Saturday, March 29, 2003

Embedded and Under Control

Ed Murrow stood roof top in London watching the bombs and inventing modern broadcast journalism. Spoken journalism came out of war, and Morrow's boys were the best in the business, were and remain. They were in the thick of it, identified with "our side" in a war where right and wrong were easily defined. They worked with some restriction, but nonetheless with an independence that they maintained for the rest of their professional lives. Another group of independent journalists walked the streets of Saigon and through the marshes of a hostile country side. They saw horror and they reported it straight and independently to the great consternation of LBJ, another generally controlling US President from Texas. From the 40s through Watergate journalists held sway and the news was found on broadcasts.

I shudder for Ed Murrow's memory every time a CNN reader passes the baton and wishes her or his successor a good "show." News is a show today, with its obsequious anchors telling the girls and boys what a good job they're doing as if they were arbiters, much less practioners, of a good job. Then there is that obnoxious music, specially composed theme songs to communicate the drama underscoring the "showness" of it all. Frank Rich calls it the Mediathon with its laser-like focus on the simplistic singular as if we were all too dumb to handle more than one fact at a time or collectively possessed the attention span of a two year old or Alzheimer's victim. And the greatest insult of all, thanks to Ted Turner who, rather than having been a visionary destroyed journalism as we once knew it, is that it goes on regurgitating the same stale news 24/7. If I hear another pundit say what a great job of reporting is being done on the same bit of information I've heard for two days straight, I most certainly will be violently ill.

And now we have embedded journalists. Forgetting how damaging it probably is for any of us — adults and children — to watch war so close-up, the idea of this melding of warrior and reporter as comrades in arms has some very disturbing ramifications. Every administration, regardless of party or ideology, seeks to manage and spin the news. FDR was a master at it. But few have managed this closely, and I don't know of any that set up a $2Millon briefing theater in the field. But embedding the journalists goes a step further. Listening to their reports it's clear that these guys are trying their best to put a good face on things, to stand up for their comrades in the field. You can't blame them and you have to admire them. These uniformed kids beside them need and deserve all the support they can get. But one has to wonder if an embedded journalist will ever uncover a Mi Lai? I'm not suggesting one is happening or would happen. All of us hope and pray for the best. But war is hell and good people sometimes do bad things in the heat of battle — bad things that really are bad and need to be reported by independent journalists. During the first Bush war, the press complained that it was left out of the loop. I guess it was George H.W.'s revenge for having himself been left hanging during Iran Contra. No such complaints this time, because George W's team believes in the old management adage that keeping the adversary close is the best way to neutralize. Embed the suckers and keep them under control. Ed Murrow where are you when we need you so desperately?

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