Credit the imbedded reporters for lots of good things-such as the breathtaking photo-essay featured in this special issue-but there's even more: By providing their 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week montage of the Iraq war, they helped change the subject from what up until then had become a huge media diversion.
I'm referring to the chatter and skepticism that went on for weeks, up until the first bombing started, about how "America is doing all this alone." The chatter and the skepticism flew in the face of all the facts, of course, but they were amplified mostly because the media seemed to have nothing else to talk about.
Then came the launch of the war-and suddenly, while the claim didn't disappear altogether, we all started hearing a lot less about the rogue cowboy president from Texas. The gripping glimpses of both British and U.S. servicemen and women doing their thing up and down the desert stretches between Basrah and Baghdad had their quieting effect. The work of the imbedded reporters began to eclipse the phony debate about unilateralism. It was as if the reporters began to say, "What do you mean nobody's siding with Mr. Bush on this? We are."
Real news, of course, always proves more interesting than mere prattle. But the prattlers are a determined lot, and so far they've had four major themes:
First, they went on and on about how uncertain it was that Saddam Hussein was as bad as Mr. Bush made him out to be. Remember how aghast they were at the "axis of evil" reference? Even recently, many analysts have been openly skeptical about claims that the Iraqi dictator really had weapons of mass destruction.
Second, their argument was that even if he was that bad, no one nation should bring him to justice all by itself; certainly, they said, this needed United Nations sanction.
Third, they worried that the war was going very badly. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had miscalculated big time, and huge disaster was waiting like a desert cobra around every bend in the road to Baghdad.
That the prattlers were proven wrong on all three of those counts has not kept them from now taking on their fourth main argument: that the United States must not try to set the future course for Iraq without major oversight by the UN.
Be very grateful, then, that in the midst of all these hundreds of skewed hours on TV and radio and thousands of inches of misguided print columns, the world was also able to see-up close and unmistakably clearly-the story of what was going on through the hourly reporting of some 600 imbedded reporters.
In the process, the bogus claims of the critics are being consistently dismantled. Story by story, image by image, the big assumptions and arguments of the Bush team are being vindicated. But it's taken real-life events to do that. It takes the story of Jessica Lynch-multiplied and replicated in a hundred different circumstances-to prompt the watching public to say: Yes, this man was indeed very evil. Yes, the administration is doing the right thing in challenging him. Yes, the plan they're using is sensible and workable.
I mention all this because it could easily have gone another way. Without the imbedded reporters, all four of the issues listed above might well have continued as major unsettled debates-and an even nastier fifth argument would have been added to the other four: Can you really trust the American military to tell you the truth about what's going on?
I visited the Kuwaiti front at the time of Operation Desert Storm, when the rules for reporters were altogether different. Back then, Saddam Hussein was Public Enemy No. 1. In some ways, the media were treated like Public Enemy No. 2. Reporters were spoon-fed whatever the military wanted to feed them; the rest was withheld. The relationship was hardly cordial-and you didn't have to be a cynical liberal to understand the resentment the media felt toward the managers of the war.
Contrast that with what's happened between the military and the media this time around. If it hasn't been a love feast, it's been close to it. The bonding between reporters and the people they're covering has been remarkable to watch. One analyst says reporters' use of the pronouns "we" and "us"-referring to the military-is up by a factor of 10 over the first Iraqi war 12 years ago.
Such close identification, of course, carries its own risks. But given the cynicism of the mainstream media over the last generation, those risks are worth taking right now. Truth-telling is getting a big boost from the imbedded reporters. Without them, we'd still be haggling over a whole lot of phony arguments.