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Why The Inside Story Isn't Enough

  • Published
  • By David Ignatius
  • Washington Post
The American news media has made great use in recent years of a practice called embedding, in which journalists travel with the U.S. military to cover wars.

I've taken advantage of this chance to see the military up close. I have traveled to war zones with Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; with Gen. David Petraeus, the Centcom commander; and many others. I've spent weeks at a time visiting U.S. units in the field, hopping C-130s and Blackhawk helicopters and Humvees. As a result, I have seen more of Iraq and Afghanistan than I possibly could have otherwise, and I think my readers have benefited.

But embedding comes at a price. We are observing these wars from just one perspective, not seeing them whole. When you see my byline from Kandahar or Kabul or Basra, you should not think that I am out among ordinary people, asking questions of all sides. I am usually inside an American military bubble. That vantage point has value, but it is hardly a full picture.

I fear that an embedded media is becoming the norm, and not just when it comes to war. The chroniclers of political and cultural debates increasingly move in a caravan with one side or another, as well. This nonmilitary embedding may have a different rationale, but there's a similar effect that comes with traveling under the canopy of a particular candidate, party or community. Journalists gain access to information and talkative sources, but also inherit the distortions and biases that come with being "on the bus" or "on the plane."

The larger troubles of the news business are complicated, but this problem is simple: We can't understand what we don't see; we can't explain a conflict if we hear from only one side.

Embedding arose because American journalists requested it. During the Persian Gulf War, many reporters were stuck covering the action from the rear in Dhahran or Riyadh. A few managed to travel with U.S. units into the battle zone, producing vivid reports, such as Molly Moore's Washington Post dispatches from the forward outpost of the Marine commander. But many of the embedded reports were delayed or clumsily vetted by the military.

After the war, U.S. media outlets pleaded that this sort of access be expanded. And the next time, it was. The Pentagon realized that having journalists witness war from the limited but exhilarating perspective of a Humvee racing toward Baghdad was very much in its interest. So as we prepared to cover the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, my colleagues rushed to make arrangements to be embedded with the commands that would see the most action.

Indeed, I think one reason for the news media's inadequate examination of the rationale for war in late 2002 and 2003 was that we knew President George W. Bush had already made his decision -- the Army was lined up in the desert, after all -- and most editors were focused on figuring out how best to report it.

I covered the war as an unembedded or "unilateral" reporter, entering Iraq two days after the invasion with colleagues in rented SUVs. That experience taught me two things: First, it is too dangerous, in most cases, to cover modern warfare without protection from an army. Second, although my visits were brief, I was able to see things that the embedded journalists could not. I remember visiting villages in southern Iraq after the U.S. Army rolled through and finding local people who were intimidated by the beginnings of the insurgency. (And yes, you could see in that first week that there would be an insurgency, as I tried to indicate in my reports.)

As violence spread throughout Iraq in late 2003 and 2004, and as insurgents employed kidnapping as one of their weapons, it became all but impossible for Westerners to travel freely. To move anywhere outside central Baghdad, it was wise to embed. American reporters typically embedded with U.S. units, spending a week or two with them. Some Arabic-speaking reporters working for the Iraqi or international media were able, in effect, to embed with the insurgents and report what the war looked like from their side. A few brave Westerners did that, too.
This counter-embedding was dangerous, to put to mildly. The most graphic evidence is the horrifying footage of a U.S. helicopter attack in Baghdad in 2007, posted recently by WikiLeaks, which shows the deaths of a Reuters camera crew and about 10 others.

I should also note that my brave colleagues residing in Kabul and Baghdad do not embed on a permanent basis. Living out in the Red Zone, as it were, with normal people, they have earned the right to be called free and independent journalists, at great personal risk. But they also know that to cover the action -- to get to Kandahar, or Marja, where I was a month ago -- they usually have no alternative but to embed.

Foreign correspondents like to believe that they travel with an implicit "white flag" -- a pledge of independence and neutrality that will be respected by everyone. But we don't live in that world. We live in an embedded world, in which journalists are often required to take sides, or to see things from only one side, as a condition of doing their job. In this world, it is hard to blame an Al-Jazeera viewer for thinking that Fox News cares about only one side of a war, or a Fox viewer for feeling the same way about Al-Jazeera. That is a poisonous and dangerous divide.

It is also an unprofessional one. Embedding may be necessary for war reporters, but it isn't for most other journalists. Yet the culture of observing events from "inside" a community is becoming more prevalent. Partly it is a result of technologies and platforms (the Web, social media networks) that have carved mass audiences into particular niches. When the information landscape was dominated by three networks and a few major newspapers, journalists were trained to report for everyone. Now, niche audiences want more intimacy and connection -- even if that means less old-school independence and objectivity.

When you watch a report on Fox News or on MSNBC, you get a sense that the reporters know who the "good guys" are. I felt that acutely as I watched the two networks' coverage of the Massachusetts Senate special election, won by Republican Scott Brown in January. I feel it in the coverage of Wall Street and its congressional critics; one side or the other is implicitly the home team, depending on what you watch or read.
There's a larger narrative, beyond the facts, that is conditioning how a story is covered.

The decline of the old fairness-tethered news organizations -- now derided as the "mainstream media" -- has been accompanied by the rise of more ideological outlets. That's obvious on cable television, where the journalists and viewers of Fox News and MSNBC know who they're rooting for. I saw a CNN ad recently that looked almost forlorn by comparison. "The truth doesn't take sides," the promo insisted. "The facts aren't red or blue." But CNN is getting clobbered in the ratings. It seems that unembedded doesn't sell.

If cable news is ideologically embedded, Web sites such as the Huffington Post and Daily Kos and and the Drudge Report are even more so. There's a similar sense of being inside the clubhouse with Politico and its reporter Mike Allen, who is the town crier for a niche community of Washington insiders.

These sites feel congenial to their audience in part because they rarely challenge readers' ideas and beliefs -- they reinforce them. The message is: You and your values are right, and those who disagree are wrong. In such a situation, the facts can also be up for grabs.

Too often, news consumers don't want to be challenged. They want to be informed, yes, but also bolstered in their views. And here's the part that worries me most (and not just because it threatens my paycheck): Many consumers of news seem to trust the new ideologically embedded media over the traditional independent media. They think The Washington Post has an agenda; they think the mainstream media as a whole are tainted and biased.

I would not pretend that traditional journalists are free of implicit, unexamined biases. In the name of non-ideological reporting, we tend to converge toward the center, forgetting that bipartisanship, in itself, is an ideological statement. Too often, mainstream journalism doesn't see or report what's on the wings, right and left. In the name of open debate, we sometimes have the effect of narrowing it. My own implicit bias for the center is sometimes painfully obvious in my columns. It skews my judgment.

The traditional media is adapting, for better or worse, adding blogs and other features that give readers an intimate feeling of being inside a particular network. One of The Post's fresh young voices, blogger Ezra Klein, clearly has a point of view on the policy debates he covers. If he made a fetish of neutrality, he would be less interesting. But I wouldn't want a news diet of all Ezra Kleins, all the time.

My worries about embedding are one reason I balk at proposals for public funding of important media institutions. Columbia University President Lee Bollinger argues for more government grants, like the subsidies offered to PBS and Britain's BBC. And in a study for the Columbia School of Journalism, former Post editor Leonard Downie and Michael Schudson recommend a mix of private donations, foundation support and a national Fund for Local News, with fees collected by the Federal Communications Commission.

I understand the rationale, but I worry that direct government support would undermine our claims of independence and integrity.

We need to restore the white flag; we need to reassure people everywhere that we have checked our baggage -- national, ideological, cultural, political and religious -- at the door when we become journalists.

The path back to unembedded journalism won't be easy, especially for war correspondents. It's one thing to want to interview both Taliban leader Mohammad Omar and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and quite another to actually get to talk to them. But we should operate under the assumption that we won't always be at war, and try to restore the normal order.

The niche communities and social networks won't go away. There will be continuing demand for their version of embedded reporting. But we journalists have to remind ourselves that in this new world, we are still in the business of upsetting people, including those we know and like best. The conservative columnist who tells off Rush Limbaugh is a kindred spirit with the liberal who blasts Keith Olbermann. Our late Post publisher Katharine Graham once chided some of us, "Just because you are getting attacked from both the left and right doesn't mean you're doing a good job." She was right, but it's still a useful index.

We all need to break away from the caravan and the special access it allows -- even that venerable caravan in the center of the highway -- and try to get the story right.

David Ignatius is a columnist and associate editor of The Washington Post.