Then in March, The New York Times broke news that a Defense Department official, Michael D. Furlong, had “set up a network of private contractors in Afghanistan and Pakistan to help track and kill suspected militants.” One of the subcontractors, a freelance journalist, told the Times “that the government hired him to gather information about Afghanistan and that Mr. Furlong improperly used his work.” The freelancer felt cheated. “We were providing information so they could better understand the situation in Afghanistan, and it was being used to kill people,” he told the Times.
Clearly, the American news media aren’t the only ones moving to a freelance model for information gathering. The military and editors in New York are in some cases drawing on the same talent pool. Under such circumstances, the ambiguity surrounding journalists in war zones—to say nothing of the under-employed nature of journalists generally—suits the military just fine. But it is bad news for American journalism. It makes the days when the industry wrung its hands over the military’s embedding program look ideal by comparison—at least as embeds journalists maintained the institutional integrity of the press, even while riding on the military’s jeep.
It also makes the Pakistani colonel’s insinuation that Qahaar had a “secret agenda,” and the allegations of espionage that have been hung on nearly every kidnapped or arrested journalist in recent memory, much more troubling—not because I suddenly believe those charges have merit, but because there is now something concrete for the folks doing the kidnapping and arresting to use to justify their claims.
It is useful to remember that the term “freelancer” was first used for mercenaries who lent their martial skills and services to the highest bidder in time of war. In the current environment, the following scenario is certainly plausible: a freelance journalist, strapped for cash and with no institutional affiliations or loyalty, embeds herself with a unit of freelance warriors from the Blackwater army. Together, they ride into a war zone, all freelancers, with indeterminate missions and no one to vet whatever “journalism” gets committed. Things have never looked quite so eerily uncertain.