Following on the curious story of Paul Moran, the U.S. Army is admitting it used the media for its own ends. In one incident, a tank commander rounded up journalists for what the article calls a “thunder run” through Baghdad to show Iraqi troops, whose resistance had stiffened thanks to Iraqi media manipulation, that the U.S. was in charge.
“I just wanted them to report what happened. If having the media report accurately is using them, then they were used,” said Col. David Perkins, who as commander of the 3rd Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade had organized the tank foray into Baghdad specifically to garner publicity for the U.S. advance.
Also interesting is the grousing by Marine Col. Glenn Starnes, who derides the current bad news out of Iraq as sensational and says its “because we’ve lost the embeds.” The problem, according to Col. Starnes, is that the military lost control of the story, not the situation.
Now, I can’t say for sure what is going on. I’m not there. _And that’s the problem._ If the military is admitting to ginning up propaganda stunts that get transmitted both back home and to the enemy, then how can the civilians on the home front trust what’s being reported? Is the situation in Iraq really as bad as it’s being reported? Or is it sensationalized as Col. Starnes charges? Granted, reporters do flock, vulture-like, to bad news, but I don’t think any thinking person would deny the military — and its commander in chief — has a vested interest in shaping the story, calming the home front down, bolstering a flagging support. And now they’ve admitted they’ve staged events to give certain impressions. (But we already knew that, thanks to the whole Jessica Lynch embarrassment.)
Maybe things in Baghdad really are OK, as SecDef Donald Rumsfeld said the other day, but how can we know for sure? It’s pretty obvious the military can’t be relied on to tell the straight truth — not that I totally blame them; for all my criticisms, I understand the need for media manipulation in today’s globalized and networked world. However, I don’t have to like it, approve of it, or participate. Hence, my solo trek to the war.
Backing up the independent spirit, Orville Schell wrote in an essay in Sunday’s _New York Times Magazine_ that foreign correspondents must becomes a “stateless people” in order to remain independent. By far the most telling example of this are the sentiments expressed by Mazen Dana, the Palestinian cameraman who was killed by U.S. soldiers last month when they fired on him with tank shells. (The official reason was that the tank commander thought his camera was an RPG.)
Dana represented those reporters whose allegiances are not primarily to nation, patriotism or ideology but to this new independent tribe of cryptic witness-bearing, the antithesis of embedded, producer reliant, flag-waving Geraldos. ”Freedom means to me to work free, no one bother you,” he told his C.P.J. interviewer in his game English. ”We film, and we show the world what’s going on. … My motive is to continue my work, even if it costed for me a lot of problems and a lot of injury … even if it cost me my life.”
It did, tragically, just as it cost 16 other journalists their lives. But that may be the nature of what’s required in future wars, in which the landscape has changed and national allegiances are liabilities — both for life and limb, and for the sake of truth.
What is evolving is a form of conflict not characterized by armies of ”good guys” and ”bad guys” or ”liberators” and ”oppressors,” one covered by journalists who come from or identify with one side or another. We have instead a new, almost gravityless, world of conflict in which the American military can kill journalists without causing great alarm and ”the enemy” can blow up U.N. aid missions and other ”soft” civilian targets without remorse. All that journalists have to steady them in this bad dream is grit and a stubborn refusal to serve any of the contending masters. What gives their work meaning is a defiant commitment to independence, accurate reporting and an almost existential belief that no matter how debased the world and politics become, the ”real story” somehow still matters.