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Pros, Cons of Embedded Reporting

Aired April 2, 2003 - 03:48   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: The war in Iraq has already made some journalistic history. A combination of embedded reporters and modern technology, television viewers are taken to the front lines of the battle.
It is indeed compelling to watch, but is it news, and does it help make history?

Joining me now from London to discuss the pros and cons of embedded reporting is author Phillip Knightley. He has written a book. It's called "The First Casualty: A History of War Correspondents and Propaganda."

Thanks for joining us from London.


KAGAN: As I understand it, you are not a big fan of this embedded journalism.

KNIGHTLEY: Well, not really. I mean, historically it has never worked before -- well, maybe it worked in the Second World War, but that was a war of national survival.

In the First World War when the idea came to the British Ministry of War of embedding correspondents, they embedded six correspondents. They put them in uniforms. They gave them military rank. They took them around the front. They had their own censors attached to them, and it turned out to be the worst report of war in history.

And after the war, one of them had the grace to say, we didn't need any censorship at all, because we were our own censors. We would do nothing or say nothing. We put out of our mind any thought of scoops, of fame. We would do or say nothing that might make the task of our military more difficult. And as a result, as I say, it was the worst report of war in history.

However, on this occasion so far, it looks as if it might have worked. We're getting a small part of the picture, and it's added to the multiplicity of sources that has helped make this the most information-intensive war in the whole history of mankind.

KAGAN: So in the past, it hasn't worked. But as you point out, this is a different time, a different age, and you're not just putting reporters up on the front line, but you're doing it with this incredible technology. So do you think in this day and age perhaps there is a role, not the only role of reporting, but there is a role for embedded journalists?

KNIGHTLEY: Oh, yes, there's a role, yes. I just think in general it is not a good idea. Because of the psychological identification that the war correspondent is likely to make with the unit to which he's attached he becomes part of the unit. I mean, the very word "embedded" suggests that, not attached to, not accredited to, but embedded in.

We'll see. I mean, the real test will come being if one of these units into which the war correspondent is embedded has a disaster, you know, and a lot of deaths. We'll see how accurately that is reported.

KAGAN: Well, and indeed these reporters have had to agree to a certain set of guidelines even in order to participate in the program. But if I flip the argument around, Phillip, for a moment, what's the alternative then? Do you not send anybody out there, as was the case in the first Persian Gulf War, as was the case in Afghanistan? And then there was such a lack of information.

KNIGHTLEY: No, any reporter at all is better than none. The alternative might be to have independent reporters there, but as we have seen that's a very dangerous thing to do. Already, you know, one British correspondent killed.

I think that it probably suits the military better to have embedded correspondents, and maybe in the search for truth that little bit extra that they can offer will help the ordinary viewer discover what's going on.

KAGAN: Yes, I was going to bring up the topic of what they are calling out here "unilateral journalists," ones who don't embed but still try to make it into the battlefield. As you mentioned, that has been very dangerous work indeed. And beyond being dangerous, it seems like it's difficult for them to do their work. There are so many impediments, No. 1 being danger. But 2, the military not working with them, it's even more difficult for them to bring home the story.

KNIGHTLEY: Yes, indeed. I mean, our only hope for some glimmer of truth, for some knowledge and information is the fact that they've got so many sources available now. I tell people, listen, find a news channel that you feel is telling you the picture, read one newspaper, listen to one radio program, and try not to become a war news junkie, because if you really want to watch 24 hours a day, you're in danger of information overload.

KAGAN: And are you guilty of that, Phillip? Have you been watching a lot?

KNIGHTLEY: I have been watching a lot, yes. In fact, I'm thinking of consulting my doctor to see if he can get me unhooked.

KAGAN: Unhooked. Well, good luck with that pursuit and with the book, and thanks for your perspective as we look at journalism, this new phase, this new time of journalism and how it will be changing in the future as well.

Phillip Knightley joining us from London, thank you so much.


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