CBSN

Thumbs Up For 'Embeds'

CBS News Correspondent John Roberts
CBS
The sand, the food, the physical exhaustion - NBC's Chip Reid is glad to put those behind him. But as a journalist, being embedded with a military unit during the war in Iraq exceeded his expectations.

"We had total freedom to cover virtually everything we wanted to cover," he said.

With the assignments ended for Reid and many others, the assessments of the Pentagon's embedding experiment have begun. So far, it's drawing overwhelmingly positive reviews, although some journalists cautioned it wasn't truly tested with much bad news.

"It's been an extraordinary experience for all of us," said CBS News President Andrew Heyward. "This really has been, not just a quantitative change, but a qualitative change in war journalism."

Stories from embedded reporters were often the centerpiece of television coverage, bringing the sights and sounds of war home with immediacy. In newspapers, there were many rich, detailed accounts that often worked best as sidebars to the main coverage.

From the military's point of view, embedding more than 600 journalists helped counter disinformation and burnish its image.

"The side benefit, it seems to me, is there's now a new generation of journalists who have had a chance to see first-hand what kind of people volunteer to put their lives at risk," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday. "And that's a good thing."

It meant one thing for the Pentagon to deny an Iraqi spokesman's claim that coalition forces weren't in Baghdad; quite another when Fox News Channel aired that spokesman on a split screen with reporter Greg Kelly riding a tank on a city street, said Bryan Whitman, deputy assistant defense secretary for media operations.

Journalists also said embedding began to turn around a hostile relationship between the military and media that had been building since Vietnam. There was a demystification on both sides, said CBS News embed Mark Strassman.

From the low point of reporters being penned in a windowless building in Kandahar, Afghanistan, so they couldn't see injured U.S. forces in the war on terrorism, the level of access permitted during the embedding process was a sea change, said Phil Bennett, an assistant managing editor for foreign news at The Washington Post.

"It was like expecting to be taken to McDonald's and going to the greatest smorgasbord in the world," said CNN's Walter Rodgers. "You could have anything you could ask for."

When officers he encountered heard from folks back home who appreciated knowing what they were doing, they went from tolerating embeds to appreciating them, said Don Dahler, an ABC News correspondent.

For the most part, the journalists say they were allowed to do their jobs. There were some cases where the military asked for special cooperation: an officer asked Strassman to briefly stop filming in incident in Najaf because he believed it would incite a mob already agitated by a misunderstanding.

In a unit where three Marines died, Reid said he was asked to hold back reporting casualties - not just names, but the news that someone was hurt at all - because families were watching. He negotiated a brief blackout so relatives could be notified.

The military didn't want families learning about injuries from TV. Some reporters could relate; when CBS' Byron Pitts filed reports, his wife, Lyne - executive producer of "The Early Show" - left the CBS control room to sit in her office. She couldn't bear to watch.

At the Post, Bennett said he wondered if there would be repercussions to Bill Branigin's gripping account of a checkpoint incident where a van filled with Iraqi citizens were killed - a story that contradicted the official Pentagon version.

Quite the opposite, he found.

"There was a real interest among people in the field," he said. "They wanted the story told the way it was happening. They didn't want reporters to sugarcoat it or cover it up."

In general, television reports tended to focus on the embeds and print reports focused on the story. A preliminary study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that 80 percent of the TV stories by embeds featured the reporters alone, not necessarily interviewing soldiers or others.

ABC's Dahler said he wanted to focus more on soldiers, but the pace of news overwhelmed him.

No such worry for Chris Tomlinson of The Associated Press.

"I never wanted to do the big story," said Tomlinson, an Army veteran. "I never expected to be on the front page. I wanted to do a daily diary of the life of the infantrymen."

Nonetheless, many embed reports - such as Tomlinson's eyewitness account of the rescue of an old woman from a bridge over the Euphrates River - did make front pages, because they helped bring the war to life for readers.

Tomlinson said he felt he was at an advantage over the television reporters. Soldiers spoke more freely because they didn't feel as if they were being watched by a camera, he said.

NBC's Reid noticed the impact of television cameras when he witnessed an argument between two Marines on edge after some Iraqi civilians turned out to be decoys. One argued in favor of shooting any Iraqi he saw on the battlefield; the other urged more caution.

"I thought at the time they were partly performing for us," he said. "I don't know how different the conversation would have been if we hadn't been there, but I suspect it would have been different."

Some reporters questioned whether cooperation between the media and military would have continued if the war had gone badly. Rumsfeld grumbled about armchair generals on television and repeated pictures of looting in Baghdad, but neither had anything to do with embeds.

"If there had been a whole bunch of snafus, I do think that it might have gotten frayed around the edges," CNN's Rodgers said, "or if they were fighting a first-class army instead of a fifth-class army."

Two publicized cases of reporters being asked to leave Iraq for breaking military rules - Fox News Channel's Geraldo Rivera and Philip Smucker of the Christian Science Monitor - didn't involve embeds.

A small number of embeds were quietly asked to leave, Whitman said. In only one of those cases did he believe there was an intention to violate rules. None of those cases were publicized, and Whitman refused to give details. "I don't want to get in the business of embarrassing news organizations," he said.

With the reporters quite literally depending on the military for their lives, there was the real possibility it could cost them their objectivity. The reporters acknowledged bonding with soldiers in their units but believed they could still report honestly on them.

Marvin Kalb of the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press and Politics at Harvard University didn't see any loss of objectivity.

"I think it's an exaggeration to think these guys were incapable of critical faculties," he said.

By David Bauder