Freedom Of The Press Secured By Military

April 14, 2003
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The war on Iraq has given American television viewers a front-row witness to the sometimes difficult relationship of journalists and the subjects on which they are reporting. Over the years, the feelings between the U.S. media and the U.S. military have ranged from mildly suspicious to wholly venomous.

Robert E. Lee, the most gentlemanly American soldier, became positively snide about the Richmond editors who constantly faulted his tactics and strategy. Gen. William T. Sherman, the most vociferous American soldier, arrested reporters and had them expelled from his command.

The current media-Pentagon experiment of placing reporters with tactical units seems to have mellowed the relationship, though the arrangement has some handicaps:

  • For a reporter to make sense of a battle from the platoon level is as hopeless as viewing an Imax film through a soda straw.

  • Some editors regard embedding as “in-bedding,” because it entails the kind of deal journalists don’t like: “Mr. Reporter, we’ll feed and transport you and protect your life but you must agree not to report our position, destination or tactics.” You can’t blame the military for wanting such details secret. You can’t blame born storytellers for chafing at such restrictions.

  • Third, embedding creates bonds which compromise journalistic independence. It’s hard to write objectively about soldiers with whom one shares jokes, bad food, sorrow, dust, tainted water and what one soldier-journalist, Winston Churchill, called the overpowering exhilaration “of being shot at without effect.”

All these things said, embedding has presented American citizens a compelling mosaic to flesh out the dry pronouncements with which the military outlines its campaign. Too, the Pentagon has taken a tip from corporate America and has become fairly straightforward in admitting embarrassing friendly-fire casualties, convoy ambushes, civilian deaths at roadblocks and Patriot missiles mistakenly taking out coalition fighter-bombers.

A few incidents have threatened the project. One was a knee-jerk media assumption —fostered in part by studio anchors 7,000 miles removed and by Peter Arnett, isolated in Baghdad — that convoy ambushes had thrown “ the coalition forces off their timetable” and that another “Vietnam quagmire” was in the making.

What the talking heads didn’t know and Arnett apparently chose to ignore, is that Patton-style assaults have no timetables. The only commands are “Ignore the enemy on your flanks and Go! Go! Go!”

What slowed the coalition assault was sheer exhaustion. An army cannot fight over 200-plus miles for 100 consecutive hours without paying the price of falling asleep on its tanks’ steering columns.

On the whole, both the military and the media seem to be learning a valuable lesson: namely, that though their relationship always will be adversarial — reporters always will want to report far more than the military is willing to disclose — they need not be enemies.

In fact, when the reporters who have been embedded have time to reflect and start their books, something important likely will strike them.

Reporters exercise freedom of the press, but they do so only thanks to American soldiers who in the 18th century secured that freedom and now in the 21st century guarantee it.  

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