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'Embedding' a good policy

In the Gulf War 12 years ago, reporters weren't allowed anywhere near the front. They had to rely on daily briefings by Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf to get an idea of what was happening. Today there can be no doubt that the Pentagon's new policy of allowing reporters to be "embedded" with coalition forces provides Americans a much better level of accuracy and accountability over how the war is being fought.

It does not, however, provide a full and complete view of how the war is progressing. That is difficult to achieve during any ongoing campaign. It would be easier, however, if Gen. Tommy Franks would begin holding regular news briefings to supplement the reports from the field.

Some media observers have been critical of the embedding policy, saying it has led to too many positive reports from the battle front. This, they say, is because those journalists depend on the soldiers in their units for their safety. This dependent relationship leads to a loss of journalistic independence.

Clearly, there is no way to please some people.

With the combination of embedded journalists from several different countries, several other journalists wandering unattached through Iraq and around-the-clock cable channels providing analysis from retired military officials and others, it is difficult to believe that much of what is going on could escape notice. Critics say the anti-war protests and reactions from other countries are not getting the coverage they deserve, but it's hard to see how those things could compete with the news value of men and women in mortal combat.

The stark truth is that the coverage has so far been positive largely because the campaign is going well. If things were to take a turn for the worse, the embedded reporters would present an accurate picture of that, which would likely lead to a return of friction between the military and the media, as happened in Vietnam.

The value of embedded journalists is that they provide eyewitnesses to the daily conduct of war. The enemy cannot legitimately claim that atrocities were committed so long as those witnesses cannot corroborate the claims. The Pentagon's decision to allow journalists to travel with troops speaks well of its confidence in how coalition forces will conduct the war.

But viewers must remember that each report from an embedded journalist represents only a slice of what is actually happening. That's why daily reports from Gen. Franks would be so helpful toward understanding the full picture. His rare briefing Monday was a welcome development.

In the final analysis, however, it appears that Americans are getting a much better picture of how this war is being waged than they have during any conflict in decades.