion:
The Washington bureau chiefs of the five TV networks consulted and decided that none of their reporters would interview Feinberg unless Fox News was included.
Will war journalists embedded with the U.S. military in Afghanistan (and their employers) take a similar stand on behalf of Hastings? Given the reflexive sympathy many of them expressed for the military, and the intense hostility they expressed toward Hastings during the McChrystal controversy, that seems highly unlikely. That speaks volumes about what is bred by the embed process.