Embedded Propaganda

This was a brilliant idea – to attach civilian reporters to frontline combat units. It’s not that something like this hasn’t been tried before, but for the first time war journalists became de facto spokesmen for the military. The flow of information was still under the complete control of the military: video footage and commentaries were reviewed and edited before broadcast in accordance with whatever the military demanded. The concept of embedded journalists killed two birds with one stone: the news networks raised their ratings by showing “live” frontline footage and the military acquired an effective propaganda tool.

Previously this role was performed by the military reporters and it was called wartime propaganda. Now the same job is being carried out by civilian journalists representing world’s leading news networks and it is being regarded as open and unbiased coverage. And in both cases the viewer sees the same thing – whatever the military wants him to see. Moreover, under such circumstances a journalist’s safety and, indeed, his life depend on the troops around him. He goes wherever they go; he deals with the same dangers they deal with. In a very short time the journalist begins to identify himself with the soldiers around him. He is no longer an objective and rational reporter but a soldier with a camera and a microphone. This remarkable scheme is likely to stick around and we will see more examples of ‘embedded propaganda’ in the future wars.

Another aspect of media war coverage is the qualification of these war reporters traveling with the troops. With no exceptions reporters of all major television news networks consistently mixed up names and types of combat units, types and models of weapons as well as numerous other military terms. These reporters have consistently misinterpreted the situation, made elementary technical mistakes in analyzing even that limited volume of information made available to them by the military. Divisions were called “brigades”, infantry fighting vehicles were called tanks, utility trucks were called SAM launchers and every long and slim object of cylindrical shape was called a “Scud”. The “war reporters” mixed up transport and attack helicopters, called captains “majors” and produced some of the most entertaining explanations of how GPS guidance works in bombs and missiles.

There is no question that with the available resources networks like the CNN or FOX can find qualified reporters to cover frontline action with the required level of professionalism. But the networks did not bother with the details: after all, how many people know that “Bradley” is not a tank and that “Apaches” are not medevac helicopters? The newscasts were directed at the average Joe who gives this information no second thought and asks no questions. The overall performance of the major news networks during the war was and remains abysmal. It is biased, technically inaccurate and highly speculative – in other words it is unprofessional. Without understanding of military technology, terminology and basic tactics the best an ‘embedded’ journalist can do is to repeat word for word whatever he is told by the military minus everything he is not allowed to broadcast. If the journalist is told that the unit is near Basra and ahead of them are two hundred Iraqi tanks (somewhere in the darkness) than that’s what the journalist will report to the editors in New York.

A characteristic example: around March 27 the BBC showed footage of night combat near the ‘captured’ Umm Quasar. The reporter said that the footage was of British marine infantry cutting into the Iraqi defenses. It was dark and soldiers were firing into the darkness… from their own trenches with defensive machine gun emplacements. The reported “thrust” into the Iraqi defense lines was not accompanied by any actual forward movement, as one might expect, and no fire was being returned by the Iraqi side. But this was an impressive light show nevertheless.

Another example: around mid-April, FOX was showing “frontline combat” footage from somewhere around Baghdad. Countryside setting, a small group of US soldiers is firing from the bushes. The commander yells “Fire!” A short burst of fire follows from about a dozen M-16s. The commander yells “Fire” again and another short burst of fire can be heard. This continues for a few minutes. Meanwhile the soldiers don’t change positions; they don’t show any signs of excitement and in fact look rather bored. Their target – an empty Toyota pickup truck on the other side of a small meadow. The truck has a ZU-23 anti-aircraft gun in the back. Whoever was driving the truck is long gone. This was very special footage and I even recorded it: one could actually see what the troops are firing at. Before it was just night, sand or bad weather. At least this was a Toyota – I always wanted to see one of those suckers turned into Swiss cheese. Forgive my rambling…