The Poisoned Chalice

Few things have characterised the post-9/11 American world more than our worshipful embrace of our generals. They’ve become our heroes, our sports stars, and our celebrities all rolled into one.

– William J. Astore

It was a pivotal moment in the history of US media and changed it forever. But it has been relegated to the past and largely forgotten. Yet, its consequences are still playing out on the pages of our newspapers and the reporting of the news.

The military embed program, which achieved its most sophisticated form in 2003 before the invasion of Iraq, transformed journalistic practices, the consequences of which remain with us.

For at least the last twenty-odd years, journalists in the US, and increasingly also in Europe, have cultivated close and collaborative relationships with military, political, and corporate power. Not only did journalists willingly embed with the US and European military forces to report on the wars in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, but equally, they chose to embed and report from deep within the world and worldview of intelligence, political, and corporate institutions.

The US military’s embed program began as a censorship and narrative control regime by the US military as it waged its invasions and occupations across the globe. And the habits journalists picked up by participating in it have become standard professional practice.

Once upon a time, the US military had to coerce, threaten, and even shoot at journalists to keep them in line. There is a long history of media collaboration with the US military regarding covering US wars. However, it was considered inappropriate journalistic behavior and avoided whenever possible. [Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Iraq, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004]. More often than not, the military had to use threats and other “incentives” to convince the media to comply.

Today, many mainstream journalists seem to require no such “incentives” to remain compliant with the discourses and messages of politicians and intelligence figures. The US military forced journalists to rely on official sources, selected spokespersons, prepared multi-media materials and printed handouts, and appointed insider access and anonymous “leaks” to report the wars. These practices–or habits–outlived the battlefield and found their way into regular reporting practices. They became the way we do journalism.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, US administrations worked to change how they worked with journalists. This was pretty easy. The 9/11 attacks gave birth to overtly jingoistic and patriotic media anxious to work closely with power and obsequiously obey the military. It was their duty. “What seems new with the Bush White House,” Ken Auletta wrote in 2004, “is the unusual skill that it has shown in keeping much of the press at a distance while controlling the news agenda…The White House has come to see reporters as special pleaders—pleaders for more access and better headlines—as if the press were simply another interest group, and, moreover, an interest group that’s not nearly as powerful as it once was.” [Ken Auletta, “Fortress Bush,” New Yorker, January 12, 2004].

The situation has only worsened over the years as an attitude of uncritical allegiance to the discourses of political, military, and corporate power infuses modern-day journalism, so much so that, as Serge Halimi, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, pointed out, “Journalists increasingly serve as masters of ceremony for the powerful groups that they should be seeking to control.” [Serge Halimi, “France: His Master’s Voice”, Le Monde Diplomatique, August 2001].

Today, journalists rely on privileged access to the corridors of the military, intelligence, and political power to produce their work. It is such a common practice that we no longer notice it. Embedded journalism has been transformed into “objective” journalism just as politically crafted media messages have become “breaking news.” The US media has adopted a set of double standards, allowing US and European journalists to collaborate with Western political and military power and still be called journalists.

In contrast, similar works emerging from Chinese or Russian publications are labeled propaganda. Of course, the latter is propaganda, but so is the work of US journalists. Using “access” to influential political, military, and intelligence figures who feed them select “intelligence” and “insider leaks,” US journalists have become stenographers of power.

And “access” is what embedding promised: access to powerful generals, US military compounds, associating with the soldiery, transport and logistics, special briefings, and the spectacle of battle. But “access” has proven addictive, and journalists are prepared to trade their integrity and curiosity. At the same time, it has severely limited the idea of what counts as journalism, with media discourses, issues, concerns, and priorities being set by political, military, and corporate interests rather than by citizen and democratic concerns. “We journalists.” wrote Ken Silverstein, “are allowed to go out to report, but when it comes time to write, we are expected to turn our brains off and repeat the spin from both sides. God forbid we should attempt to fairly assess what we see with our own eyes.” [Ken Silverstein, Turkmeniscam: How Washington Lobbyists Fought to Flack for a Stalinist Dictatorship, Random House, 2008:79].

What began in 1991 as a US military program for controlling access to the media has since mutated into the media’s practice of pursuing access as a form of journalism. But it is a special kind of “access” that relies on the conceit that only US (and those of some selected allies like the UK) intelligence, military, and political figures are uniquely trustworthy and reliable.

How did we get here?