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Embedded journalists

Penny Jamieson


A s this war in Iraq stretches on and out,  as the invading armies reach Baghdad,  and as the tears flow,  I find myself overwhelmed by the tragic failure of so many well-meaning leaders to find a peaceful solution to disarming Iraq.   At this time it is hard to see how the work of building a trustful,  peaceful world can progress,  when so much trust,  so much peace,  has been broken.

In the midst of this tragedy,  I have been fascinated by the increasing number of comments about the emergence of the term  "embedded journalists".   Now journalists have always gone to bed with someone.   Although their allegiances are generally not stated,  they are there,  quietly shaping the presentation of the news.

In this war,  "embedded journalists"  are those who are with the armed forces of the United States,  Britain and Australia.  The aim,  as I understand it,  is that they should tell us exactly how it is out there in the desert.   So there are lots of shots of explosions,  night trekking through green light and trucks and tanks moving swiftly across the desert.

Is this the truth of war or is it the brief entertainment of reality TV?   It is endlessly repetitive,  as is reality TV,  and it is also endlessly trivial.

There are real limitations on these  "embedded journalists".   The process,  while allowing them unprecedented access to the war as it unfolds,  also binds them into tight co-operation with the military.

They are prohibited from releasing information that has not been approved by the commander of their unit,  they cannot give specific geographical information,  or information on troop movements,  tactics,  speeds of vehicles and much else.

More than 600 journalists have been "embedded",  but a number of them have got restless and have asked to be transferred to another unit  -  perhaps they think the better stories are there,  or they have become weary of the war that was supposed to be over by now.   But no transfers are permitted.

Some have also become aware that in operating essentially as commentators,  reporting only on the immediate action,  they are missing the big picture.   Like a rugby commentator who can only see one end of the field,  and cheers enthusiastically when a try is scored but knows nothing about how many times the line is crossed at the other end of the field,  journalists who cannot see the war from a number of perspectives cannot make any useful analytical commentary on what is going on.

Perhaps the intention of planting  "embedded journalists"  was to control the media output from Iraq,  but the plan has failed.   Their presence enables the filming of action that the coalition would rather not be shown,  Iraqis yelling abuse at soldiers,  "friendly fire"  accidents,  prisoners of war and so on.

One really interesting consequence is that some parts of the journalist profession are really struggling against their limitations,  claiming that they compromise professional independence.   Some media outlets,  most notably CNN,  have become cheer-leaders for the winning side,  but in this country news editors appear to have made a real effort to show news from a number sources,  particularly Iraqi sources and from other places in the Arab world.   To some extent this compensates for the strongly located allegiances of the  "embedded journalists".   I have welcomed this critical melange,  although it remains hard to interpret.

But going to bed is as natural for journalists as it is for anyone.   Journalists have always been on one side or the other,  always sought and found a line,  or an angle and run with that.   Did not the New York stock exchange recently expel the Al Jazeera correspondent  -  seemingly because they did not wish to go to bed with the  "enemy".   And there is a new awareness in the United States that financial journalists really pushed the boom of the late 1990s by their obsequious portrayal of top executives and that air of bullish excitement.

We kid ourselves if we think that journalists or any of us are not embedded somewhere.   We all stand somewhere.   Unlike most post-modernists,  I do think that there is such a thing as the big picture,  the universal view.   But for all of us human beings,  there is no such thing as the view from nowhere.

But I think that God is also weeping in Iraq.

The Right Rev Dr Penny Jamieson is the Anglican
Bishop of Dunedin.   This article was published in the
Otago Daily Times of April 8, 2003.



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