The Washington Post’s David Ignatius did us all a favor in Sunday’s Outlook section, with a critical look at embedding—a journalistic practice that’s become increasingly commonplace, and not just in the military.
Ignatius quickly fesses up to his own embedded adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then he gets to the heart of his argument, and it’s a point that the press really needs to think through:
But embedding comes at a price. We are observing these wars from just one perspective, not seeing them whole. When you see my byline from Kandahar or Kabul or Basra, you should not think that I am out among ordinary people, asking questions of all sides. I am usually inside an American military bubble. That vantage point has value, but it is hardly a full picture.
I fear that an embedded media is becoming the norm, and not just when it comes to war. The chroniclers of political and cultural debates increasingly move in a caravan with one side or another, as well. This nonmilitary embedding may have a different rationale, but there’s a similar effect that comes with traveling under the canopy of a particular candidate, party or community. Journalists gain access to information and talkative sources, but also inherit the distortions and biases that come with being “on the bus” or “on the plane.”
The larger troubles of the news business are complicated, but this problem is simple: We can’t understand what we don’t see; we can’t explain a conflict if we hear from only one side.
It’s too bad, though, that Ignatius didn’t use this piece—entitled “Why the Inside Story Isn’t Enough” and published the morning after the ultimate insider event, the White House Correspondents’ dinner—to draw a bit more attention to the way embedding has become a part of life in the political world. During the presidential campaign season, large news organizations now routinely place (mostly young) reporters and producers inside each candidate’s “bubble” for weeks at a time. They’re dependent on the campaigns they’re covering for transport, food and shelter (the bills paid by the office), and, I fear, getting a rigorous training in how to tell a story from just one perspective.
Ignatius knows the military side of this story well, though, and as he traces the way embedding emerged after journalists (mostly) sat on the sidelines of the Persian Gulf War, he draws an interesting, though troubling, conclusion.
Indeed, I think one reason for the news media’s inadequate examination of the rationale for war in late 2002 and 2003 was that we knew President George W. Bush had already made his decision — the Army was lined up in the desert, after all — and most editors were focused on figuring out how best to report it.
For the press, though, the piece is most powerful when Ignatius connects the embedding trend with the changing media landscape. Foreign correspondents might like to think they “travel with an implicit ‘white flag’—a pledge of independence and neutrality that will be respected by everyone.” But that’s not the world we live in, he writes.
We live in an embedded world, in which journalists are often required to take sides, or to see things from only one side, as a condition of doing their job. In this world, it is hard to blame an Al-Jazeera viewer for thinking that Fox News cares about only one side of a war, or a Fox viewer for feeling the same way about Al-Jazeera. That is a poisonous and dangerous divide.
It is also an unprofessional one. Embedding may be necessary for war reporters, but it isn’t for most other journalists. Yet the culture of observing events from “inside” a community is becoming more prevalent. Partly it is a result of technologies and platforms (the Web, social media networks) that have carved mass audiences into particular niches. When the information landscape was dominated by three networks and a few major newspapers, journalists were trained to report for everyone. Now, niche audiences want more intimacy and connection — even if that means less old-school independence and objectivity.
I like how Ignatius describes coverage of Wall Street and its critics on Capitol Hill: “one side or the other is implicitly the home team, depending on what you watch or read.” It’s a good point. We seem to treat every stock market rally like it’s a good thing. Is it?