Years ago, New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm produced a book, The Journalist and the Murderer, in which she claimed that the essence of journalism was betrayal. Actually, she took an extreme example of journalism — a reporter who entered into a contractual relationship with his subject — but she nonetheless made literal a feeling familiar to most reporters of betraying one’s subject in the very act of writing a story. Still, when it comes to the essential nature of mainstream journalism, the kind practiced in the newsrooms of our elite papers and network news shows, she was, to my mind, quite wrong. There, the most ordinary act isn’t betrayal, but collusion.
I think if you were to Google recently-coined terms, you might find none more overused in the last couple of weeks than “embedded.” It’s become something of an expression of pride for reporters in the Gulf, despite the unmistakable hint of collusion embedded in it, despite the undeniable weight of Pentagon propaganda behind it. We’ve been dealing with the hundreds of “embedded” reporters in Iraq as if they were a phenomenon completely novel in the history of journalism, and yet (even forgetting all those World War II reporters and photographers who went ashore with official approval in Normandy or on islands in the Pacific, slogged it out, and died with the troops) embedding is really the norm of American journalism. Looked at in a slightly wider frame, what is the Washington press corps but a set of embedees, practicing a collusive trade, with the odd “unilateral” thrown in for good measure?
That thought arose yesterday as I undertook the Sisyphean task of reading through the 16-page freestanding “A Nation at War” section of The New York Times, and stumbled within seconds upon a hilarious lead piece by Elisabeth Bumiller, “President, No Matter Where, Keeps Battlefield Close.” It’s a perfect example of embedded journalism, Washington-style, from a pussycat of an embedee. Bumiller covers the “ins” (I can’t quite bring myself to say ins-and-outs) of the White House. When the Library of America does its two-volume collection, Reporting on George and Saddam’s World, I nominate this piece, a classic of embedded journalism, for inclusion.
Bush, we know, goes to bed early, exercises hard, and doesn’t like to miss a weekend at Camp David, whatever happens to be going on in the world. All of which might seem a little detached, potentially just a little uncaring, during a time of war. Only days ago, “administration officials” were assuring embedded reporters in Washington that the President wasn’t watching the war on television. But if you happened to be micromanaging the Presidential image post-that-weekend-away-at-Camp-David, during which some Americans fought and died in Iraq, and others couldn’t take their eyes off the TV set, it’s the sort of impression you’d probably like to tweak a little. So you just might look around for the embedded journalist from the Times assigned to your unit and then…
Of course, I’m only speculating, but that’s because Bumiller herself offers not a hint that she might be passing on the worst sort of piffle, essentially disinformation, or a Karl-Rove-supervised presidential line. She simply starts with the President in front of the TV screen “at Camp David last weekend, absorbed in every detail of the news from Iraq, when a correspondent came on to report that the president of the United States, according to White House officials, was not glued to the TV. Mr. Bush started laughing…” — and here comes her single, unimpeachable source since she surely wasn’t there to observe this — “said his close friend Roland Betts…” — Mr. Betts remains otherwise unidentified. “‘He is just totally immersed,’ Mr. Betts said in an interview.”
Elsewhere in the piece, Bumiller describes the president as “wholly absorbed” in the “specifics” of where our troops are, citing “an administration official.” It evidently didn’t occur to embedee Bumiller that two people close to the President who suddenly assure her he’s “totally immersed” and “totally absorbed” might have been offering an agreed-upon image of the Presidential Self, rather than bona fide reality. Instead she assures us gushingly that Bush has “emerged as an engrossed commander in chief…”
To believe Bumiller, our President is out of bed, but a thorough couch potato, something like the nation’s First Absorbee (with his own set of embeds to call on, since we’re informed that national security adviser Condi Rice is in a nearby cabin ready at the flick of a zapper to check out any television-induced presidential worries). The president, Bumiller assures us, is also the First Decider, having made two (count ’em, one, two) “major military decisions within the last 10 days with what his aides say is almost no equivocation.”
During the first of these, the essential decision to go to war, Colin Powell “reached out and lightly touched the president’s hand, said a senior administration official.” (Undoubtedly, Bumiller’s source was the Secretary of Human Touch or a body double from some Monty Python routine.) The President is also the First Assassin, having made the decision himself, she assures us, to “decapitate” Saddam and his nasty sons. He was, she implies, shielded from the third major decision — the one now roiling Washington’s waters — on how many troops to embed in that famed “battle plan.” And so on. It’s an instant classic of Bushwa.
Embedding seems to have robbed poor Bumiller of all irony, distance, or judgment — and the Times, which like the rest of the imperial press is deeply embedded in the upper reaches of the political system, prints this stuff without even the sort of warning you’d get on a cigarette pack. Of course, collusion is a curious potage of access, flattery, bondage, and attraction (a description that fits embedded war journalists no less well). Let yourself be embedded like Bumiller, and you get the honor, for instance, of exchanging emails with Paul Wolfowitz, as Bumiller makes clear in her column. (“….in an email message on Friday, responding to a question about the way the president makes military decisions.”) Admittedly, for some of you, that might not be the thrill of a lifetime. But then, you’re not there. I’m reminded of a comment the historian and former ambassador to Japan Edwin Reischauer once made to a class in East Asian history. He was probably talking about Mao Tse-tung, but I’ve always felt it applied well enough to much of the rest of life. “What’s charisma to one,” he said, “is zilch to another.”
By the way, add to that list of Presidential firsts, First Cowboy, as Susan Faludi, points out in her fine piece on the Times op-ed page yesterday, “An American Myth Rides Into the Sunset.” Of course, Faludi is an outsider, well armed with irony, distance, and a sense of history and administration propaganda. And it’s only the op-ed page, after all.
Now, let’s turn to another piece of insider reportage from yesterday’s A Nation at War section, David Sanger’s “As a Quick Victory Grows Less Likely, Doubts are quietly voiced in Washington.”
Sanger is a long-term Washington embedee and his piece tells us something about the limits of where insider reportage can go without an embedded journalist being cashiered from his unit and quick-marched out of the political battle zone. After ten days of war, Sanger reports, “a capital that usually embraces the president and his strategy in wartime is beginning to show fissures.” He then cites the “oppositional” types he assumedly plays e-mail or phone tag with: “There are the Central Intelligence analysts, quietly complaining that their warnings that Saddam Hussein’s government might not crack like peanut brittle were dismissed.” There are unnamed “veteran Democrats” (capital D) cautioning other Democrats (capital D) not to criticize too quickly in wartime. There are retired Democratic Party figures — in this case Lee Hamilton, former head of the House International Relations Committee — who like retired generals and admirals can say for attribution what their colleagues still “in the service” have to whisper anonymously. There are unnamed sources who have slipped him “circulating e-mail” from Democratic critics that carried “the most optimistic prewar quotes from prominent hawks.” And there are, of course, the rejoinders from “aides” to the President to give the piece the necessary balance. There is even an unnamed “former aide to the first President Bush” who is quoted as saying, “It was hubris to go on Fox News and proclaim the war would be a cakewalk. The gods were bound to hear it.”
One of the hallmarks of embedded reportage from Washington, whether flattering or critical, is its claustrophobic quality. No one who is not in — or somehow connected to — that world is imagined to have anything to say. Sanger takes a clever stab at dealing with this and letting a little air in. He reaches back into history to cite presidents who were criticized in wartime, and in the process manages to quote Mark Twain criticizing President McKinley during the Spanish-American war. But no living critic outside the embedded world is cited.
Given the collusive nature of political reporting in Washington, no piece is likely to exceed the comfort zone of inside-the-Beltway critics. And given that the Democratic Party has not been a serious opposition party for years — realistically, it may not even be a political party any more — reporters like Sanger have, until now, had almost nowhere to go.
Of course, as the Times itself is an embedded institution, you can find embedded journalism all over the paper. The lead editorial of the day, “The Weapons We Need Now,” is an obvious example. Citing poor performance in the first ten days of war in Iraq by the Air Force’s “gold-plated but unsuitable planes,” the editorial writer sets as his (or her) task, helping the Pentagon better spend its money:
“The Pentagon has been eager to showcase its high-tech weapons at work in Iraq, and some of them are impressive indeed. But we’re also seeing how much the future will depend on the military’s ability to fight ground wars against guerrilla soldiers and take villages and cities using ground forces, rather than all-out bombardment of heavily populated areas. The Defense Department is still buying weapons systems designed to fight the well-equipped superpower enemies of the 20th century rather than the mobile, unconventional forces likely to be fielded by the rogue states of the 21st. Every dollar spent on yesterday’s unsuitable weapons is a dollar no longer available for the more pressing needs of tomorrow.”
It may seem that the Pentagon invented “embedding” for the war in Iraq. The media has certainly reported the phenomenon that way. But it’s worth remembering how ordinary a phenomenon embedding actually is. The world is largely brought to us, here in these United States, by the deeply embedded, complete with a deeply embedded worldview and little consciousness of the rules by which the embedees live and work. It works so much better that way, when no one bothers to point out the problems, and no one even thinks that you might be an embedee.