Why Jon Lee Anderson doesn’t like embedding

The too-close-to-the-troops notion is flimsy

Yesterday, at a lunch hosted by the Committee to Protect Journalists, New Yorker writer Jon Lee Anderson shared stories of his reporting trips to Iraq and Afghanistan with a group of CPJ staffers and journalists.

It was the usual brew of horror stories, signs of hope, and tales of the security precautions that Western reporters working in those countries have to take, but one thing Anderson said stuck with me. On his most recent trip to Iraq, he said, he embedded with a U.S. Army unit, something he normally doesn’t do. I don’t have a transcript in front of me, so I’ll have to paraphrase the rest about embedding with the military, but essentially he said that he doesn’t like to embed, though he knows lots of reporters who do and get great stories from being out with the troops. Anderson, though, is concerned about becoming too close to the troops and losing his perch as a disinterested observer.

While Anderson has done some remarkable work from Iraq and Afghanistan over the past several years, and I understand his point, his comments puzzled me. His concerns have been voiced by plenty of other reporters over the years, but I’ve yet to see evidence that embedded reporters are pulling punches. The New York Times’s Dexter Filkins, for example, has filed some amazing stuff as an embed in Iraq.

The standard argument to which Anderson subscribes goes like this: since the embedded reporter relies on the soldiers in his unit to protect him, and since the reporter spends so much time in close contact with these soldiers, a personal relationship based partly on mutual fear (of the insurgents, not each other) develops, making it harder for the reporter to dispassionately assess what he sees and hears.

There’s something to this, but it’s not enough to write off embedding as hopelessly biased (not that Anderson is, of course, its just not something he likes to do too much of.) As I said above, Dexter Filkins opened up a window into the daily lives of soldiers out in the field that we don’t get nearly enough of in the mainstream media. Many other reporters have done the same, and how else do you tell the full story of the war without getting out there and experiencing it with the troops? As I’ve said countless times before, it’s shameful that there aren’t reports from embedded reporters in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and on the nightly news every day. And if they’re not totally objective—which is a perverted concept in contemporary American journalism anyway—so what? War isn’t a black and white, he said-she said kind of thing. Let the reporting reflect that.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.