“Tainted” Embeds and the role of MilBloggers

One of the big issues at the MiBlogger Conference was, of course, bias in the media. While there are those who will contest such claims, it seems pretty clear to Murdoc that (at the very least) the mainstream media suffers from gross ignorance of military strategy, tactics, and history. This, of course, is gross generalization, and there are exceptions to the rule. But the low number of exceptions do a lot to prove said rule.

The mainstream media suffers from gross ignorance of military strategy, tactics, and history.

The third panel at the conference, “Blogging from Theater”, was moderated by Col. David Hunt. He sort of tore into the panelists on several issues and he sparred with the audience when we complained about media bias. That didn’t really go over very well with many conference attendees.

To this unhappiness with Col. Hunt’s moderation, Murdoc submits the following:

A) It’s Col. David Hunt, for freaking cripes. He wasn’t chosen because he handles things with kid gloves. If you were surprised at his behavior, you obviously aren’t terribly familiar with the guy. He’s a prick. It’s his job and he’s damn good at it. That’s why we all like him. Should Andi have called the Welcome Wagon lady or something?

Hunt was challenging the panel. And the rest of us. Murdoc doesn’t know exactly where Hunt stands on the MilBlogging issue, but it’s clear that things are growing faster than authority’s capability to control them and he’s worried that good intentions might cause more harm than good with the general public. He wants to keep everyone’s feet on the ground by asking tough questions.

colhunt.jpgB) No one likes to be told that they aren’t the kings of the world. Especially after a long day of getting patted on the back. Trebly so when it’s a gruff old bastard like Hunt saying it. But we would all do well to at least consider his words. The risk for real damage to the American cause (and the safety of our troops) is always going to be there, and we have to be on constant guard against it.

One point of debate that came out of that panel was the role of and use for embedded reporters. Though this generally means professional journalists dispatched by members of Legacy Media, it can also mean lunatics guys like Bill Roggio who pay their way into the combat zone in an effort to uncover the truth. For the purposes of this post, Murdoc means the former variety: The professional journalist sent into the combat zone as an embedded reporter by what we lovingly call “Big” or “Legacy” Media.

We’re all aware that during the early weeks of the campaign in Iraq the American public was solidly behind the invasion, at least according to opinion polls. Much of this has been attributed to the presence of quite a few embedded reporters among the troops. The reports sent back by the likes of Greg Kelly were invaluable to the general populace to glimpse what was going on and to witness our guys in action.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, however, the number of embedded reporters has dwindled to virtually nothing. Sometimes we’ll see reporters from smaller newspapers covering local troops deployed to Iraq, but the overwhelming majority of reports come from reporters tucked away in the hotels of the Green Zone in Baghdad. They get their news from DoD releases (which are generally ignored) and from their army of stringers. The stringers, of course, know what sort of news gets coverage, and no doubt do their best to get it.

As poll results favoring the invasion and reconstruction of Iraq have slumped, we’re left to wonder how much of the support evaporated when the news from embedded reporters on the evening news, cable stations, and major newspapers vanished.

It often seems that the only things most in Legacy Media seem know about the military are “My Lai”, “The Pentagon Papers”, and the wordsTet Offensive“.

A common criticism about embedded reporters is that they become “tainted” by their close proximity for an extended period to US troops. This idea was voiced many times during the MilBlogger Conference, and is no doubt based on the fact that so many journalists during the initial invasion of Iraq reported their surprise at the intelligence, dedication, and professionalism they witnessed. This sort of behavior is not what one probably expects after years of “indoctrination” into what many pro-military voices consider to be a very Left-leaning media universe. These journalists have been well-schooled in the media’s experiences during the Vietnam War and the Republican collapse during the 1970s. I’ve said before that it often seems that the only things most in Legacy Media seem know about the military are “My Lai”, “The Pentagon Papers”, and the words “Tet Offensive“. I guess we can probably add “Abu Gharib” to this list, as well.

This idea of “tainting” is curious to Murdoc. What, exactly, is this “taint” of which we speak? It seems that simply recognizing that US troops aren’t baby-killing machines brainwashed into performing their mission passes as “taint” these days. It seems that those who wake up to the fact that many US troops actually believe in their mission and are often appreciated and treated warmly by Iraqi citizens need to be watched out for and quarantined immediately.

Murdoc doesn’t think that MilBlogs are ever going to replace Legacy Media or DoD press releases. Though a valuable fact-checking service will be provided, and little glimpses into things otherwise unseen will be available, the majority of Americans are not going to be getting their news from MilBlogs any time soon. And if they were, you can bet that anti-war MilBlog-ish sites would be popping up like weeds to counteract the perception of “good news” offered by a substantial number of MilBlogs.

What MilBloggers can do is fill in the spaces and gaps. They can take what’s reported and elaborate in a way that traditional media simply cannot.

This, Murdoc thinks, is part of what Col. Hunt was getting at. He wanted to know if we thought the American public was ready to get their news from unfiltered blogs. If the military should bypass Legacy Media and just stream the goodies down to those in pajamas.

Murdoc says “no”. At least not “exclusively”. Even most of the sites that aspire to more than general diary-like personal reporting do not have the means and resources to get across what needs to be communicated. Not in a way that’s understandable by John Q Public. “An Army of Davids” MilBloggers might be, but no one is going to be able to keep up with enough of the Davids to really be able to understand what they need to understand about Iraq and the military. And don’t kid yourself that, even if some of the MilBlogs get “big” enough to actually do this, they won’t be facing some of the same issues (pressure from advertisers and other sources of funding, for instance) currently faced by Legacy Media. Are MilBloggers valuable? Yes. Very. But they’re not a full-on replacement for traditional journalism.

Embedded reporters can fill a critical role, not only as front-line eyes and ears covering events for the evening news but also as a sort of bridge between John Q and the alien worlds of the military and of war. As much as we’d like to think that MilBloggers can do this, it simply isn’t going to happen on the scale that we need it to happen. Not soon enough, at any rate. What MilBloggers can do is fill in the spaces and gaps. They can take what’s reported and elaborate in a way that traditional media simply cannot. This function and the critical overwatch mission, noticing and pointing out things that Legacy Media missed, ignored, or just plain got wrong, is where the Army of Davids can shine. If the media simply insists on getting it wrong, bloggers can swarm. But that won’t work consistently on a daily basis. It will quickly degenerate into free-for-all tabloid journalism.

What needs to happen is that somehow (a magic wand, perhaps?) Legacy Media needs to get the fact that embedded reporters serve a valuable function. No matter how valuable the function, they probably won’t willingly send off their employees to become “tainted”, so pressure needs to be applied. But how can we apply that pressure?

If only the ratings of new programs and the circulation of newspapers and news magazines would decline.

You can bet that if our troops were usually murdering Iraqi civilians, razing Iraqi villages, and abusing Iraqi prisoners that there would be no shortage of embedded reporters.

Legacy Media will never ever ever never send out reporters to embed just because it’s the responsible thing to do or because it might help America win. We know this. But they might do so if they can make money. As small “alternative” media pulls away readers and viewers from more-traditional Big Media outlets, maybe there’s a chance that Big Media will do the right thing. Not out of altruism or patriotism. Out of greed. And we can probably trust that instinct far more than any other. We’re already seeing Legacy Media begin to tap into things like Technorati links and blog-generated buzz. Maybe they’ll take a hint or two from the likes of Roggio, Michael Yon, and Michael Totten.

With a very few exceptions, bloggers can’t just drop what they’re doing and go embed with Marines in Iraq. Most of us have day jobs. And spouses that would forbid it anyway. But Legacy Media has the resources to do so. They simply choose not to. You can bet that if our troops were usually murdering Iraqi civilians, razing Iraqi villages, and abusing Iraqi prisoners that there would be no shortage of embedded reporters. They would be falling all over themselves to cover the story firsthand. Legacy Media can. They simply choose not to.

We would be well-served by a few more embeds covering events in Iraq (and Afghanistan, for that matter). Maybe Legacy Media would stop the bleeding in their circulation departments. The low number of embedded reporters is a failure by Legacy Media to serve completeness to its consumers, and maybe various forms of pressure will convince major players in the media to send more embeds if its going to cover the war. Maybe the American public would get picture of the war that’s more in line with that of those fighting it. Maybe American reporters rooting a bit for American troops wouldn’t be considered “tainted”.

Those are all big ‘maybes’. But they’re ‘maybes’ worth keeping in mind as the blogosphere in general and MilBlogging in particular evolves. Kepe the facts and insights coming. Keep the pressure on. Keep being the reason for Big Media to mimic the small media.


  1. Murdoc – my gripe with Hunt is… it was too much about Hunt. I got it that he’s a ‘professional’ in the biz and that he’s an abrasive ass. My gripe is he could have done all that you point out he did… without being a prick to people – especially with the Sunday-Morning-Talk-Show-interrupt-’em-in-mid-sentence-schtick pointless alpha male behavior. Moderators… moderate. Hunt was a participant. And the panel was *not* about Hunt. But that kinda got lost in the early going. When he finally got tired of performing for us, *that* was when the panel really got going. Hunt was more about scoring points than getting the point across, until he settled down and maybe realized where he was.

  2. Damn, for milbloggers, y’all don’t deal with military people too much, do ya’? Heck the guy sitting next to me right now is a David Hunt clone. He’s a good guy, though, so I let him live and deal with it.

  3. Great points Murdoc! One question – when you are talking about Bill Roggio, you mean *lunatic* in an affectionate way, right? I agree with you about Hunt (even if that gets me in trouble at The Castle.).

  4. Oh yeah…’lunatic’ is totally meant in an affectionate way. A friendly, man-to-man, platonic, affectionate way. Yeah, you gotta be careful about the Castle. That place has an artillery battalion in the basement, so tread carefully…

  5. I love your point made by ‘filling in the gaps’. I also recall Col. Hunt asking if we were ready to see our sons and daughters killed in real time. Nope I am not. I still recall the body being drug through the streets of Somolia. I think about that Mother daily…. Typical alpha male behavior, in a room full of alpha males.

  6. John: As for Hunt’s behavior, what I didn’t think was called for was the constant interrupting of people answering his questions or responding to his points. That wasn’t particularly classy or constructive for a moderator. But I really do think a lot of what he said should be thought about and kept in mind going forward.

  7. Sheesh, now Maggie is bitchin’ on other people’s blogs… Sorry Murdoc, she doesn’t play well with others, sometimes. Dfens – I dunno, you could be right, as a third generation retired artilleryman who has had a DoD ID since birth, and will until death, and who currently works at Fort Leavenworth, I prolly don’t have any appreciation at all for what military people are like. Nope. Not me!

  8. The majority of professional journalists are barking moonbats with free tickets, equipment and expense accounts. They are so inbred I am amazed they don’t look like that banjo playin kid in Deliverance. The real service that the milblog community preforms in my view is ‘oversite’. Disinterested (meaning with reguard to advancing the fame of journalists and rags like the NYT) individuals who tell it like they see it. They also call bullshit when some extreem moonbat goes over the line. What I am very happy with is how much pressure the very existence of this ‘Army of Davids … and Davidettes’ is and will exert on the regular media to hold them accountable and make them paranoid. Who was it again who pointed out how President Bill Clinton liked to use cigars? Was it the NYT?

  9. If you got your news from embedded reporters only, I could possibly see it as ‘tainted’ although ‘limited’ would be a better word. Yes I suppose you can lose the big picture if you report as an embed but the solution is not to refuse to do embeds for fear of losing your ‘objectivity.’ The solution is for reporters to work together from multiple perspectives/ sources to present the story. Checks and balances work for more than just the government. A proper news organization would be gathering info from embeds, stringers, DOD briefings, and other sources and combining them at the anchor desk to present the big picture to the people.

  10. John, you’re not hanging with the really big egos, then. I’m always around astronauts, fighter pilots, and test pilots. Monster egos and at least two opinions on any given subject. My favorite pass time, shooting holes in the big egos. Sure they’re easy targets, but someone’s got to do it.

  11. Ryan: I agree 100%. Heck. 110%. I certainly did not mean to claim that embeds should be the only source of info. It will take a wide range of input to really get the whole picture. If it didn’t MilBloggers could do it alone. But Big Media cannot understand enough and cannot portray things accurately enough without reporters on the ‘front lines’.

  12. In the comments to the PAO Conversation at Grim’s Hall are several points that relate to what murdoc is saying.