U.S. military officials in Mosul, Iraq, have banned a reporter for the Stars and Stripes newspaper from embedding with their unit. Their reasoning? He wasn’t positive enough in his reporting and wrote things they didn’t like.
“Officials said Stripes reporter Heath Druzin, who covered operations of the division’s 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team in February and March, would not be permitted to rejoin the unit for another reporting tour because, among other things, he wrote in a March 8 story that many Iraqi residents of Mosul would like the American soldiers to leave and hand over security tasks to Iraqi forces.
“Despite the opportunity to visit areas of the city where Iraqi Army leaders, soldiers, national police and Iraqi police displayed commitment to partnership, Mr. Druzin refused to highlight any of this news,” Major Ramona Bellard, a public affairs officer, wrote in denying Druzin’s embed request.”
I can’t believe that decision will stand, and I suspect those who made the decision have seriously harmed their military careers. The military does not get to decide whether a reporter’s work is sufficiently boosterish. If a reporter refuses to follow the rules, or if he or she in any way endangers operational security, they can and should be removed. But barring or removing them because their work is not deemed sufficiently positive is wrong and counterproductive. In my conversations with generals and other military leaders, they get that, but sometimes folks further down the line need to be reminded. I imagine that reminder will be coming.
This kind of thing reminds me of those years from 2003-2006 in which the Bush administration and its defenders complained that things in Iraq were going just fine and that the U.S. media just wasn’t covering all the good news. As it turned out, the administration was very much wrong in its blue-sky, Pollyannish attitude about trends in Iraq and the media reporting had been correct: Things were going bad in Iraq.
Without a media free to report what was really happening, the necessary change in policy and leadership never would have occurred.
Ron Martz, a former Marine who was the AJC’s military reporter for years and embedded at least twice in Iraq for us, is now president of Military Reporters and Editors. In a letter of protest to the Pentagon, Martz wrote:
“There is absolutely no evidence to indicate that Mr. Druzin in any way compromised the unit’s operational security or put American forces at risk with his reporting.
Barring this reporter from an embed for what appear to be specious reasons violates both the spirit and the letter of the embed guidelines that Military Reporters & Editors and many other journalists have worked so diligently to implement since long before the initial invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
It appears from the June 24, 2009 Stars and Stripes story about this incident that commander of this unit is attempting to exercise editorial control over what stories are written and how they are written. I am sure I do not have to remind you that it is not the job of military officials to exercise editorial control over any journalists, including Stars and Stripes reporters.”
The fact that the controversy involves Stars and Stripes is particularly striking. It is a newspaper funded in part by the Pentagon but guaranteed editorial independence by Congress. Its main readership is service members and their families. Growing up in the military, it was basically our hometown newspaper, particularly when we were stationed overseas. (That was the pre-Internet days, which meant Stars and Stripes was our only English-language source of news and sports from back home.)
Michael Yon, the free-lance war correspondent often lauded by conservatives for his dispatches, put it well in a conversation we had a while back by satellite phone. He told me that in his experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, officers who were doing a good job usually had no problem allowing an embedded a reporter; the bad ones were the ones who didn’t want the exposure.