Opinion » Ted Rall

Playing Soldier

Embedded reporters endanger their ideals and their peers


CHICAGO--Anchorman Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt are the latest casualties of a most dangerous trend: journalists playing soldier. The two ABC News staffers, riding along with collaborationist Iraqi troops in a U.S. military convoy, were struck in the head by flying shrapnel from a bomb detonated by the resistance near Taji, about 25 miles northwest of Baghdad.

"The Pentagon takes every opportunity to say, 'If you're worried about security, travel embedded with us,' Ann Cooper, director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told The Washington Post. But embedding isn't just a threat to journalistic objectivity. It's the most foolhardy way to cover a war, and it ought to be prohibited.

To be sure, "independent" war correspondents--reporters who hire private drivers and translators to get around--take significant risks, too. Christian Science Monitor freelancer Jill Carroll, kidnapped by an Iraqi insurgent group on January 7, is still missing. But CNN reporter Michael Holmes points out the common-sense calculus of independent versus embedded reporting. "Personally, I feel probably more nervous if I'm driving along in a Humvee, armored or not, because a U.S. convoy or a military convoy of any kind in this country is such a target," he says. Living with locals and hiring drivers of rundown cars minimizes attracting the wrong kind of attention.

The embedding program, in which the Pentagon assigns reporters to travel and live with a specific unit, began as an attempt to improve relations with the media after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, which I covered for The Village Voice and Los Angeles' KFI radio. Reporters covering the Afghan war, targeted by robbers, murderers and American warplanes alike, also had to contend with a Defense Department directive prohibiting U.S. and allied forces from providing any kind of help, including medevacs, to journalists. As U.S. troops manning the locked gates of Bagram airbase laughed at their plight, two American reporters hunkered down in their car during a fierce night-long small arms and mortar attack by Taliban forces.

Reporters mindful of such incidents jumped at the chance to travel in armored vehicles after embedding was announced for the Iraq War. They might not have been so quick to don Kevlar had they looked closer at some of the first journalist casualties in Afghanistan.

Johanne Sutton of Radio France Internationale, Pierre Billaud of the French radio network RTL and Volker Handloik, a German freelancer for Stern magazine got themselves killed in northern Afghanistan on November 11, 2001, by embedding themselves with U.S.-backed Northern Alliance troops. "On Saturday the Northern Alliance took the first line of trenches on Chaghatai ridge after prolonged shelling and U.S. aerial bombardment," recalled witness Terry McCarthy for Time magazine. "Just as the sun was setting, the tank commander, General Bashir, judged that the Taliban had all cleared out and said he was going forward in an armored personnel carrier to examine the trench lines. About half a dozen journalists asked if they could go."

"All three of us were on the back of the APC and we were joking about dragging along our interpreter, who was a bit reluctant about it," Veronique Rebeyrotte of France Culture, who survived the subsequent tragedy, told the BBC. "We were in a hurry to get into the Taliban zone, to see what was happening on the other side. We never thought we would be taking a risk."

They drove straight into an ambush. Sutton managed to stay aboard the APC despite being shot. The French and German men fell off and were left behind in a chaotic retreat. Taliban soldiers stripped and robbed their bodies, then desecrated and scattered them across the embankment. As far as the attackers were concerned, the reporters were no different than the soldiers.

When a reporter sharing my guest house told me about this atrocity a few days later, I was angry--at the Talibs, at the victims for being so stupid, and at the victims again, for jeopardizing my safety and that of other journalists. The Pashtun-dominated Taliban were required by a tribal and religious code called Pashtunwali to provide protection and hospitality to the helpless and unarmed strangers. But "journalists" riding into battle on an APC don't qualify.

Objectivity is more than an ideal. In a war zone, people's perception of reporters' editorial independence can determine life or death. Too few journalists understand this. The U.S. network TV guys who lived and ate with the local Afghan warlords, traveled with rent-a-mujahedeen, and paid fictionally liberated women to remove their burqas for their cameras, sure didn't. The radio and print reporters who hung around town wearing the Northern Alliance's scarves and pakul hats--the equivalent of putting on gang colors in South Central Los Angeles--didn't get it either. As for those who rode around with soldiers, invariably soldiers on one side, well--they didn't get a free pass just because they brought cameras to a gunfight.

Bad old habits followed the press corps to Iraq. "After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003," notes The San Francisco Chronicle, "hundreds of war reporters traveled across the country unescorted, staying in poorly guarded hotels or with friends. In the fall of 2003, reporters based in Baghdad would routinely take the 30-minute drive west to Fallujah, the hotbed of Sunni insurgency." But the big television networks like CNN, CBS and Fox relied on reporters embedded with U.S. troops, reporters whose bias in favor of the young men and women upon whom they depended for their safety, inevitably crept into their broadcasts. The Iraqi resistance, watching via satellite, saw Fox's waving flag logo and CBS' "tributes to fallen heroes" (U.S. troops). They traveled with American forces, dressed like them, and adopted their lingo. Very few interviewed members of the insurgency. The message was clear: American reporters are tools of the Bush Administration propaganda machine.

No wonder that, "in 2004, the rules changed." At least 36 reporters have since been kidnapped, five of whom were executed. CPJ's Cooper says, "War correspondents do tell us that increasingly, this neutral-observer status is not recognized by parties in some of these conflicts."

What neutral-observer status?

Journalists who trade their objectivity for protection find neither. Sixty-one journalists have been killed so far--many by American forces. Iraq remains, for the third straight year, the most dangerous nation in the world for reporters.