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Q&A: The Pentagon Experiment

May 19, 2003  •  Post A Comment

When U.S. and coalition forces marched into Baghdad recently, hundreds of journalists from around the world had a front-row seat for the drama, thanks to the Pentagon’s decision to embed reporters with the troops.
It was all part of a historic realization by the U.S. military that a vital part of the battle would be fought on the public relations front for the hearts and minds of television viewers around the world.
In the following interview, Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke, one of the PR battle’s key architects, discusses why the embed process was so important in Iraq-and why it is likely to serve as precedent for future conflicts involving U.S. forces.
TelevisionWeek: How did the embed process go from the Pentagon’s perspective?
Torie Clarke: Taking a look at the entire war, there’s a major lessons-learned effort under way, and the embedding process will be part of that because it was part of the military operations, from our perspective. So the long-term impact and effects will be judged over the next several weeks and months. But our perspective thus far is that it went well.
TVWeek: What was the most positive thing about it from the military’s perspective?
Ms. Clarke: Two things. First, the American people and public around the world-remember that about 20 percent of the embedded journalists were foreign, 20 percent of close to 700-so people around the country and people around the world got to see the U.S. military in a very real and compelling way. And they saw their dedication and their training. And they saw the compassion with which they prosecuted this war. That was one very important piece of it. The second very important piece of it was that again the world saw the horrors and the atrocities of the Iraqi regime. It’s one thing for me to stand up at the podium and say, for instance, that the Iraqi regime puts soldiers in civilian clothing so they could ambush coalition forces, and a certain number of people would believe it and it’s the truth. It is far more powerful for CNN International and news organizations around the world to demonstrate that exact point to their viewers and their listeners and their readers.
TVWeek: Were there negatives to it?
Ms. Clarke: There were very few. People on the whole on both sides of the fence acted very responsibly, worked through issues at the lower level, which is the right way to do it. And there were very few issues. We had several issues and problems with unembedded journalists in which operations were put at risk, and U.S. and coalition forces put their lives at risk to help out reporters who got into trouble.
TVWeek: Can we talk about that a little bit? Wasn’t there a Newsweek correspondent who had to be …
Ms. Clarke: There was a Newsweek correspondent who was not embedded. He was a unilateral journalist, and he was running around on his own and he was in a bad area, where there was fighting going on. He was warned by the coalition forces, `You really shouldn’t go down that road.’ And he ignored them and went charging down the road and got caught in the middle of a fire fight and had to be rescued by U.S. forces.
TVWeek: Wasn’t there at least one U.S. TV crew that was bailed out a couple of times?
Ms. Clarke: Oh, yes. A CBS crew that got bailed out one day because they had run out of gas, and the next day they had run out of water. But again they were unembedded journalists, and we had repeatedly warned news organizations and asked them to be extremely cautious and smart about where and how they sent their unembedded journalists around. It’s a war zone. Bad things happen, and conditions were very, very difficult.
TVWeek: I know you did an enormous amount of planning on this. Were there any unforeseen problems?
Ms. Clarke: No. In the preparation for this-there was a cast of hundreds that worked on this plan-we had a long list of things that could go wrong. And a week or so ago we went through that list and said, `We pretty much accounted for all those things that could happen.’ There were some pleasant surprises. For instance, technology held up better than everybody expected.
TVWeek: What kind of technology?
Ms. Clarke: We made a huge commitment to get a lot of people over there. We had made clear to everyone on the ground in the military that the intent and the goal was to allow these people as much access as possible and to the extent necessary make sure they could get their product back. One of the lessons learned from the first Gulf War, in ’91, was that there were a lot of restrictions, and people had a hard time transmitting their stories back. So we made it very clear that they are to get their stuff back in minutes and hours, not days and weeks. But at the end of the day, I thought and other people thought that knowing what happens with technology, `Boy, half of the time it probably won’t even hold up.’ So the good intent will be there but the technology won’t hold up. Well, the technology held up phenomenally. I think people at the electronic news organizations would tell you they were surprised by the volume and velocity of stuff coming back. And the amount of live coverage was phenomenal. We thought there would be fraction of live coverage, again for technological reasons, not for any other reasons. But the technology held up.
TVWeek: Did this process go well enough that embeds will be a part of any future conflicts?
Ms. Clarke: They always have been. It’s just been at a lower level and with more restrictions placed on it. So who knows what the next conflict may be like? We always remind people that this war is still going on, as are operations in Afghanistan. So without saying exactly how something would work going forward, I am absolutely confident that the commitment and the dedication to the concept of facilitating as robust media access as possible will remain.
TVWeek: Any lessons the Pentagon learned from this experience?
Ms. Clarke: The long-term lessons-learned process is under way, as I said. It’s very extensive. It involves hundreds of people and it will take a few months. Short-term lessons learned: It worked. There were benefits to a lot of different people, most importantly, the public. And the huge emphasis that was put on preparation and planning before this program started really paid off.
TVWeek: Do you have any estimates on how much the whole media operation cost, or is there a way to compute the man-hours that went into planning?
Ms. Clarke: Not in an official way. Some of that will come out in the lessons-learned project. But I know with great certainty it was literally a few hundred people who worked on it from our side on planning and preparation for this and thousands of man-hours.
TVWeek: Did it accomplish what the Pentagon intended?
Ms. Clarke: Oh, sure. It demonstrated in such a real and compelling fashion the professionalism and the dedication and the compassion of these young men and women who serve and put their lives at risk. That was an important objective. One of the ways to achieve your military objectives is to build and maintain support for the U.S. military. And showing how superbly they performed is part of that. So that was one primary objective. And, two, blunting and neutralizing the lies and deception and disinformation put out by the Iraqi regime was important. And we did that to a large extent.
TVWeek: Al Jazeera. Was its coverage moderated by the fact that it was part of this embed process?
Ms. Clarke: I think some days were better than others with Al Jazeera. But in addition to embedding Al Jazeera with military units we had a full-court press on here and in Qatar to provide them with senior administration officials all the time. It was not unusual for several weeks for us to have two or three senior administration officials on Al Jazeera in a given day. It was a full-court press, and I think we had some impact, and I think we moderated it somewhat.
TVWeek: Some critics suggest that the process had the impact of getting the U.S. broadcast and cable TV networks to compete against each other to see who could be the most supportive of the U.S
. position. Is that a fair assessment?
Ms. Clarke: I just don’t have the perspective to know.
TVWeek: Some newspeople were beefing that Fox News Channel might be getting some special consideration.
Ms. Clarke: No. They got a journalist thrown out. That didn’t happen to everybody.
TVWeek: Well that’s one thing they do mention. They were talking about Geraldo [Rivera]. It seemed as if there was big dance going on. At first, he got kicked out, and then the Pentagon sort of backed off and said it was going to let the Fox network take care of it. And we’re not sure where this ended up. He left, but we’re not sure about the process. What happened there?
Ms. Clarke: All I know is that at the end of the day he was out, and he was out for violating very important ground rules. There could have been arguments coming from all sorts of sides because he wasn’t embedded, so he hadn’t agreed to any of the guidelines and principles, etc. But people on the ground who were aware of what he was doing and what he was reporting thought it could put the operation at risk, so he was gone. How it got from A to Z, I couldn’t tell you, just because I wasn’t involved in the level at which it was done.
TVWeek: Why did you decide to go with the embed process in the first place? Where did it come from?
Ms. Clarke: It really was an evolution, a big evolution, of what we always were doing. We’ve always believed we should put out as much news and information as possible about what the military is doing. And whenever circumstances permit, we do that. In every aspect of Afghanistan where we could have journalists, we did have them.
TVWeek: It certainly seemed to go a lot further.
Ms. Clarke: We had 8,000 people eventually on the ground in Afghanistan. We have over 100,000 in Iraq, close to 300,000 in the region. You had very different conflicts. Different conflicts allow you to do different things. So, 1. it was a very different conflict that permitted more. And 2., as I said, we recognized from a military operational standpoint that we were going up against the mother of all liars, deceivers, deceptors. It’s very true. Their ability to put out lies and disinformation could have a very meaningful impact on the operation. So we knew we needed to counter that and neutralize that.
TVWeek: So part of the war was a public relations war?
Ms. Clarke: Yes, that has somewhat of a negative connotation. But all things information would have a very large role in this war. We knew that going in. That’s why people like Secretary [of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld and [Joint Chiefs of Staffs] Chairman [Richard] Myers and General [Tommy] Franks [commander and chief, U.S. Central Command] integrated public affairs from the very earliest days of war planning, months and months and months before anybody knew whether or not we would go to war, because the president had not made a decision. They integrated public affairs from the earliest stages because they recognized all things information could and would have a huge impact on military operations.
TVWeek: Some journalists credit you for promoting this idea within the Pentagon.
Ms. Clarke: Nothing important can get done without a lot of people doing a lot of hard work, and it’s very true. It starts with the leadership. Secretary Rumsfeld and Chairman Myers and General Franks, who made a conscious decision early on that they would support and back up something like this. Then it is hundreds of people. Then it was the dozens and dozens of public affairs officers and unit commanders out there who took it on. They had the hard work to do. There you are, you’re fighting a war. You’ve got military objectives. You’re trying to keep your people safe, and you’ve got to take care of and help the media do their job. That’s the hard work. It really was hundreds of thousands of people who got this done. I was probably one of the most vocal and energetic advocates of it.
TVWeek: How did you sell it to the rank-and-file unit commanders? Traditionally, the stereotype has been they don’t cotton much to the press.
Ms. Clarke: It’s an old stereotype.It’s much more of a mixed bag now. Maybe it’s a generational thing. But there are more people at the lower and mid levels who recognize the importance and the obligation to provide this kind of access. And then at the highest levels you’ve got enlightened leadership.