- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 11, 2003

"So, are you going to boot camp?" one of my colleagues, a seasoned overseas correspondent, asked.

No thanks, I responded. Been there, done that.

My colleague was talking about the training camp that the Pentagon has set up to help prepare the more than 600 war correspondents, including a crew from the Al Jazeera network, to be "embedded" with American fighting units in the war President Bush is preparing to make with Iraq.

Having been through a real boot camp once, I have no great yearning desire to be yelled at by drill sergeants again. Besides, I still remember the difference between a ration pack, an antipersonnel mine and a gauze pad for a sucking chest wound, thank you very much.

Besides, it is dangerous enough to live under terrorist attacks here in the U.S. I don't need to go halfway around the planet for my adrenaline rush.

Nevertheless, I applaud the Pentagon's effort to etch out some kind of a compromise between the conflicting cultural lenses through with which the media and the military view each other.

I also applaud my colleagues who may be heading into the jaws of hell and the fighting men and women who may be taking them there.

But I also have a word of advice to my embedded colleagues: Keep your skepticism, especially when your military handlers say "We're here to help you."

I know. I've worked both sides of this fence. When I was drafted during the Vietnam War, I was assigned, through an apparent glitch in Army computers, to a job for which I actually was qualified: "military journalist."

There's an old saying that military justice is to justice what military music is to music. The same, I soon, learned, is true of "military journalism."

In the military culture, "military journalism" means what civilians call "public relations" or simply "spin." Real journalists, the civilian kind, were viewed as falling into one of two categories, hostiles or friendlies, with very few falling in between.

My primary job was not to inform the public, I was reminded in so many words by various commanders. My primary job was to help the military. I appreciated the candor of my commanders, although my Inner Journalist kept nagging me to remember my appreciation of the public's right to know what its military is up to.

That's a big reason why today's Pentagon is glad to be rid of the draft, by the way. Enlistees feel less conflicted than draftees do.

That old Inner Journalist speaks to me again as I peruse the "Coalition Forces Land Component Command Ground Rules Agreement," which embedded journalists will be required to sign.

Among other limits, it forbids the release of information that pertains to "ongoing engagements" without a security review, which also is known as censorship. Some censorship is understandable in wartime, but one wonders: What constitutes an "ongoing engagement?" Under the guidelines, it is whatever the commander on the scene says it is.

The Pentagon assures us that reporters who don't want to go along with the boot camp, the embedding or the guidelines will be allowed to roam around and ferret information on their own, as some reporters did in Vietnam. Yet, as the Committee to Protect Journalists pointed out in a letter of concern to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last week (full-disclosure alert: I am a member of CPJ's board), U.S. officials have offered "no convincing guarantees that 'unilateral' reporting (non-embedded journalists) … will be allowed to proceed without interference."

Good question. With all due respect to my embedded colleagues (if we journalists don't respect each other, who will?), our public is best served when that insider's view is balanced with some outsider views provided by those renegades get themselves a Jeep of their own (an official no-no for the Embedded Ones) and ride out to find their own stories without waiting to be escorted to them by our military handlers.

Instead, some pooled reporters in the first Persian Gulf war actually squealed to their military handlers when they spotted an independent who bolted the pool, which resulted in the independent correspondent's detention and questioning like a suspected spy.

Scuttling one's competition by any means necessary is a dirty trick that is not unknown in the highly competitive news world. The public is well served by healthy and unfettered competition between media.

But the public also are well served by a healthy skepticism in its journalists. Independent journalism serves democracy by keeping the powers of government, including the military, accountable to the public for whom they are fighting.

Journalists who travel with troops need not only to stay out of the way but also to avoid being so seduced by their camaraderie with troops, even while under fire, that they lose sight of what their audience back home needs to know. "Embedded" should never mean "in bed with."

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