“I Was a Mouthpiece for the American Military”
An embedded TV producer's frank assessment
Posted on Friday, July 7, 2006. By Ken Silverstein.
In an interesting interview published this week in Foreign Policy, Newsweek's Rod Nordland spoke about the difficulties of reporting from Iraq. He said that the Bush Administration has been largely successful in managing the news “to the extent that most Americans are not aware of just how dire it is and how little progress has been made” and revealed that some embedded reporters “have been blacklisted because the military wasn’t happy with [their] work.”
Many embedded reporters have managed to do fine work from Iraq, but there are significant obstacles for even the best and most determined journalists. I recently spoke with a former senior TV producer for Reuters who worked in Iraq between 2003 and 2004. The producer, who asked that she not be identified by name, arrived in Tikrit soon after the capture of Saddam Hussein on December 13, 2003, and was embedded with American troops for 45 days. She told me that, over the years, she has worked closely with the French army, NATO troops in the Balkans, and UN peacekeepers in covering war and conflict, but she said had never faced the sorts of restrictions imposed by the Pentagon on journalists in Iraq. “I was,” she said, “a mouthpiece for the American military.”
In Tikrit, she was based with U.S. troops at a military compound established at one of Saddam's former palaces, where she provided pool coverage for Reuters TV and AP TV (which was fed to other media outlets). When insurgents attacked civilians, she told me, the American military would rush her to the scene so she could record the carnage and get shots of grieving Iraqis.
When it came to other stories that were clearly sympathetic to the U.S. side, such as funerals for American soldiers killed in combat, the U.S. military was extremely helpful—indeed, encouraging. In such cases, she was granted full access and allowed to film speeches by officials honoring the dead, the posthumous awarding of medals, and other aspects of the ceremony.
But when this producer wanted to pursue a story that might have cast the war effort in an unfavorable light, the situation was entirely different. Every few days, she said, she would receive a call from the Reuters bureau in Baghdad and discover that reporters there had heard, via local news reports or from the bureau's network of Iraqi sources, about civilians being killed or injured by American troops. But when she asked to leave the compound to independently confirm such incidents, her requests were invariably turned down.
“Reuters had an armored car,” she told me, “and we wanted to go out on our own, but I would ask the PIO [Public Information Officer] for permission and he would say he needed to get more information before we could go. Hours would pass, it would get dark—and in the end we were never able to get to the scene.” Even getting an on-camera comment from a military spokesman was impossible in such cases, she said.
The producer said that it was impossible to pursue stories frowned upon by the military—for example, on how the local population viewed the occupation and American troops—because she was not permitted to leave the base on her own. The height of absurdity came when the Tikrit compound came under serious attack one evening and the producer was asked by the Reuters bureau in Baghdad to phone in a report on the situation. “We couldn't find out anything [from the U.S. military],” she said, so Reuters had to cover the fighting from Baghdad, despite having a TV producer and reporter on the ground at the compound in Tikrit.
The producer frequently filmed foot patrols and nighttime raids. She said that for the latter, the military and the embedded journalists would drive for long stretches in pitch darkness. The raids themselves, she said, were blurry and confusing, and afterwards soldiers would round up suspected insurgents and sympathizers for interrogation. It was routine for the producer to wait in one room of a house while detainees were questioned in another. “Not always, but there were times when I would hear detainees screaming during the questioning,” she said. “I'm not sure what was happening but they were screaming loudly—they weren't just being slapped around.” Because she obviously was not permitted to film the interrogations, none of that material could be included in her pool feeds.
She and the other journalists stationed at the base in Tikrit grew cynical about their work and came to believe that they were being used. “Other reporters in Iraq,” she said, “especially local Iraqis [working for Western outlets], were able to get both sides of the story, but we were getting only one side.” During her 45 days in Tikrit, she told me, she didn't file a single story critical of the American project in Iraq. “There was no balance,” she said. “What we were doing wasn't real journalism.”