A young couple in love is probably not quite what the Pentagon had in mind when it came up with the idea of “embedding” civilian journalists in military units headed for the Persian Gulf.

So when Mike Marti, a major in the 82nd Airborne, chose the occasion of his deployment to Kuwait to propose to his girlfriend Tanya Biank, a Fayetteville Observer reporter who’d been assigned to cover Marti’s unit, it was only a matter of time before the lovebirds’ supervisors sent Biank packing back to North Carolina.

“We were surprised,” said Observer Managing Editor Michael Arnholt. “It hadn’t been an issue previously. It raises questions we need to look at.”

You can say that again.

While it remains to be seen if the evolving relationship between reporters and soldiers in Iraq will result in any more marriage proposals, the practice of embedding has already resulted in plenty of other unusual situations. In one of the most striking, a reporter and photographer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found themselves carrying stretchers and taking care of wounded civilians as bullets flew nearby.

“You have to go with him,” a soldier shouted as he put an intravenous drip bag into reporter Ron Martz’s hands. “I don’t have anyone else.” Martz didn’t hesitate to help, writing later that “reality changed the rules.”

There are still rules?

If you’re wondering how long it will be before we see a reporter who feels the rules have changed enough to pick up a gun and start firing on advancing Iraqi soldiers, you’re not alone. The line between journalist and combatant–already blurred by media that jettison traditional notions of fairness in favor of supporting “our” troops–is getting muddier every day.

The case of WTVD 11 reporter Keith Garvin, assigned to a unit that was quickly sent into Iraq, nicely demonstrates the pluses and minuses of embedded journalism. As Jay Price of the The News & Observer and Ken Smith of WRAL-TV remained stuck with their units in Kuwait during the war’s early days (a situation that surely had their bosses climbing the wall), WTVD’s Garvin offered some gripping close-up reporting from near the front lines. He happened to be in Jalibah the day a Marine supply convoy was ambushed 40 miles to the north, and filed one of the first reports of the incident from the temporary camp where seven recovered bodies had just been flown. Days later, his report of children in An Nasiriyah being forced to fire on Marines (and Marines firing back) was picked up by news outlets across the globe.

Garvin’s best “you are there” items can be captivating, but if you look carefully, you’ll notice that in very few of them is he reporting something he’s witnessed with his own eyes. Instead, he simply passes along information given to him by military sources, like so:

“U.S. Marines were approached by an Iraqi vehicle waving a white flag of surrender, military officials told ABC News affiliate reporter Keith Garvin of WTVD.”

In cases like that, embedded reporters like Garvin become little more than convenient mouthpieces for whatever military officials want to say. This is one of the most common criticisms of embedding, of course–that editors and reporters are offering themselves as a propaganda arm of the military in exchange for the ability to sell their customers exciting war stories. It’s worth remembering, too, that the Pentagon carefully chooses which units have embedded reporters (units involved in the worst fighting often do not have reporters along), prevents reporters from leaving their units without permission, and reserves the right to boot embeds at any time.

The issue here isn’t just that military officials might sometimes lie or spread disinformation through reporters who happen to be nearby. More important is that embedded journalists like Garvin–who, to be blunt, have access to fewer war news sources than your average suburban teenager with an AOL account and a spare 10 minutes–have no way to check the validity of the second-hand information they’re being given by military officials. This can result in an unusually narrow view of what’s really happening on the ground.

Military analysts call this the “soda straw view” of war, a phrase used to describe gazing at a battlefield through something like a Predator drone’s camera. This time, however, the limitations are personal rather than technological. Embedded journalists like Keith Garvin, skilled as they may be, have very little to work with aside from the data immediately in front of them or what they’re spoon-fed from nearby officials. This approach has already resulted in hasty, exaggerated and incorrect stories, like the alleged “street uprising” in Basra that never was, or the misleading news of a quick takeover of the port of Umm Qasr.

Romance in the trenches

“We need skeptical journalists on the home front to counterbalance the ’embeds’ who will, quite naturally, start feeling parental, protective, and proud of the troops they cover,” says former Time editor Michael Ryan. He proves the point with a recent quote from UPI reporter Pamela Hess: “Reporters love troops. Put us with these 18-year-old kids … we just turn to jelly.”

Well, that sure inspires confidence in press coverage of this war. The constant stream of pro-military feature stories and photo essays that Jay Price and Chuck Liddy filed for the N&O–on topics like camp boredom and soldier baptisms–were just the kind of coverage the Pentagon was hoping for. Not only did the stories provide constant pro-military coverage in the run-up to war, they also helped crowd out other news that might have raised serious questions about an invasion. The news pages were empty of the kind of detailed dissections of Colin Powell’s lies before the U.N. on Feb. 5 that appeared in letters and op-ed columns. But Price’s friendly dispatches from Kuwait kept coming. How are editors dealing with the prospect of “parental, protective” stories about U.S. troops from their embedded reporters? And how can a newspaper be expected to report truthfully with the Pentagon ready to boot media embeds at the first sign of trouble?

“I know that it is not an ideal reporting situation,” admits the Fayetteville Observer’s Michael Arnholt, “but we’ve done this dozens of times–in Kosovo, Bosnia, Panama. Our readers really like it. It’s their neighbors and fathers and husbands and wives who are over there.”

Is he worried that the Pentagon will expect only positive stories?

“That’s always a concern. But the rules of the game are such as they are. If the choice is between following those rules or not having anyone there at all, I want someone there.”

News & Observer Executive Editor Melanie Sill, who admitted to readers in an editor’s note that the paper “could lose our access if the military didn’t like what we reported,” feels the tradeoff between access and independence is worth making. She says embedding is a necessary part of the paper’s total coverage.

“We’re not just relying on embedded reporters,” she says. “We have a lot of different sources, including non-embedded reporters in northern Iraq from our sister paper, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.” (Both newspapers are owned by the McClatchy Company.)

Sill adds, “The restrictions aren’t very different from what the Pentagon used in Vietnam.”

Well, except for the fact that embedded journalists 1) aren’t free to travel wherever they like, as reporters were throughout the Vietnam war, and 2) can’t interview soldiers off the record, as reporters could in Vietnam. Those are hardly minor points, say two veteran war correspondents.

“When you’re embedded in a unit, you rely on the military for transportation: They will decide where you go, what you see, and what you report,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Christopher Hedges, author of the new book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. “They’re not going to drive the press vehicle to sites if things go terribly wrong. É When the military has a war to win, everything gets sacrificed before that objective, including the truth.”

“It’s hard for any reporter to be aggressively critical of someone you’re bonding with,” says longtime journalist and former soldier Sydney Schanberg, whose experiences in Cambodia were the basis for the movie The Killing Fields. Schanberg calls embedding “good PR” for the military and notes that in Vietnam, “most things guys really wanted to tell you were not on the record.”

“You might be able to file what you want,” he adds, “but you will always have to worry about the penalty if you are on the edge of the rules. That’s certainly designed to make you pull your punches if you have any doubts.”

Reporters and editors insist that they’re aware of the dangers folks like Hedges and Schanberg point out, and are making adjustments accordingly. But it’s not clear how local editors will react if the Pentagon decides that the strategy isn’t working as planned and begins to clampdown on the information fed to embeds, keeping them away from unpleasant action. Donald Rumsfeld has already expressed doubts after CBS showed images of the attack by a U.S. soldier on a Kuwaiti base: “Here we have permitted press people to be embedded, as they say, with the overwhelming majority of our elements–air, land and sea. And so what happens is we see an image like that.”

The implication, of course, is that the Pentagon is doing journalists a favor by allowing them to report the war, and deserves only positive reporting in exchange. That’s a strange position from the defense secretary of a country whose military is–last time anyone checked–still under civilian control.

Defenders of embedding do have at least one excellent point, however: embedded journalism isn’t really new. In fact, if you’re looking for an example of a group of reporters so anxious to keep their access that they willingly allow themselves to be used as propaganda outlets and pull their punches so as not to offend the powers that be, just watch the White House press corps in action. That crew is so far “embedded” up the White House’s you-know-what it sometimes appears they’ve forgotten the rest of the world exists at all.

Keith Garvin, Jay Price and the rest surely can’t do any worse than that. EndBlock