Josh Rushing, a former USMC Captain who was a CENTCOM PAO during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, delivers his judgment on the embarrassingly transparent and dangerously amateurish spectacle of the invasion-period war coverage:
When I would go out and give reasons why we were going to invade Iraq, having been given the messages from a Republican operative that was my boss, he would give me the theme of the day. Sometimes it would be "WMD," others it would be "regime change" and others it would be "ties to terrorism." I would go out to a Fox reporter and they would say "Are there any messages you want to get across before we get to the live interview?" And we would script the interview around the government messaging, and they would thank me for my service at the end of it. And out of fairness, that wasn't just Fox. There were a number of American networks who did it. The reporters were in a position where there was no way their editorial leadership or their audience for that matter, wanted to see them be critical of a young troop in uniform.
But the devious part of that, is that the administration knew that and understood that and used young troops in uniform to sell the war in a way it knew couldn't be questioned or criticized. If you look at MSNBC, they packaged their coverage with a banner that said "Our Hearts Are With You." So when that banner is under my face and I'm giving the reasons why we need to go to war, is anyone going to ask me a critical question? Of course not, their hearts are with me. And there’s a danger in that.
The media's purpose in a democracy is to be professionally skeptical of anything that anyone in a position of authority or power says. If they’re not, who is? Nobody, and then the people in authority and power can say and do anything they want. So I was disappointed in that.
There are other examples, with Fox in particular. Fox likes personalities, and Geraldo Rivera covered the war on my TV and was giving away future troop movements by drawing a map in the sand.
There was another case where a Fox reporter was reporting live from in front of an Abrams tank that was on fire. The conventional wisdom was that Abrams tanks were impervious to the technology that the fedayeen had, small arms. But it turns out that if you did hit an Abrams tank in a certain spot with a rocket-propelled grenade, you could stop it and destroy it. So the Fox correspondent is reporting that, live on television: where the weak spot is and how this must have happened. Anyone watching that stuff, Iraqi intelligence officials, fedayeen soldiers – and we know they were watching it – would be like 'great, next time I see an Abrams, I'm gonna save my shot until I see the money shot and aim for the vulnerable spot I saw on TV. Thank you, Fox News.' Or anyone being watching the live report from Geraldo – where he's drawing the map in the sand – could say 'great, I know where coming and they're bringing Geraldo with them.' There's a danger in that.
And the thing is, Fox likes to see themselves as so pro-military and patriotic and they like to share their knowledge, like they're one of the guys. It's also interesting to note now how little Fox covers the war. MSNBC covered the war three times as much as Fox, I think in June. You've got to be kidding me. The number one cheerleader for this war is now just leaving it behind?
The embedding of journalists during OIF is generally considered to have been a success in that operational security was not compromised (the Geraldo incident and the broadcast vulnerability of the Abrams notwithstanding) while the perceptions of the American people were properly managed.
The reporting of the embedded media worked also to counter Iraq's propaganda claims of battlefield accomplishments, and by doing so, reinforced the rest of the U.S. PSYOP themes (don't use WMD, surrender to the "coalition", civilians stay indoors, etc.) in the minds of Saddam's military and the Iraqi people.
There was a smattering of reporters who chafed at the restrictions that were placed upon the embeds during the invasion, and wanted to venture out unaccompanied (as if they were going to cover an Officers' Wives Club luncheon). But, by and large, the embedded press corps was eager to disseminate to the viewers and readers their "soda straw" perspective of the beginning hours and days of the war.
However splendid their early performance operationally, the press played an unusually insidious role in selling the idea of this war of choice to the American people. Their refusal to ask the hard questions that would have exposed the administration's spurious basis for going into Iraq is inexcusable. "Just because we can" -- the remaining motive after the bones of all their other justifications were picked clean -- is not a good enough reason. A war of choice by necessity needs a compliant press corps. The same need applies to dealing with a complete disaster created as a result of heedless national leadership.
The nation hasn't soured on the war as a result of the reporting of the media. It is the natural common sense of the American people that is now informing their negative opinion of the war. Much of the U.S. media is still doing the bidding of their paymasters.
As Josh Rushing is fond of saying, there is a danger in that.
What is past is prologue.