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Thursday, April 3, 2003 02:20 pm

Strange embedded fellows

Propaganda comes from all sides

Welcome to what NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw calls "the greatest televised event of the history of humankind." The Iraq war has become a place where journalists and politics make strange embedded fellows.

When networks go wall-to-wall with any story, they move fast to brand their coverage. It gets a catchy name, dramatic music, and flashy graphics. Promotion departments stake their jobs on enough of us developing brand loyalty.

The Arab news service Al Jezeera was recently accused of producing propaganda by showing photos of dead U.S. soldiers. One of its chiefs responded that it's all propaganda for somebody--and she's right. Propaganda trafficks in the truth as well as in lies. It depends on who's doing the pushing. Even the network brand names tell us something. CNN went with "War in Iraq," while Fox News borrowed the official government line "Operation Iraqi Freedom." A different flavor came from the Canadian Broadcasting Company, which apparently thought its tagline should covey who did what to whom: "Attack on Iraq."

American media biases were exposed by this week's firing of veteran war reporter Peter Arnett. NBC canned Arnett for saying on state-controlled Iraqi TV that U.S. and British forces were amending war plans because of Iraqi resistance. The network claimed, "It was wrong for him to discuss his personal observations and opinions." In fact, that's exactly what NBC hired him to do. If Arnett told Iraqi TV that Saddam Hussein's original plans were wrecked because allied air superiority closed the sky, he'd still have a job. Both observations are true; one just doesn't fly at home.

Some now worry that embedded reporters will tip off the enemy to war plans, thereby endangering coalition forces. In a letter to the State Journal-Register, reader Craig Burns complains that all those reporters traveling with military units will "undermine the troop's ability to achieve the nation's objective."

During the 1991 Gulf War, Walter Cronkite and others skewered the U.S. government for denying reporters access to the battlefield, thereby denying people back home first-hand accounts of warfare. For the current conflict, the Defense Department devised an ingenious response to Cronkite and his cronies. They invited more than 600 reporters to join the forces marching into Iraq.

Suddenly the complaint has flipped from too little coverage to too much. Do critics understand that these reporters have agreed to strict rules--and if they ever said one word that did not meet the approval of the military, they would be back in Kuwait City so fast they'd kick up their own sand storm?

The danger isn't that anyone will learn too much from these embedded journalists, but that these reporters are becoming victims of the Stockholm syndrome. Just as hostages in that 1973 bank robbery in the Swedish capital became sympathetic to their captors, these desert embedouins are bonding with the soldiers around them. Naturally, they'll start to think their fate is tied to that of the combatants.

Other reporters are emulating what Cronkite, Ernie Pyle, and Edward R. Murrow did in World War II. They are now called "unilaterals." They travel on their own from unit to unit, battle to battle. Their potential to produce more unvarnished news is valuable.

President Bush should have a hard time blaming the messengers, claiming the media fostered false hopes for a quick and bloodless war. It is, after all, the media that reported the predictions of easy triumph from Dick Cheney and others in the administration. Republican military insider Richard Adelman wrote that the war would be a "cakewalk." Now it's our job to re-examine whether we were misled as to the size of the sacrifice, and who did that misleading.

For outright falsehood, it's hard to beat Iraq's minister of defense. In the earliest days of the conflict, he spewed out a pack of lies easier to see through than an Oscar-night gown. Saddam was on top and the infidels were on the run, he reassured anxious Iraqis. Strangely, his string of falsehoods offers some of the most useful footage to date. While we may be quick to dismiss his fantasies, we should remember that a billion other people in the world might do the same when they hear Bush talk about the enemy's weapons of mass destruction. u

Also from Doug Kamholz

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