Embedded and still alive in Iraq | TheUnion.com

Embedded and still alive in Iraq

Richard Somerville

The videotape of a Marine shooting a wounded and possibly unarmed Iraqi had stirred emotions almost as much as the images coming out of Abu Ghraib prison last April.

The tape was shot last Saturday by an embedded NBC News journalist, Kevin Sites, and ended up being shown repeatedly in various news shows, including on Al Jazeera, the Arab network.

There still is much unknown about the incident. For instance, in the videotape, the soldier can be heard yelling that the Iraqi prisoner was only pretending to be dead, suggesting he was firing in self-defense.

But what is true is that the Arab world is in an uproar, and some American officers say the tape is a boost for the anti-American insurgency. At home, some are calling for the end of “embedding,” where journalists travel with military units, and Sites has received hate mail and death threats, although he has remained mum on the incident.

An incident like this was probably inevitable once the military decided to permit embedded journalists. They felt that the pros outweighed the cons, and I believe they were right. But then again, the length and violence of the Iraqi insurgency – and thus the increased likelihood of such footage – perhaps was not foreseen.

Some things that should be taken into account when deciding where you stand on the issue of whether to show the tape or not:

• Sites, who is said to be a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where I was on staff before coming to The Union, is a multimedia free-lancer – the modern-day equivalent of a media soldier of fortune. His Web site says he has worked in other world hot spots like Afghanistan, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, as well as the Middle East.

It is likely that he paid his own way to Iraq with the goal of signing on to shoot footage for networks too fearful of putting their own reporters in harm’s way.

• His job is to travel with a Marine unit and provide stories and footage to NBC. Embedded journalists must agree to a very strict set of deadlines as to what can and can’t be released. But the ultimate decision on what to air or print and what not to is the ultimate responsibility of top editors, not the cameraman or reporter.

• NBC recognized the sensitivity of the Fallujah footage, and kept a lid on it for three days while they reviewed the circumstances of the shooting. (The Abu Ghraib photos were held for two weeks by CBS before airing them on “60 Minutes II.”)

• Sites was a “pool” reporter that day, meaning that networks – to conserve resources, and risk – often agree to share their footage with each other before broadcast. After due diligence, NBC released the footage Monday afternoon to other networks via a secure Internet-based system rather than the normal satellite transmission, for fear that the images would be grabbed out of the air and publicized without context.

An NBC spokesman says military authorities on Monday night requested a delay in the release, but it was too late. (The Defense Department says it’s not aware of any such request.)

So . . . was it right to air the footage or wrong? Certainly, as the insurgency phase of the Iraq war has gone on, and Americans and Iraqis continue to die, the sensitivity to brutal images has risen on both sides.

The Oscar-winning Steven Spielberg movie, “Saving Private Ryan,” featuring bountiful blood and expletives, was shown without incident on Veterans Day in 2001 and 2003. This year, 66 ABC affiliates refused to show it for fear it was too graphic for the current climate.

This led the New York Times’ Frank Rich to wonder that if this is going on in the networks’ entertainment divisions, would they also “soften their news divisions’ efforts to present the graphic truth of an ongoing war? . . . The censors argue that Abu Ghraib, and now a Marine’s shooting of a wounded Iraqi prisoner in a Fallujah mosque, are vastly ‘overplayed’ by the so-called elite media.”

One can also argue that, Al Jazeera and propaganda motives aside, having videotape showing a fearful Marine shouting about a moving prisoner before he fires moves us closer to understanding the truth than written stories or, worse, rumors.

There is no doubt, too, that journalists have paid the price for covering this war. At least 36 have lost their lives so far, and those who remain in Iraq face the same dangers, and sometimes even greater ones, as American servicemen face.

Hannah Allam, a 27-year-old reporter for the Knight-Ridder News Service, has been in Iraq since July 2003. While her team has escaped death or serious injury, “our American and Iraqi correspondents have been shot at countless times, attacked by knife-wielding rebels and bruised by stones lobbed from angry mobs. They’ve been trampled by riotous demonstrators, arrested by a renegade police force, taken hostage by militiamen, and turned by red-hot shrapnel.”

Her mother back in Oklahoma begs her to come home, saying “there’s no honor in having your head chopped off.”

“But it feels too early to leave,” Hannah wrote Wednesday. “American soldiers – 138,000 of them – are still here. There are 26 million Iraqis desperately seeking security and elected leaders. A brutal dictator is awaiting trial. There are still so many stories to be told.”

May she live to tell them.


Richard Somerville is the editor of The Union. His column appears each Saturday.

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