Rather's Wary of Embedding

Hundreds of journalists accompanied American troops into combat last week under the Pentagon's new so-called embedding rules, a detailed list of dos and don'ts.

To get the long view on the rules, Broadcasting & Cable's Ken Kerschbaumer turned to CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather, who regularly tagged along with the soldiers as a young reporter in Vietnam when it was informal and unregulated by the high command.

In this edited Q&A recorded just hours before the battle was engaged last Wednesday, Rather said the Pentagon is to be congratulated for again permitting journalists on the frontlines, but he expressed concerns about the practice and some of the new rules governing it.

Are you comfortable with the way the embedding rules are written?

I'm not totally comfortable, and I do have some concerns about it. Having said that, I compliment Secretary Rumsfeld and Torie Clarke [the Pentagon's chief spokesperson] and anyone else who was involved in this policy because this so much better than what we had ... in Afghanistan. The policy put in place there wasn't a case of just not being successful; it was almost an utter and complete failure.

In what ways?

In terms of serving the national interest. And it was contrary to the Defense Department's own stated policy of maximum access and maximum information consistent with national security. But, in Afghanistan, there was minimum access and minimum information. And that did not have to do with national security but rather wanting to control and ... no small amount of cover-your-own-backsideism. But somebody recognized that it was inconsistent with their own stated policy that they had to do something.

They also recognize that, in Iraq, there is a high potential for Hussein to inflict casualties on his own people and try to blame us. If I had to point to any one thing that was a motivator to go to embed, I think it was that. They needed ... to have independent witnesses to bear witness to what happens. And that has been the argument of any number of us in journalism for some time.

What are your concerns with the embedding rules? Many of them seem to deal with safety issues rather than censorship issues.

I'm in favor of this embed system, despite having questions and being skeptical about it. As journalists, we have to realize there's a very fine line between being embedded and being entombed. And what I mean by that is there is a way to cocoon the journalists and place them in a position so they report only what the top tier of the military wants reported and so they don't have an opportunity to be truly independent. That's the danger.

I do have other concerns. First, that the journalist gets embedded and succumbs to the feeling of being on the team to the effect that they say, "Gosh, I don't really want to report anything about these guys. They're terrific, and the unit is terrific. And while I've seen things that maybe I should report, I'm just gonna pass it on by." That's a powerful tug, as one who felt that tug any number of times in Vietnam.

How did you deal with that?

Not quite well, to be quite honest. But how I tried to deal with it was to give myself many a lecture that I have no doubt of my patriotism and loyalty to the United States of America. And, yes, I want our guys to win, whatever their definition of win is. However, I could be most patriotic by doing my job, which is to play no favorites, pull no punches and report what I see, hear, the atmosphere, and be an honest broker of information.

What are your other concerns?

There is the opportunity for a form of censorship. When you agree to embed, you agree to certain conditions. And the conditions as written and stated are okay. But the application of that will bear some close watching.

The test will come when something bad has happened. For example, as I consider to be inevitable, one American unit will open fire on another, and that won't be good news. My hope is that, when that happens, the embeds not only will be able to report it but will
report it. But there is some question if they'll be able report it in real time or whether they would do it or would they look the other way.

Also, all kinds of bad things happen in war, and a lot of people on the military side have said that war, by definition, is savage. Armies are basically trained to do two things: break things and kill people. And that is not always pretty. So I am concerned when it comes to reporting the harsh truth and particularly the harsh truths that do not reflect well on flag-rank command or the national leadership. We'll see whether the embedded reporters can overcome what I think will be some real challenges in those areas. But again, I'm cautiously optimistic that overall, in the main, this system may work. It's a hell of a lot better than what we had in Afghanistan.

Bryan Whitman of the DoD said that he saw embedding as a great opportunity to let the American people see how well-trained the American troops are. I also wonder if he and the military are ready for what will happen when something goes wrong.

I wonder myself. In the times I've reflected on the Vietnam war, I never had anybody below the rank of major tell me anything but what I felt they believed was true. And I ran across literally thousands of truth-speakers in Vietnam who, when they had a great day militarily, knew it and would tell you. And, when everything got all fouled up, they would also tell you. The value of the embeds is that you at least get access to major and below ranks. If we concentrate on what the captains and sergeants tell us, a reasonable picture of what is really happening will emerge. The temptation, of course, is you always want to talk with flag rank or something close to it. And some at that level want to level with you, but others, for whatever reason, want to spin you.

If there is censorship, how much of a story does that become?

It depends how much there is and to what purpose. Censorship to protect troops in the field or even a single soldier is not only okay; it's to be applauded. Censorship that is judiciously applied anytime there is a question of national security is to be applauded also. But the test always comes when someone decides it's in national security's best interest to protect their backsides for a mistake made. For reporters, that's where the rubber meets the road.