by Pia K. Hansen
When the American invasion of Iraq was two days old, I was watching ABC news with my 10-year-old son. Being the child of a hopeless news addict with an admitted European bias can't be easy. The kid has grown up listening to my endless explanations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, World Trade Organization protests and the United State's role in Middle Eastern politics.
On the screen that night was Peter Jennings communicating with Ted Koppel via videophone, producing some of the first grainy desert shots we had seen. Shelling could be heard in the background.
That's when my son looked at me with huge and very serious eyes and said: "Mom, if you could go down there and be a reporter, would you go?"
"Yeah," I said, "I would go in a heartbeat."
"You would?" he asked in disbelief. "But Mom, you could die. And you would still go?"
I have never covered war, and I probably never will, so it's easy for me to say. But I mean it. It's hard to explain to people who don't share my profession, but I would go in a heartbeat, and hope to live to tell the story. I'm a journalist -- telling the story is what I do.
Though I didn't know him personally and by no means seek to compare my own journalistic career with his, I'm sure Daniel Pearl of The Wall Street Journal felt the same urge to go, when he headed into Pakistan retracing the path of the so-called "Shoe Bomber," Richard Reid in Karachi, in the early part of 2002. Pearl ended up making the ultimate sacrifice when he was captured and later killed by terrorists.
Last week, Washington State University posthumously awarded him the 2003 Edward R. Murrow Award for Distinguished Achievement in Journalism. What could be more fitting? Pearl received an award named after one of the first reporters to make a name for himself during wartime. Murrow covered World War II out of London via radio, during the brutal Battle of Britain.
Yet the world has changed since World War II, and this war has been covered in ways that war has never been covered before. That was what the six-member panel of Pulitzer Prize winners, professors and media critics talked about on April 16 in Pullman at WSU's 29th Edward R. Murrow Symposium.
"It's been an extraordinary last month," Peter Bhatia, executive editor of The Oregonian, told the gathering of about 300.
" 'Embedded' has become a word we all use -- it's talked about in newsrooms every day. I grew up here, and back when I was a kid, 'embedded' meant that you threw something into the mud, it became embedded and later it grew into something -- this is a different type of embedded we are talking about."
It sounds a lot like "in bed with" doesn't it? And for a journalist, that is exactly what you are never to become: you are never to be in bed with your sources. Editors and professors have drilled into our heads that we should always keep a professional distance, because our credibility -- the one thing that's more important to journalists than anything else -- depends on our ability to keep an appropriate distance from our sources.
Is it possible to keep that distance when you travel with troops who not only protect and feed you, but with whom you also endure severe bombardments and, in some cases, watch die? Bhatia thinks so.
"I just spent some time with one of our reporters who came back from Iraq, and I have no reason to question his credibility -- it didn't suffer," he said. "I have, of course, also read all the reports he filed in the time he was over there. But more than that, I know he told the story as he saw it."
Too Close for Comfort? -- One of Pearl's Wall Street Journal colleagues and friends, Bryan Gruley, said the embeddedness of the war correspondents in Iraq has enabled media, both in print and broadcast, to take media consumers to where they couldn't otherwise go. That is the ultimate goal of great journalism: to tell the truth, to show people the story they can't otherwise access. That's the strength of being embedded.
"But there are weaknesses, too," said Gruley. "War coverage has turned into sports writing -- and I mean no offense to the sportswriters here tonight. But it's turned into rah-rah and God bless the soldiers." The media is covering the war play by play, attack by attack, bomb by bomb, yet without much context other than a map showing troop movements.
And the reporters who are embedded have turned into the sources for their own networks. Journalists interviewing other journalists might just make Murrow rotate in his grave.
"We, the journalists, have been seduced by the desire to become the story," said Gruley, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on September 11. "The news anchor says, 'And now to Basra, and here is so-and-so and he is doing a good job.' I don't want to hear that -- journalists are supposed to be invisible."
This type of interviewing wasn't created during the War on Iraq, as this invasion has been labeled. It has been going on for quite some time locally, nationally and internationally. Somehow the reporter has turned into the expert, right before the eyes of the news consumer, and few viewers have as much as blinked.
The truth is what journalists seek, and in order to find it we must talk to the people who were involved in the action -- the Marines, the soldiers in the desert -- not to the people who watched from the sidelines.
Yet to even attempt to get the story during this war, journalists had to strike a deal: embedded reporters were asked to sign contracts guaranteeing they would keep certain things -- such as troop locations -- to themselves.
"We did have to make a deal, we signed the contract. But did that violate our credibility? Have we really sold our soul?" asked Bhatia. "Is it any different from what reporters do inside the Beltway every day?"
Gruley answered that question: "There would have been no Watergate if Woodward didn't cut deals. We are not 24 hours on the record."
But the military also took the risk that a reporter would be there, in the middle of the action even if something went wrong.
"Embedding was a risk that bad behavior on our part could be caught on camera," said Peter J. Kovach, director of the Office of Public Diplomacy, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, in Washington D.C. "It is a huge risk, but I thought we got a nice balance of coverage between the embedded reporters and the unilateral reporters in Baghdad who were not embedded."
Maybe there wasn't Pentagon-imposed censorship this time around, but surely there was self-censorship. No matter which beat you cover, one thing is for certain: All journalists know more than they put in the paper. Why? Because they don't want to burn their sources.
"Embedding is unique, but not altogether different from what journalists do every day. If you ride on the boat with the whale watchers you are more likely to sympathize with them when they make their case," said Dale Leach, the Associated Press' bureau chief in Seattle. "But as journalists, we learn to distance ourselves from our sources regardless of how much we think we depend on them. To burn a source or not burn a source is a very fine line."
The Rest of the Story -- Much of the discussion Wednesday night centered on whether American media today is doing a good job. How much of the reporting we see and read every day is done for the story itself, and not to keep viewers happy, or to satisfy sales people trying to stroke clients, or for editors and producers grasping after another spot with a local angle?
Bhatia said The Oregonian, which has won three Pulitzer Prizes since he took over, received 70 calls for cancellations the day the paper ran a photo of an Iraqi man with a cart full of coffins for his family.
"For us, that is an unusually high number," he said. "With this war, there was almost an expectation on behalf of the public that the media should support the war effort -- I've never experienced that before."
Does that mean that our readers don't want to know the whole story? Obviously, weeks of bombing must lead to some civilian casualties, so that's part of the story as well, even if it's not as cheerful as watching POWs return home safely.
"What we think we saw on TV may not be what happened," said Danny Schechter, a media critic and executive editor of the MediaChannel.org. "The second war is the media war, the war for positioning for power and presence. What we are seeing today is the near-completion of a transformation of journalism that began many years ago: the corporatization of journalism. Many media companies don't have journalism as their first priority. They have the bottom-line as their first priority."
Schechter challenged reporters to do more coverage of the coverage. "You have to investigate on your own. People in other countries get information that we don't get. People here feel propagandized by our own media system," he said. "The journalist's willingness to stand up to power is not popular today. Investigative reporting in Murrow's style is not popular anymore."
Schechter added that the Pentagon couldn't have hired actors to cover this war from their perspective better than the cable news reporters did.
"Why wasn't there an embedded reporter with an Iraqi family?" Schechter asked. "This war has been covered differently in other countries. The government has the message of the day: perception management. What's being covered is what the United States is doing to the world -- the rest is not being covered.
"Why can't people find Iraq on a map? Why do people think all the terrorists on 9/11 were Iraqi when in fact none of them were?" asked Schechter. "Is that our fault? The media's fault? Are we not taught it in school? I don't know that answer, but you should all seek out your own sources -- take some responsibility, too."
There was one thing the panel members all agreed on: The American media had better stay on the story about how no chemical weapons or weapons of mass destruction of any significance had been found.
As we go to press, European newspapers are quoting Hans Blix, the United Nations weapons inspector, saying that some of the documents on which the United States and Britain based their decision to invade Iraq, were fake. Obviously, the war is almost over -- but the story is not.
"Daniel Pearl didn't take anything for face value; he would tell us that we must pursue the chemical weapons story," said Susan Ross, associate professor in the Edward R. Murrow School of Communication at WSU. "Yet as long as reporters are looking out of the government window, we will miss part of the story."
Pia K. Hansen is the associate editor of The Inlander and president of the Inland Northwest Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Publication date: 04/24/03