War Is Not Hell

The Chron's embedded reporter is far from the action

As the Bush administration's Iraqi adventure rumbles on to its inevitable conclusion, the big debate in journalistic circles has been over the Pentagon's policy of "embedding" reporters among troops. About 600 slots have been made available for reporters to accompany soldiers, sailors and fliers as they invade the oil-rich land of Saddam.

Some of the resulting reporting has been stunning, as in the Washington Post's eyewitness report of soldiers from the Army's Third Infantry Division firing on a van that refused to stop at a checkpoint. Some of the coverage, especially on TV, has been criticized for being too gung-ho, with commentators questioning whether reporters can objectively cover soldiers who are more or less responsible for keeping them alive.

How has the Houston Chronicle been faring? Is the Chron's embedded reporter a shameless happy-face army supporter or a cynical mouthpiece for Saddam?

The answer: neither. And for that, you can blame Turkey.

Chronicle reporter Michael Hedges and photographer Andrew Innerarity are embedded with the Army's Fourth Infantry Division. Unfortunately for them, that was the division that was supposed to get to the battlefield through Turkey; when the Turkish government refused to allow access, the Fourth Division stayed behind in Fort Hood.

"We wanted to be with a Texas unit," Chronicle editor Jeff Cohen says. "Had we known ahead of time of the problems there were going to be with Turkey, we would have made a different choice, but once you've made that choice there's no switching."

When the embedded-journalist program was gearing up in late February and early March, the Chronicle, like other media outlets, was asked for a list of preferred units. The Fourth Division was Texan and also allowed the two Chronicle staffers to remain together, so the paper pushed for it rather than the Third Division, which ended up being heavily involved in the fighting.

Cohen says the paper passed on a chance to be embedded on an aircraft carrier. "And I'm glad we did -- the aircraft carriers have produced the most boring stories I've seen on the wire," he says.

That's true -- unlike the ground forces, reporters on the carriers or with air units don't go along on missions. That inherent lack of a chance for drama is also hampering the Chronicle's other embedded reporter, James Pinkerton, who is stationed at an air base in Kuwait.

He's produced some nice pieces on life on an air base, but they're nothing like the gripping stories that can come from accompanying troops into battle.

The Chronicle also has a reporter roaming the Middle East doing war-reaction stories, and one covering the Central Command press conferences in Qatar. (The Chron, like too many papers, likes the prestige of having a staff byline on press conference stories that always end up similar to all the other stories coming out of the particular press conference, whether it's in Qatar or at a presidential summit meeting.)

The Fourth Division, of course, finally is on the move to Iraq, with the Chron staffers in tow. Whether there will be much drama left once they get there remains to be seen, but Cohen says he's not that disappointed with how things worked out.

"I don't feel unlucky or stuck," he says. "I feel like our coverage has been very good."

Better Late Than Never

On Sunday, March 30, the Chron had a story on the inept arguments made by Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal to the U.S. Supreme Court four days earlier. He had appeared before the justices on the Texas anti-sodomy statute, a closely watched gay rights case.

The story quoted The New York Times, which said the oral arguments in Washington "proved to be a mismatch of advocates rarely seen at the court." It quoted USA Today, which called the arguments "surprisingly lopsided"; it cited a report from the Knight Ridder newspaper chain on a particular Rosenthal low point that day. (Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked the D.A. whether Texas bars gays from adopting children, and Rosenthal could only answer, "I don't know.")

The story also could have quoted American Lawyer, which called the arguments "a mismatch to a degree rarely seen in the high court," or the online magazine Slate, which roundly ridiculed Rosenthal's efforts.

One thing the Chron story didn't quote: its own piece the day after his supreme court appearance. Anyone reading that account of the day's arguments would have come away thinking Rosenthal did just fine. The story outlined some of the tough questions justices asked the D.A., but it noted that the gay rights lawyer arguing the other side "also got his share of grilling."

It wasn't until the rest of the nation's media weighed in on the unusual events in this important hometown case that the Chron decided to amend the record. Eventually.

"I think the Sunday story will have to speak for itself," Cohen says.

 
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