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ON POINT II: Transition to the New Campaign

The United States Army in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM May 2003-January 2005

Part II

Transition to a New Campaign

Chapter 7
Fighting the Battle of Ideas in Iraq


The Challenges of Embedded Reporting in the New Campaign

As noted earlier, at the height of major combat operations during OIF nearly 700 journalists were embedded with the military in Iraq. After the fall of Baghdad, that number quickly dropped, and by December 2004, only 35 journalists were reporting as embeds.100 There were many reasons for this steep decline in the numbers of embedded reporters. The dramatic fall of Baghdad on 9 April 2003 signaled a shift in the intensity of events to be reported. In some cases, financial concerns of media organizations led to the decision to pull out journalists, especially those from smaller news outlets. Other news organizations believed the story changed to the rebuilding of Iraq and to Iraqi politics after Saddam. The best way to get these stories was to talk with Iraqis themselves, something better accomplished by unattached reporters.101 The number of embedded reporters after May 2003 tended to wax and wane in concert with major military or political events in Iraq. The fighting around Fallujah and other locations in the fall of 2004 created a surge in embedded reporters; their numbers fell again to roughly 35 by the end of the year. Then the number rose again in advance of the Iraqi elections, with 164 reporters embedded with US and Coalition units on 30 January 2005, the day before the elections.102

As terrorists and insurgents began to target civilians in Iraq, some media outlets judged reporting in the country as too dangerous. After the fall of Baghdad in May 2003, reporters were able to walk the streets, visit shops and restaurants, and talk directly to Iraqis.103 Captain Joseph Ludvigson of the 139th Mobile PA Detachment (MPAD) noted that between late April and June 2003, Western media could rent cars with Iraqi drivers and “drive around on their own to see stuff. . . . By about early summer, that stopped. Nobody was moving anywhere unless they were moving with [the military].”104 Most journalists agreed that by August 2003 the security situation for reporters in Iraq had changed significantly. Kidnappings began, reporters started altering their identities, and some of the larger news agencies hired security teams and armored cars.105

The kidnappings and deaths forced journalists in Iraq to work differently. Reporters lived outside the Green Zone in a few heavily armed compounds. To get the news outside their compound, they were forced to plan trips protected by armed escorts.106 Ludvigson noted, “Other than embedding with us, it was very hard to get their own people out on the ground, so they were very limited.”107 Many reporters chose to “work the phones” from their hotels, calling hospitals, morgues, and police stations to get stories.108 This was far from a perfect solution, so many news outlets started to rely on Iraqi “stringers”—part-time or freelance correspondents who traveled across Iraq to gather information and help report on the story.109

More effort and nuance was required in the reporting of full spectrum operations in Iraq than was needed for the more straightforward nature of conventional operations in March and April 2003. The slow progress toward economic and political goals during most of 2003 and 2004 did not lend itself to quick sound bites and video clips. According to Colonel Daniel Allyn, commander of the 3d BCT, 3d ID, “The slant toward sensationalism also made it very hard to get them [reporters] out there to cover the more routine activities . . . stabilization operations are a steady, often not glamorous, ongoing activity.”110 Although the media offered many good news stories about reconstruction and successful security operations, the bad news stories captured the public’s attention and were often picked up by the primetime news.111

In defense of the practice, Nic Robertson of CNN argued that while there was a lot of what could be called “bad” news coming out of Iraq, this was what he labeled “the dominant information. It’s the prevailing information.”112 Amy Schlesing explained:

I wrote countless stories about what civil affairs was doing with the schools, how they were picking contractors, that they were using Iraqi contractors to rebuild the economy, and the state of the electricity and what they were doing to increase electricity in the city, which involved all the contractors at the electric plants . . . [these stories] would still get front page play, but they wouldn’t get as high a play as an explosive day. This is just my opinion, but I think those stories about rebuilding are considered more feature stories and actions stories always get better play. Now, is that the right thing to do? Not necessarily, but I think that is the reality that we are in right now. If Soldiers are hurt or injured or Iraqis are killed, human life trumps anything.113

Part of the problem with the types of stories covered after the toppling of the Saddam regime stemmed from the decreasing number of journalist in Iraq who were increasingly confined to secure locations such as the International or Green Zone in Baghdad. By the end of 2004 most routine reporting of OIF came from journalists near the Green Zone relying on official Coalition news sources and Iraqi stringers. Very few journalists dared to venture unescorted into the most dangerous parts of Iraq occupied by US and Iraqi troops; some who did paid with their lives. Army commanders and PA officers lamented coverage that seemed to focus too much on US and Iraqi casualties or on slow progress and setbacks in building a new Iraq. They rightly pointed to the many positive steps being taken by US Soldiers in Iraq that would be better covered if only more reporters would embed themselves for more than a few hours “outside the wire.” Neither side was fully satisfied with the reporting of military operations during the Coalition’s new campaign, suggesting that as in the past, new approaches will be tried in the future.†

†The debate over whether media coverage of the war in Iraq is biased in favor of bad news has escalated sharply over time. It is closely tied to US domestic politics and is beyond the scope of this book.

Chapter 7. Fighting the Battle of Ideas in Iraq

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