October 26, 2006

The Vanishing Embedded Reporter in Iraq

Earlier this week, a controversy over some CNN reporting from Iraq focused attention on a once-common term that is rarely heard these days – the embedded journalist.

The issue resurfaced on October 18 after CNN ran footage showing insurgent snipers attacking U.S. soldiers. The network drew fire from several congressmen who characterized the video as enemy propaganda and asked the Pentagon to ban CNN journalists from embedding with US forces in Iraq.

David Doss, an executive producer at CNN, wrote in a blog that the network understood that the “this kind of footage is upsetting and disturbing for many viewers,” but said its goal was to “present the unvarnished truth as best as we can.”

If the Pentagon had pulled CNN’s embeds, what would that have meant? A CNN spokesperson told PEJ that overall, the cable network has about two dozen journalists in Iraq, but only one is currently embedded – correspondent John Roberts. That’s emblematic of what’s happened in the past three years in that embattled country as embedded reporters have become an endangered species, their ranks dropping from many hundreds to around two dozen.

When the Iraq war started, the Pentagon decision to allow journalists to live, travel and report alongside the military—in stark contrast to the 1991 Gulf War and the conflict in Afghanistan when they were often confined to briefing rooms—had a major impact on coverage. Some media observers worried that the close proximity to the troops could taint the journalists’ objectivity and expressed concerns about on-the-scene censorship. But many news organizations, frustrated about the lack of access in previous conflicts, eagerly embraced the idea of such a close-up view of a war zone.A PEJ study found that the program did indeed give the public more access to the battlefield, but questioned how well the media made use of it.

There is some disagreement about the number of embedded reporters in the war’s earliest stages, but they counted in the hundreds. When the U.S. invasion of Iraq began in March 2003, there were anywhere between 570 and 750 embedded journalists, depending on the source. (The lower figure comes from Sig Christenson. a senior military writer for the San Antonio-Express News and president of Military Reporters & Editors. The higher estimate is from the Pentagon).

Those numbers began to fall precipitously once Saddam Hussein’s government was overcome by coalition forces in April 2003. By late fall of that year, the total number had dropped to roughly 100, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told PEJ.

And the downward trend has only accelerated since. In 2005, there were 48 embedded reporters in Iraq. The latest tally from the Pentagon is that just 26 embeds remain on the ground and Christenson told PEJ he believes the current number could be as low as nine.

A primary reason for the decline in embeds appears to be the decision taken by many media outlets to reduce their staffing presence in Iraq – a move driven in part by financial considerations. “It was very costly and the decision [to reduce embeds] was a resource-driven decision to a large degree,” says the Pentagon’s Whitman.

But there are other factors at play. Whitman says that few media organizations could have predicted the intensity and duration of the insurgency, particularly after the Hussein regime fell.

Christenson adds that many other reporters had moved to hotels in Baghdad to cover what was expected to be a political and less bloody rebuilding phase. Being cut loose rather than staying embedded with troops also gave reporters more freedom of movement. But after the insurgency started to heat up, reporting became more dangerous, with the fear of violence and kidnapping preventing many journalists from moving about the country. According to the organization, the Committee to Protect Journalists, 71 journalists have been killed in the line of duty in Iraq since 2004. (The total number since the outset of the conflict is 85.)

For all the problems and obstacles, Christenson says that those few journalists who remain embedded in Iraq bring a perspective and context to the conflict that is important to convey to the audience back home.

“Everything you live as a military writer, you bring back to your work,” he says.