NEW YORK (Commentary) In the autumn of 2002, the drumbeat began for a U.S. attack on Iraq. Our “coverage of the coverage” of the war has earned several prestigious national awards, but one of our most significant efforts came near the very beginning. It was a special issue, dated Jan. 27, 2003 — E&P was still a weekly then — and it carried a color photo of the president in an Army jacket. The cover line read: “Unanswered Questions: In Grip of War Fever, Has the Press Missed the Mark on Bush and Iraq?”
As it happened, E&P was one of the few mainstream publications to repeatedly raise serious doubts about the basis for the war and how the media was going about covering that.
Inside that issue (which appeared almost two months before the U.S. invasion), the cover story, based largely on interviews conducted by Joe Strupp and Dave Astor, carried the headline, “On the War Path: As public opinion swirls, the press must dig deeper for answers to key questions surrounding the likely attack on Iraq.” Looking back at those interviewed for the story, one finds many “ouch” quotes. George Will called the coverage of the run-up “amazingly thorough.” Paul Gigot, editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, claimed that readers had “a pretty good idea what is going on,” and agreed it was “very good coverage.”
Bill Keller, then a columnist for The New York Times (which had fallen down badly in much of its handling of the Iraqi WMD) said that the paper’s overall coverage had been “as aggressive as you can be on a subject that is complicated and closely held.” He claimed that newspapers had “learned their lesson” from the spinning during the Gulf War. Howell Raines, then the paper’s executive editor, added, “We approach this story with the full knowledge that the military is not always forthcoming.”
Unlike many other publications, we gave ample space to the skeptics. Richard Reeves called coverage “generally pro-war.” David Halberstam said he felt “uneasy about this war.” Phil Bronstein, then editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, declared that a lot of questions had not been answered at all. “Where is the debate?” asked Orville Schell. Arianna Huffington questioned the lack of discussion of American casualties.
Norman Solomon concluded the feature with this: “Experience tells us that once the Pentagon’s missiles start to fly, the space for critical assessments and dissent in U.S. news media quickly contracts. Journalists get caught up in the war fever — their careers may benefit, but journalism suffers.”
Other stories in that issue looked at the often weak treatment of the anti-war movement and how editorial pages were deeply conflicted in their views of the coming invasion. One highlight was my lengthy interview with famed Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg. Like many other “anti-war” types he had been scoffed at during this period, but his comments in the interview proved amazingly prescient (unlike, say, those expressed by the editorial writers and numerous columnists at The Washington Post).
Ellsberg said, flatly, “The government, like in Vietnam, is lying us into war. Like Vietnam, it’s a reckless, unnecessary war, where the risks greatly outweigh any possible benefits.” He listed three things the press was getting wrong about Iraq: that Saddam “represents the No. 1 danger to U.S. security in the world,” that “we are reducing the threat of the use of weapons of mass destruction by attacking Iraq,” and “the reasons we are singling out Saddam is that he cannot be contained or deterred, unlike other leaders in the world.” (For all of this and much more, see my book on the media and Iraq, “So Wrong for So Long,” coming next week.)
Jim Moscou, an E&P contributing editor, wrote a brilliant column about war fever, which he had identified after he signed up as one of the first U.S. reporters to undergo “bio/chem hazardous duty” training in England in advance of the invasion. He finished his piece with this haunting graf: “A young reporter for a Denver newspaper said to me that he thought war reporting was ‘the highest calling’ for a journalist. He’s preparing for Iraq. He’s a nice guy, enthusiastic about his job. But the comment gnawed at me. Weeks later, I realized he was dead wrong. The highest calling in journalism is not war reporting. It’s finding the story that would help prevent a war. Along the road to Baghdad, we seem to have lost that idea.”
Two weeks later, I wrote a column based on an interview with Sydney Schanberg, the former New York Times war reporter best known for experience in Vietnam and Cambodia dramatized in the Oscar-winning film, “The Killing Fields.” We chatted about his hopes and fears for the “embed” process. It is reprinted below.
“Em-bed-ded,” said Sydney H. Schanberg, savoring the word’s many ambiguities and connotations. “Embedded means, ‘You’re there.’ It also means, ‘You’re stuck.'” Schanberg is one of the media’s leading authorities on hazardous duty.
A decorated correspondent for The New York Times, his adventures in Vietnam and Cambodia during the 1970s — and the plight of his former aide, Dith Pran — were dramatized in the Oscar-winning 1984 film, “The Killing Fields.” An Army veteran himself, Schanberg, 68, left the Times in 1986 and now writes for The Village Voice in New York.
Last week, after E&P received a copy of the “ground rules” for embedded reporters who will give up certain press freedoms for the chance to travel with U.S. combat troops attacking Iraq, we forwarded a copy to Schanberg. His reaction? He’s impressed by the Pentagon’s promise of media access and long list of what will be “releasable.” It appears to be a “big leap forward” from the military’s shutting off (or jerking around) reporters in the country’s most recent armed conflicts. And, in any case, “anything’s better than covering the war from a briefing room, where you are always the stupidest person in the room.”
But, on closer inspection, doubts grew. “If I were an editor and I received this document,” he said, “I’d be on the phone to the Pentagon for clarification within 10 minutes. I’d be saying, ‘What do you mean by that?'”
This is critical because the embedding concept is clearly aimed at getting “good P.R.” for the military, he added. “It’s hard for any reporter to be aggressively critical of someone you’re bonding with,” Schanberg pointed out. Perhaps that’s why he has “never been embedded” and in Vietnam insisted on being “self-governed.” In fact, he urged editors now to request fewer embedded slots or at least allow their best reporters to roam freely.
“You’d rather not be hampered at all,” he admitted, “but as a journalist, and a realist, I don’t expect to walk into the military’s shop and break all the china. You’re a fool if you believe that. But the military, on the other hand, must recognize you are a professional.” Indeed, he found in Vietnam that only one in a thousand reporters would ever knowingly jeopardize a military operation, and no doubt that remains true today.
Many of the new ground rules Schanberg finds sensible or benign. The rule forbidding journalists from carrying firearms seems like a good one, although a few gonzos did pack pistols in Vietnam, he recalled. “Anything that makes you look like a combatant,” he said, “is bad.” That’s also why he (unlike Chris Hedges) is against reporters speeding off in jeeps. The new rules, in fact, ban breaking away in any vehicle.
Schanberg is also impressed that the rules seem to carry no requirement for submitting copy to authorities — i.e., no opportunity for censorship. That doesn’t mean self-censorship will not arise. And the more he studied the rules, the more he found vague language, restrictions, and situations where copy can be held, if not sanitized. For example, Rule 4F7 says that the date, time, or location of completed missions and actions, as well as results, are “releasable” — but “only if described in general terms.”
He’s also concerned about Rule 4A: “All interviews with service members will be on the record.” Sounds fine, right? The problem is, if soldiers fear their names may be in papers, it “has the possibility of shutting people up,” Schanberg declared. If they say anything negative about an operation or living conditions, their superior “may have their ass.” In Vietnam, he recalled, “most things guys really wanted to tell you were not on the record.” Also, will reporters always have a military escort — or “baby sitter,” as he put it — to listen in as they interview troops or visit local hospitals?
Even what he initially saw as a big plus — not having to submit stories for approval — came to look like a double-edged sword when he considered the strongly worded language about expelling “embeds” who get out of line. “You might be able to file what you want,” he explained, “but you will always have to worry about the penalty if you are on the edge of the rules. That’s certainly designed to make you pull your punches if you have any doubts. They’re saying, ‘Here are the rules: If you don’t follow them, you get thrown out.'”
This made him reflect on a war reporter’s higher calling. “Civil disobedience,” he said, “is needed sometimes, and you just have to accept the possible consequences.” He offered the example of rushing off on your own, against orders, to the scene of a rumored massacre of civilians (a scene, one recalls, from “The Killing Fields”).
“The only way we will know anything for sure,” Schanberg advised, “is when the rules go into practice. That’s the test, and until then we need to say — we’ll believe it when we see it.”