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What Price War Access?

Mar 24, 2003  •  Post A Comment

In all the hubbub over the “embed program”-a k a the military’s charm offensive toward journalists-I haven’t seen much discussion of what seems to me to be the core journalistic dilemma it raises.
Namely, by allowing reporters to ride along with troops, isn’t the military using the media to help it win the war in Iraq? Everywhere you looked late last week, there were gung-ho reporters filing breathless accounts over their videophones from the front lines. And they sent pictures, too. Boom! Feast your eyes on American fighting prowess!
Can you imagine the effect this kind of reporting would have on any Iraqi soldier nervously scanning his satellite TV dish? Could Pentagon officials have envisioned this scenario when they invited journalists to ride along with troops? Gee, you think?
In fact, we know this was part of the military’s agenda, because it’s stated right in the embed guidelines: “Media coverage of any future operation will, to a large extent, shape public perception of the national security environment now and in the years ahead.” And not just the perception of the U.S. public, the document notes, but that of “the public in allied countries … and publics in countries where we conduct operations, whose perceptions of us can affect the cost-and duration-of our involvement.” (My emphasis.)
I’m all for keeping the cost and duration of any war as low as possible. But I question why the press has to be such a passive participant in Donald Rumsfeld’s plans. The secretary of defense-a master at controlling the message-correctly guessed that the embeds would have a negative psychological effect on the enemy by subjecting him to a barrage of messages and images that make American victory appear all but inevitable.
This vision was actually outlined nearly six years ago by military spinmeisters in an Army press briefing. In the transcript that I found on the Web, a general tells reporters, “In many ways, you guys were our friends in the Gulf War … I debriefed the Iraqi senior officers, and they said … `We watched CNN in Basra.’ And the process of psychological collapse began when they saw this instrument … start this inexorable process across half a globe to collapse a military force in their front yard, in their laps. … We think the same thing applies in the future.”
He’s right. The new technology has allowed American networks to bring the war to viewers in record time. No doubt the world will be riveted to these images-including the Iraqis. And perhaps the media will take credit someday for helping to end the war in record time as well.
My only question: Do journalists like being thought of as “instruments”?