When it comes to the ethics of embedding journalists, Christie Blatchford misses the big picture (again)

When it comes to the ethics of embedding journalists, Christie Blatchford misses the big picture (again)

I spent last week working in L.A.—an experience like no other, one that could make even the most deluded dreamer crave Toronto’s low-ceilinged ambitions. On Monday, seeking to inoculate myself against the general lunacy abroad in the land, I attended a sober Memorial Day ceremony at the Los Angeles National Cemetery. And while even this event had its share of native nuttiness (among the colour guard was an outfit called the Sons of Confederate Veterans, complete with period costume and a confederate flag), I was still struck by the unironic and severe atmosphere that is central to such American commemorations. During the Pledge of Allegiance, every person present (save the odd interloper) enunciated the national creed loudly and clearly, right hand draped over heart: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Then, following a flyover of vintage World War II fighters, came the most sombre moment of all: a short memorial for the most recent Californians killed in Afghanistan and Iraq (almost 500 to date), in the presence of their bereaved families. Each name was read out and marked, in naval tradition, by a single toll of a bell. Boy and Girl Scouts paraded photographs of the dead—many Hispanic, several Filipino—before the assembled. Each family was presented with a single red rose. The only other sound, beyond the traffic flowing along Highway 405, was sobbing. And while I recognize the entire event was to some degree theatre orchestrated by the Department of Defense (the assembled TV news trucks were testament to that), those sobs were unimpeachably real.

I mention all this in light of Christie Blatchford’s column in the Saturday Globe, wherein she countered the arguments of those concerned with the consequences of the so-called “embedded” reporting of war.

The program is of huge concern in journalism schools and to big thinkers, who argue that the practice doesn’t lend itself to traditional objective reporting and engenders too much familiarity.

As someone who has been embedded four times, I don’t agree, and consider far more dangerous the unacknowledged embedding that goes on in places like Ottawa and Washington, where reporters don’t spend a mere six weeks in close quarters with their subjects, but rather years and sometimes whole careers, and where they are regularly spun with a ferocity and a sophistication the Canadian army can only imagine, in the dampest of dreams, achieving.

Besides the obvious red herring (embedding with the army is bad, but it’s worse when reporters embed with the government—isn’t the army a branch of government?), Blatchford’s insouciant dismissal of these concerns misses the bigger picture. In his book on the Bush administration’s hoodwinking of the press and the public in taking the States into Iraq (The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth in Bush’s America, Penguin 2007), Frank Rich describes the genesis of the embedding program:

The mastermind of the Pentagon media operation…was Torie Clark, a PR star whose resume included a stint at the National Cable Television Association…. Little in her Pentagon image portfolio would be left to chance: a production designer who had worked for Disney, MGM, Good Morning America and the illusionist David Blaine was hired to give General Tommy Franks a confidence-inspiring $200,000 set for the briefing at central Command headquarters in Qatar.

Embedding is a bad idea because it puts the reporter in league with exactly the sort of nonsense Rich is describing. Blatchford has her own reasons for wanting to live cheek by jowl with our overseas fighters—none of which, I suspect, has much to do with the real consequences of war.

Lives remembered: California’s war dead profiled [L.A. Times]• Blatchford’s Take: Grateful for my shallowness, as I watch dear friends retire [Globe and Mail]