Looking Ahead: Military in the Cross-Hairs
This column, as best I can tell was originally published on October 24, 2003. Also, as best I can tell, it was published in only a few places and exclusively on TNG and CWA websites. (I got it from the TNG's The Guild Reporter, here.) And she received an award for it.
Looking Ahead: Reporters in the Cross-Hairs
By Linda Foley, President, TNG-CWA, ILCA Member
Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.-George W. Bush, Sept. 20, 2001, in a speech to a special joint session of Congress.
That rejoinder, delivered in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, drew sustained applause. Millions of Americans engulfed in a swirl of grief and fear that riveted them to their television sets nodded in solidarity from their living rooms. At that moment, most could comfortably relate to a post-9/11 world with two types of people: the terrorists and the rest of us.
Two years and two wars later, it doesn't seem so simple. A world that appeared so stark and crystallized back then now seems a lot greyer and fuzzier. The line between "us" and "the terrorists" likewise has been blurred, depending upon who's defining "us"-and who's defined as "terrorists."
For Bush & Co., however, the paradigm hasn't changed much. Since Sept. 11, this administration is wont to apply the notion of "us vs. them" to every aspect of policy, at home and abroad. Today, the speech's line has morphed into: "Either you agree with us or you are with the terrorists."
Their application of this litmus test ranges from labeling Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and former Democratic Senator Max Cleland (a decorated Vietnam veteran who lost three limbs in that war) as unpatriotic for daring to oppose Bush's policies; to the U.S. attorney general's accusing Iraq War critics of assisting "America's enemies." Even the Dixie Chicks were branded traitors to their country because they expressed chagrin over the actions of a certain fellow Texan.
Because the White House requires everyone to choose sides, bipartisan consensus has become impossible and the public discourse necessary to reach valid public policies is stifled. That puts journalists-whose job is to tell the truth and not champion either a political point of view or promote a particular policy initiative-right smack in the crosshairs of the Bush administration's war on those who don't support it.
The latest volley at the press has come from Bush himself, who has threatened to ignore the "national" media completely by delivering the "good news(!)" of what has become the Iraq morass straight to the regional press corps. Maybe that way Americans will be lulled into ignoring the violence and death facing U.S. soldiers since he prematurely declared the fighting over. (A pretty big insult to the thousands of hard-working journalists of the "regional press" who, like their "national" counterparts, want to report the truth, don't you think?)
More insidious (and more frightening), however, is the way "us vs. them" played out in the press's involvement in the Iraq War itself. There, it was "embedded" vs. "unilateral" journalists. And from what I gleaned from the remarks of Pentagon representatives at a recent conference of Military Reporters and Editors (MREs), there was no question which group the U.S. military considered "us" and which they considered "them." Even the term "unilateral journalist" (chosen by the Pentagon) conjures up a whiff of reportorial imbalance.
At the Oct. 2-4 conference of MREs (the double entendre of the organization's anagram was not lost on its members), many in attendance, including some journalists themselves as well as the military flacks, had high praise for the accessibility brought on by the policy of embedding journalists among troops on the battlefield.
However, none of the journalists was entirely convinced that embedded reporters got or could get a completely accurate picture of the war. The Pentagon folks, on the other hand, were downright gleeful about how well the program worked from their vantage point.
As vice president of the International Federation of Journalists, I participated in a Saturday panel discussion, along with Frank Smyth of the Committee to Protect Journalists and representatives from Reuters and Great Britain's Independent Television News (ITN), both of whom lost journalists to so-called "friendly fire" incidents in Iraq. Pentagon spokesperson Bryan Whitman also joined us. The panel was moderated by Emmy-award winning journalist Arthur Kent, who covered the first Gulf War for NBC.
Members of an ITN crew were killed early in the war when they were attacked first by Iraqis and then mistakenly by coalition forces. A Reuters cameraman was killed when U.S. forces fired on the Palestine Hotel during the assault on Baghdad, and award-winning Reuters reporter Mazen Dana was killed by a U.S. tank while filming outside a prison after major hostilities had ended.
In all, seven media workers have been killed by coalition forces during the latest Iraq conflict. All were considered "unilateral" and were not embedded with coalition forces. "We did not lose one embedded journalist to hostility-related actions," crowed one military spokesman at the conference.
Meanwhile, following its own internal investigations of the Palestine Hotel and Mazen Dana killings, the Pentagon concluded that the rules of engagement were followed in both situations. The major portions of reports on both incidents remain classified and have not been released. Neither, by the way, have the bodies of two missing ITN crew members whose deaths have been confirmed by non-military sources.
For his part, the Pentagon's Whitman, while expressing sympathy for families and co-workers of the slain journalists, was unapologetic for the questionable incidents themselves. "We simply cannot be responsible for the safety of non-embedded journalists," he said. But later in the discussion he sounded a more ominous tone. "I don't know what will happen in future wars," he said. "But it may very well be that news organizations will find it too costly to use non-embedded journalists to cover wars in the future."
Given the price some news organizations have already paid, notably Reuters and ITN, that sounded pretty threatening. It's reminiscent of: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."
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