Monday, April 14, 2003

Life, death, and objectivity. Here are a few of Roget's synonyms for objectivity: "detachment," "disinterest," "dispassion," "fairness," and "impartiality." In journalism, fairness and impartiality are good; but detachment and dispassion are more suitable for a certified public accountant than for someone who's trying to bring a story home in all of its vivid truth.

The Boston Herald's embedded reporter, Jules Crittenden, described the limits of objectivity in an astounding account for the Sunday paper, recounting how he called out Iraqi positions as his unit rolled through Baghdad, thus helping to kill three Iraqi soldiers. He writes:

Some in our profession might think as a reporter and non-combatant, I was there only to observe. Now that I have assisted in the deaths of three human beings in the war I was sent to cover, I'm sure there are some people who will question my ethics, my objectivity, etc. I'll keep the argument short. Screw them, they weren't there. But they are welcome to join me next time if they care to test their professionalism.

Crittenden's account comes closer than anything I've read in this three-week war to making me feel as though I were there, and experiencing for myself the abject fear and its close cousin, exhiliration, that define combat.

But of course, this isn't objectivity -- a bogus concept in any case -- or, for that matter, a fair, comprehensive view of what's going on in Iraq. The reality is that Crittenden's account illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of the embed program.

The strength, of course, is that it gives us a close-up look and otherwise-unattainable insight into what it's like for American soldiers to fight this war. The weakness is that the embeds' accounts necessarily become the story of the war as seen through the eyes of American soldiers.

No reporter is going to be "objective" about those who are protecting his or her life. And Crittenden's assistance in killing Iraqi troops who were trying to kill him is perfectly understandable. Who among us wouldn't do exactly the same thing? But it also -- as Crittenden acknowledges -- calls into serious question the role of journalists as non-combatants, thus turning reporters into legitimate targets for those against whom we are fighting.

Overall, the embed program has a been a real plus. But as Crittenden shows, there are hazards to it as well. He deserves credit for describing those hazards so honestly.

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