For the duration of the war in Iraq, Tampa Bay resident Wes Allison ate, lived and slept and reported the war in the company of the 101st Airborne Division.
Allison, a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times, finally returned home Wednesday after spending six weeks in the Middle East. The 35-year-old reporter was one of approximately 500 international journalists who were embedded with military units during the conflict in Iraq.
The embedded program was devised by the Pentagon in response to criticism of media access during both the first Gulf War and the war in Afghanistan. Like many news media organizations, the St. Petersburg Times, which also had photographer John Pendygraft embedded with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, initially viewed the program with a degree of skepticism.
“The main concern was how much freedom would Wes and John have, particularly once the fighting started,” said Steve Buckley, world editor for the St. Petersburg Times and Allison’s editor. “The military, to its credit, has been very accommodating. Wes had as much access as he wanted.”
Most reporters with access to classified information or equipment were required to submit their stories to military personnel for screening before publishing. However, Allison and other embedded reporters worked with just two stated restrictions: not to give away specific locations where units might be and not to write about missions before they occur.
“When Wes was still in Northern Kuwait he knew the date (coalition troops) were scheduled to go into Iraq, but he could not tell me that,” Buckley said. “But the restrictions have turned out to be very manageable.”
Preparing for combat coverage
Preparation for the embedded program began as far back as February when Allison attended a week-long combat survival training program organized by the U.S. military in Fort Dix, N.J. By the time of his departure for Kuwait on March 1, the St. Petersburg Times, based on recommendations from the U.S. military, had supplied him with a helmet, flak jacket, gas mask and antidotes for nerve agents. Allison was also equipped with a satellite telephone to transmit stories and to maintain contact with his editor. The only equipment the U.S. military provided to reporters was a chemical-biological suit.
It was at this point that a small number of journalists, given a glimpse of the reality of potential chemical or biological attacks, decided the risk involved was too great. Brad Smith, reporter and war-team leader of The Tampa Tribune’s war coverage, said they designated a journalist to be embedded but, he declined at the last minute.
“We sent a reporter to survival training and then gave him the option whether he wanted to proceed. He decided it would be too dangerous. He has a family and child to take care of,” Smith said.
Allison had no such doubts and joined the 101st Airborne in Fort Campbell, Ky. He traveled with the unit to Kuwait in a commercial jet chartered by the U.S. military.
Time and money
Once ensconced with the 101st, Allison began producing stories daily, sending approximately 40 stories total since he accompanied the 101st from Kuwait to the Iraqi towns of An Najaf and Al Hillah. Because Iraq being eight hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, Allison’s stories were always received well in advance of that day’s deadline.
With forecasts for the duration of the conflict ranging from a few days to several months, allocating a budget for reporters was difficult, Buckley said.
“We sent Wes over with several thousands dollars. We thought it better for him to take more money than he might need than to run out,” he said.
Buckley said the St. Petersburg Times would adhere to its policy of paying for all journalistic expenses incurred throughout the assignment.
“All of the expenses that the government has laid out to accommodate Wes to do his work will be repaid,” Buckley said. “Military flights, shelter, MREs, (Meal, Ready to Eat) — the cost of that will all be calculated and the newspaper will repay the military.”
While Buckley considers the embedded program a success at providing on-the-ground accounts of the war, he said the fact that reporters have no idea what is happening 50 miles away means the program is of limited use.
“It would be impossible to cover the war if all we had was embedded reporters,” Buckley said. “I talked to Wes the day that Baghdad fell. I said to him ‘Wow, I’m sure you know what happened in Baghdad today,’ and he was like ‘What happened?'”
Reporting with integrity
The embedded program has also been criticized for producing military-sympathetic coverage. Steve Randall, a senior media analyst in the New York-based media watch group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, said the camaraderie that develops between reporter and military unit inevitably compromises journalistic integrity.
“Journalists are depending on (their unit) for food, for shelter, for their life. It would be unnatural not to develop a bond with these guys,” Randall said. “Attached to (a unit) could have been used. Then (journalists) have the freedom to move about from one unit to another. This would be a far healthier form of journalism.”
As a consequence, Randall said, reporters frequently exhibited coziness or even gushing praise for their military hosts. Randall cited William Branigin’s April 1 Washington Post account of the killing of an Iraqi family at a checkpoint in Karbala as one of the few occasions when the embedded program produced accounts of events that differed markedly from those issued by U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar.
“The few stories that I’ve seen where journalists contradicted official statements did come out of embedded print journalists and not from embedded television reporters,” Randall said. “I can’t say that there have been enough examples to justify the embedding of 600 to 700 journalistic resources.”
Smith at the Tampa Tribune concurred that some coverage had suffered from the close relationship between embedded reporters and their units.
“I read some reports that overly identified with the troops, some coverage that seemed a little too fawning,” Smith said. “I’m not sure how objective you can remain — (the troops) almost become your buddies, which is the last thing you want as a journalist.”
Many events, little space
For Buckley, the problems arising from the embedded program were not issues of bias but rather the difficulty of managing an overabundance of information; a problem Buckley feels has affected television more than print media.
“It appears that for TV the immediacy has been quite extraordinary and breathtaking,” Buckley said. “The downside has been that there has been so much that sometimes I think useful context has been lost.”
The Tampa Tribune published a number of reports from embedded journalists provided by its parent company Media General. Smith said it was probably too early to judge whether the program was a success.
“The stuff I read produced by embedded reporters I didn’t find all that compelling,” Smith said. “Eventually when reporters get back and write longer articles, it will be better.”
An unforeseen drawback of the apparently arbitrary assignment of reporter to unit, Smith said, was that reporters were attached to troops normally stationed in other parts of the country.
“You wouldn’t necessarily be attached to a unit that came from your circulation area,” Smith said.
As for Allison, thankfully he doesn’t have to return to work immediately. His last taste of military life will be a much needed rest and relaxation session.
“He has basically worked every single day for the last seven or eight weeks,” Buckley said. “His stories have been smart and sophisticated, very human and helped readers to understand what it’s like to be on the ground in Iraq. He can have as much time off as he wants.”