Covering war is a long way from being at the scene of a riot or reporting on the intricacies of local politics. Journalists and military experts likely will debate the policy of “embedding” at least until the next armed conflict. The reporters who took part are unlikely to ever forget it.
The conflict in Iraq introduced most Americans to a new name, if not a new concept: that of embedded journalists. Radio World contacted several radio reporters via e-mail through their employers to ask about their experiences.
The Associated Press, ABC News Radio and Clear Channel Communications responded. Answers came from reporters working on an aircraft carrier and an air base and traveling with a tank division.
Some 600 reporters were embedded at the start of the Iraq war. How many were filing for radio is unclear; many were handling several duties for their news organizations.
Throughout modern history, reporters have accompanied or followed military forces in conflicts, although this was the first time embedding has been tried on such a large basis. In Vietnam, reporters typically accompanied fighting units for short periods of time. In the first Gulf War, Americans got their news via a system of pool reporters plus some reporters who worked outside the “authorized” system.
Registered but unassigned reporters, called unilaterals, went to the war zone in the second Gulf conflict; but much of the news we have heard and seen from Iraq has come through embedded journalists who were assigned to eat, sleep and travel with specific units.
The military said it hoped to counter propaganda by the enemy by facilitating how reporters gathered information. Some critics of embedding said the reporters can see only slices of the story and that such an arrangement compromises journalists’ efforts to remain unbiased; other critics feel such reporters can see and report too much for the good of the war effort.
Pragmatic news managers argued that by using both embedded and non-embedded reporters, they could assure diverse coverage.
The Iraq experience suggests that embedded reporters do form bonds with military personnel.
A Clear Channel Radio executive quoted one Marine who said about reporter Aaron Katersky, “We all like Aaron a lot over here. He’s become one of the guys … although he’s still putting up a little resistance to a ‘high and tight’ haircut.”
Katersky filed for 40 of Clear Channel Radio’s news/talk stations and occasionally for ABC News Radio.
When he replied to Radio World, he was at an airbase in Iraq with a front-line Marine fighter attack squadron. The 27-year-old was a morning-drive reporter for Clear Channel’s KTRH(AM) in Houston when he volunteered to go to Iraq to cover war for the first time.
“This is history … it’s what we do as reporters,” he wrote. He expressed satisfaction with his access to the troops and said he attended pre-flight briefings, although he sometimes was unable to report on specifics such as his location, the number of planes on a mission or the type of weapons they carried. Such restrictions were in place for all embedded reporters, who agreed to the rules before the Department of Defense placed them.
Katersky filed using a Sony Portable Digital Mini-Disc Recorder model MZ-350 and a Motorola Iridium satellite phone. The phone has a patch cord that connects to the recorder so he could file wraps and raw sound via the satellite. The feed was down-linked into Clear Channel’s national newsroom in Chicago, where his audio was incorporated into the material the network feeds affiliates.
Katersky saw missiles shot down and planes coming back to base without their bombs.
Finding time to file stories was challenging for Katersky and other reporters contacted, because electricity was rationed, according to Gabe Hobbs, vice president of programming for Clear Channel’s News, Talk and Sports divisions. The power rationing also dictated when the reporter could charge the batteries for his satellite phone. The batteries usually hold a charge for a day, Hobbs said.
When the war started, the reporters at this particular base were blacked out and unable to file for a while. But “for the most part, they’ve been more open than we thought they would,” Hobbs said.
He and other news executives said no censor was reviewing reporters’ scripts before they filed, although the reporters were complying with the strictures agreed to in advance.
This self-censoring also was true for Associated Press personnel.
Staffers on the newsdesk where the Iraq were received also were aware of the restrictions and poised to hit the “dump” button if a reporter was filing live and accidentally revealed sensitive information, according to Ed Tobias, assistant managing editor for broadcast news.
AP sent about 30 embedded reporters to Iraq and had 200 in the Middle East overall.
Access was excellent, Tobias said, adding that one should not assume that the military was only showing what it wanted Americans to see. AP’s Ross Simpson, for example, was traveling with a unit using Humvees. “Wherever that crew goes, he goes,” Tobias said.
Simpson has covered wars before. From the back of a Humvee commanding a platoon in late March, he filed this report for AP: “The allies are dropping bombs all around us. Just as soon as we crossed the northern berm into Iraq from Kuwait, the radio came alive. We saw tracer fire and we heard the Javelin team being told to ‘Take the shot. Take the shot.’ The young men did and they killed that tank.
“All night long the artillery kept up a constant barrage. They rained shells over our heads into Iraqi positions about 10 to 15 miles away. Today, I saw what these units did to Iraqi forces. I saw Iraqi soldiers scattered in fighting holes … blown out of those holes by these high-explosive shells.”
He and Katersky also spoke to Radio World of keeping their gas masks within arm’s reach and wearing their chemical suits, loaned to embedded reporters by the DOD.
Simpson brought an analog cassette recorder, a Marantz PMD 221, which promptly succumbed to blowing dust and sand. He used an Electro-Voice 635 microphone to record on his laptop digitally. He fed the material into a Comrex mixer system and sent live material using a satellite telephone.
Blowing sand reportedly was a significant hindrance to the operation of broadcast and computer equipment. Simpson protected his with plastic bags; Katerksy used a duffle.
Sand, RF and more
There were limits to the field reporting.
Tobias said AP had hoped to do more field production but was hampered by the desert conditions. The news organizations also said the RF environment aboard ship near the military communications equipment sometimes prevented reporters from filing.
Jim Ryan of ABC News Radio joined an aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Constellation, in early March. The ship led a battle group into the Persian Gulf.
Ryan said of his experience, “Hard news comes each morning when the rear admiral commanding the Constellation battle group briefs us on the previous night’s sorties and answers our questions. We’ve also been taken to the normally off-limits areas of the ships, including pilots’ ready rooms and flight-coordination facilities.”
He had access to e-mail aboard ship and used a Sony MZ-B50 MiniDisc recorder for reports. He transferred audio into his laptop and used Cool Edit Pro to mix his pieces. Finished stories were in WAV file format.
“I use Music Match software I downloaded off the Internet to convert the WAV file to MP3, much more manageable in size. I transfer the MP3 to a formatted floppy disk, pop that into the ship’s computer and send each story off as an attachment to e-mail. It takes about 30 seconds to send off each piece and I’m told the product on the other end is CD-quality.
“My other option is the Thuraya satellite phone I brought with me. Catching a stable signal is never guaranteed and the sound quality is sometimes questionable.”