The nuances of embeds

There's been quite a fuss in the past few days over this article by Newsweek hack Rod Nordland, in which he criticizes the practices of "embeds" with US troops. Other journalists have come out and said the same, some describing themselves as mouthpieces for the US military.

I asked a friend working in Iraq who's done several embeds what he thought of the whole debacle. Not only did he send his comments, reproduced below, but also provided the standard military form for "Embed Requests" journalists have to fill in to apply for an embed position. The questions it asks, such as links to previous articles, intent and angle of embed coverage, etc. make it clear the military media relations people want to know who they're dealing with, but that doesn't really seem unreasonable either -- it's more how they react to that info, and whether journalists feel pressured to be positive in order to keep their access to embeds.

Here's what he had to say:

Embedding with the US military gets a pretty bad rap, with lots of armchair analysts sitting back and criticizing journalists for going "in bed" with the US military and reporting nothing but propaganda, as opposed to all the courageous journalists elsewhere in Baghdad who navigate the streets on their own and report the "true" story.

I would say that even in 2003 and 2004, when independent, street reporting was a little more possible and common, embeds still had their place. I think in an ideal world they are two very complimentary halves of the story. A good portion of the Iraq story is what the US military is doing, and the best way to cover that, is to embed with them.

Unfortunately, since Iraq became extremely unpleasant starting mid-2004, getting around the country or even around Baghdad without the US military has become rather difficult. It means that it's harder to report the non-US military side of the story, though most agencies, using their Iraqi staff do a pretty good job.


Dealing with the US military is a lot like dealing with any major US company -- it has a PR department and it wants positive news to go out about it. If it feels you are going to be critical it's going to be less than cooperative.

The attitude varies from one public affairs officer to another. You get some without any sense of humor at all who refuse to admit the military has any faults and will harangue you about the bias of the press and how it ignores all the good news.

And then you get others who you can truly relate to, who will complain about how the army does things, tell you what's going wrong -- while pointing out what's going right as well. Often the second approach works much better and you find yourself wanting to write a more positive article due to the frankness and candor of the officer.

The military can be quite spiteful and if they perceive you as a "problem" journalist, you can find it difficult to get an embed, though the definition of "problem" can vary quite a bit. For some it's just negative reporting, for others it's because the journalist was a real pain in the ass and disruptive while they were on base (objecting to spartan accomodations, objecting to the food, high handed attitude, ordering people around -- the kind of thing TV journalists do a lot).

Ultimately, though, if your news agency is important enough, like Associated Press which every newspaper in the US receives, you will get an embed. If you are with something a little stranger and more foreign (or say has anything to do with the French) it might be a little more difficult.

That said, the embed experience -- and I've done about a half dozen -- is not a non-stop military PR. It gives you a chance to get out there and the reality of Iraq always makes it interesting.

Sitting in a humvee, ordinary soldiers will talk and complain and you can find out that while the officers assure you that the training of Iraqi soldiers is going quite well, the average American GI finds them dangerous and undisciplined in a firefight.

If you are going on patrol or going on raids, you will see ordinary Iraqis who seem to have no compunction about telling you how unenthusiastic they are about soldiers breaking into their homes.

In Fallujah, town leaders came to speak to visiting journalists at the heavily guarded town hall. With US marines everywhere in the room, the chairman of the provincial council told us that all of Iraq's problems would be solved once the occupation ended (incidentally, he was murdered by insurgents a few months later).

I've also found that once you get past the PR hacks, a surprising number of mid-level officers will speak fairly candidly about the situation, admitting things like "it's going quite slowly, we are going to be here for a long time".

I've actually been quite impressed by some of the captains and majors I meet who are involved in the civil affairs aspects of the job, dealing daily with local Iraqi elected officials and police chiefs. They are doing jobs they were never really trained for, but with the security situation deteriorating so much, few civilians want to come out and work in these places.

One of the plans to build up local government in Iraq was Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) where US experts would work with Iraqi politicians and experts to plan reconstruction projects and work on governance. It was supposed to be US military and civilian experts paired with the Iraqis. News reports say the project has been hampered by difficulties in filling civilian positions -- so instead the US military, which has to be there, picks up the slack.

Embeds are a necessary part of the story in Iraq, and like any assignment, you have to sift through the spin and the PR to find out what's really going on. It certainly is not the whole story in Iraq.
Comment

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.