The topic couldn't have been more timely. In a seminar room at the Friday Center in Chapel Hill last weekend, a group of scholars and current and retired military officers met to discuss "The American Media and Wartime Challenges." Meanwhile, just down the hall, a bank of TVs was busily broadcasting reports from the war in Iraq--many from the "embedded" reporters who emerged as a central theme of the gathering.
Although it's early in the war, the consensus was that the strategy of "embedding" journalists has been a major win for the military because it narrows the focus of reporting and keeps public attention and sympathy trained on the "narrative" of U.S. troops.
What's less clear is what will happen as the conflict goes on. "The embedded journalist is the story of the media in this war," said panelist Carol Winkler, chair of the Communications Department at Georgia State University. "At least to this point, it's been positive. But it's still a work in progress."
The two-day conference was hosted by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies (TISS), a consortium of research faculty from UNC-Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University and Duke. The institute's meetings usually draw a varied crowd and this one was no exception. The seminar room was a mix of rumpled academics and (mostly) men with military buzz cuts. More than a third of participants were students from the JFK Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, which trains members of the U.S. Army's Special Forces. Others were university professors, graduate students, retired military and government officials, with a few media fellows from international news organizations sprinkled in.
One group that wasn't well represented was journalists who have covered war. Colin Soloway, a reporter who broke the "American Taliban" story in Afghanistan and is now an "embedded" reporter for Newsweek, was supposed to participate in the conference. But he canceled at the last minute after war kicked off last week.
As a result, the debate on the media's role in the war stayed mostly theoretical. Still, there were moments of ripped-from-the-headlines clarity.
Cori Dauber, an associate professor of communication studies at UNC-Chapel Hill who's been studying media coverage of the government's war on terrorism, argued that encouraging stronger links between journalists and soldiers isn't such a bad thing at a time when "fewer Americans have a direct connection with their military. Most draw everything they know about the military from the media."
But others warned that embedding creates a kind of media Stockholm Syndrome that makes critical reporting difficult, if not impossible.
"It's normal to identify with the people you travel with," said Thomas Lansner, a former print reporter who's now an adjunct assistant professor of International Affairs at Columbia University. "The 'shock and awe' we're hearing about--a lot of it is from the journalists, not from the Iraqis who are experiencing it."
Several scholars noted that covering war through the eyes of soldiers on the ground isn't new; it's been an American tradition since World War II. What's changed is the proliferation of media sources--including cable TV and the Internet--the 24-hour nature of news coverage, and the global media context in which the war on Iraq is taking place.
That framework affects how the war plays out in American living rooms.
"I think the [media] war will be between Western embedded journalists and the Arab press on the issue of civilian casualties," said Dauber, referring to recent broadcasts by Al Jazeera showing dead civilians in Basra. [At press time, the network had also shown images of what reporters said were dead American soldiers.] "Rhetorically, what we're doing is turning war into a war crime. We've just completely forgotten that war is what it is."
Panelist James Der Derian, who teaches political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, countered that the notion of an antiseptic war stems from a "confluence of techniques and interests" between the media and the military. As a result, larger questions aren't being asked in media reports about the fighting in Iraq.
"Why are we not talking about whether this war is just or unjust?" Der Derian asked. "There's a more sophisticated analysis that's being missed."
And that's not the only gap. Panelist Joe Neff, an investigative reporter for the News & Observer who's written about problems with the Marine's V-22 Osprey program, said that since Sept. 11, government agencies have been shutting down access to public documents that are part of the toolkit for good investigative journalism. "The presumption now is that the documents aren't open," Neff said. "I'm more worried about closed government and a lack of information" than the aftereffects of embedding.
A final panelist noted that given the ways most Americans now get their news, there are concrete limits to spin--no matter what the state of relations between the military and the media. Jorge Reina Schement, co-director of the Institute for Information Policy at Penn State University, said Americans are becoming more "narrow" and private about their media choices. Many college students don't read a daily newspaper and few families gather around the TV set to discuss the nightly news.
While the number of media sources has expanded, Schement said, it's not clear that Americans are better informed as a result--or that they even choose to be better informed. He pointed out that just days after the war in Iraq began, most TV networks were back to their regular programming. "It's my understanding that the war is not good for ratings."
That was one scholarly point on which Carl De Orio, one of the students from Fort Bragg, could agree.
"We were having dinner at a restaurant last night and everyone in there was watching the basketball game," said De Orio, a U.S. Army reservist who's studying at the JFK Special Warfare Center. "On the bottom of the screen, there was a tiny little box and that's where the war news was."
Triangle Institute for Security Studies
Location: After being housed at UNC-Chapel Hill for many years, the Institute moved to Duke University in 2000.
History: Founded in 1958 as a brown bag lunch seminar for historians and political scientists at local universities, TISS has evolved into a broader consortium that covers many academic disciplines and supports research on national and international security issues.
Membership: About 500 nationally. Its 50 core members are mostly faculty at Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State. Others include retired military officers, government officials and graduate students.
Funding: Operating support comes from the three sponsoring universities. Research is funded by foundations and institutions such as the Army War College. A Ford Foundation grant supported outreach to historically black colleges and women in the late 1970s. Currently, the institute lacks a sizable endowment.
Programs: Monthly meetings and regular conferences. A speakers bureau has been increasingly popular since Sept. 11. Two major studies in the 1990s helped put TISS on the national map: a multidisciplinary "Study of War" and a "Project on the Gap Between the Military and Civilian Society." A conference in 2000 on transnational threats included discussion of he possibility of a terrorist attack on U.S. targets. Earlier this month, the institute sponsored a visit to the Triangle by Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Future plans: TISS Director Peter Feaver is heading up a new study on "Wielding American Power" that should be completed in time for the 2004 presidential election season.
Web site: www.duke.edu/web/tiss.