19 March 2006

CBC shifts views on "embedding"

Stephen Puddicombe just got back from spending six weeks with the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan as an embedded journalist.

As the BBC describes the practice embedding means that "reporters eat and sleep alongside soldiers and, thanks to recent advances in technology, bring live reports of firefights and artillery onslaughts into our living rooms."

Jeff Gilhooley from CBC radio St. John's Morning Show interviewed Stephen about his experiences last Friday. You can find the interview here.


The link requires RealPlayer.

Biggest news: Puddicombe's attitudes have changed to being embedded, just as the CBC's views on the subject seem to have changed.

One of the first things Stephen says is that he initially rejected the offer to go to Kandahar, based on the attitude toward embedding that CBC News displayed during the Iraq invasion three years ago.

At the time CBC refused any opportunity to embed with coalition forces claiming that they would lose their ability to report independently. There were plenty of suggestions that embedding was just a Pentagon tactic to control the media or influence coverage in a subversive fashion:
They call it embedding. It would be disingenuous to suggest this is all because the Pentagon has been struck with First-Amendment fever. Rather, it's a savvy PR campaign to win the hearts and minds of the nation with stories of fresh-faced troops in historic victories.
Paul Workman, CBC television's workman international correspondent, spent a great deal of his time three years ago reporting as an "independent" journalist on his inability to gain access to areas of the battle zone. "We approached the Mutlaa Road check point for the third time in 24 hours...". Sadly, his comments on that incident are no longer linked from the cbc.ca site, although the link page is still active. His National story is available here.

Workman described his approach versus embedding this way comparing embedding to a report he had filed on an Iraqi who was upset with the war:
You're not getting interviews like that from embedded reporters. You're more likely to see a glorified view of American power and morality, in a war much of the world considers unnecessary, unjustified or plain wrong, and is being covered at every crossroads, at every captured bridge, by a press corps that's sleeping with the winner."
Puddicombe's comments are startling in contrast, and sign of a change in CBC attitudes since deployment of Canadian troops to Afghanistan. Peter Mansbridge's first trip to Kabul prompted the National Post to cover the change in embedding policy.

It's interesting to see that in 2004, CBC's editor chief Tony Burman said the decision against embedding in Iraq was practical, not philosophical. Compare that to Paul Workman's report, linked above, in which Workman states that the decision against embedding with American or British troops was both practically and philosophically based.

There is some evidence that Workman's view was correct. CBC television had a number of incidents in which stories were deliberately skewed against Americans through dubious editing practices. One of the more egregious examples was using footage of a dramatic fire on an American M-109 howitzer - with soldiers running for cover - with a story on depleted uranium munitions in Iraq and their supposed horrific impacts on Iraqi civilians. M-109s don't fire depleted uranium and the soldiers. In that piece, CBC even contradicted its own detailed story on the same issue from only a couple of years earlier, lending weight to Iraqi claims that had previously been dispelled.

Puddicombe is now convinced of the value of embedding. As he told Gilhooley, "being there and getting to know the men and women that were serving and going out on patrols and what have you really changed your perspective on being embedded. It's a first hand access we otherwise wouldn't have had."

That's what embedding is supposed to do. There's nothing sinister about it. And, as Puddicombe and others have found, reporters get access to stories they otherwise would never have come across. In Iraq, CNN could reporter live from the field as an on-scene American army chemical weapons unit inspected a farm suspected of being a chemical weapons cache. The magic of the report came when the detachment commander provided his assessment live, before having submitted the formal report through his chain of command: this was a farm and the chemicals were typical agricultural fertilizers and pesticides.

In my own relatively limited experience with embedding, reporters got access to information and episodes simply by being there. The subsequent reports were thorough and accurate, even if some sensitive information was deleted for admittedly legitimate reasons.

Those reading, watching and listening to the reports also got more detailed reporting than they would have otherwise had.

Will they be fooled by it?

Likely not. News consumers are increasingly a sophisticated lot that can smell spin - bullshit - for what it is.

What they do have is more information on which to base their own judgments.

When it comes to the deployment of Canadian troops in any part of the world - including Kandahar - an informed public is a good thing.