To prepare for duty as embedded journalists during the war in Iraq, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters Katherine Skiba and Nahal Toosi received thousands of dollars worth of combat training at media boot camps. After meeting her assigned unit, Skiba later flew to Kuwait on a chartered Northwest Airlines jet full of soldiers. Toosi, joining her […]
To prepare for duty as embedded journalists during the war in Iraq, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters Katherine Skiba and Nahal Toosi received thousands of dollars worth of combat training at media boot camps. After meeting her assigned unit, Skiba later flew to Kuwait on a chartered Northwest Airlines jet full of soldiers. Toosi, joining her unit in the Kuwaiti desert, donned an imposing military gas mask during gas and Scud missile drills.
Who paid for this media training, transportation and equipment? Unwittingly, American taxpayers picked up the tab for these and many other expenses in the military’s embedded media program.
“That’s one way of looking at it,” concedes Maj. Tim Blair, Pentagon officer in charge of the program. Another way of looking at it is the embedded media, by accepting military handouts at taxpayer expense, betrayed the public’s trust and venerable journalism policies against freebies.
These hidden costs of the program have gone curiously unreported, perhaps because the top news organizations accepted this bargain for their own embedded employees. Or maybe it’s because the Pentagon didn’t disclose any media expenses in its $60 billion war budget. Either way, taxpayers had no reason to suspect they would foot the bill when the Pentagon recruited 775 embedded journalists to tell the military’s story. For critics who already feared embeds were too beholden to report objectively, this sweetheart deal will likely cast further doubt. The bottom line is that Pentagon officials, to attract as many journalists as possible, offered free training, transportation, food, shelter, medical care, protection, gas masks and chemical suits, Blair tells Milwaukee Magazine.
“The military is paying for these guys,” says Blair. “We went into this program saying we weren’t going to have reimbursement.” In effect, the Pentagon offered free trips to Baghdad and hundreds of journalists jumped on board without packing their ethics codes.
Almost every major news organization has a strict policy against journalists accepting anything free from people they cover. Freebies undercut the public’s perception of their independence and objectivity. “We pay our own way. If an event is newsworthy, we can afford it,” states the Journal Sentinel’s detailed policy, which directly addresses meals, lodging, services, transportation and other expenses. For instance: “The Journal Sentinel will pay for transportation necessary for a staff member’s professional duties in all possible cases, including transportation provided by government or military agencies.”
The military did require embeds to pay for their reporting equipment (satellite phones or laptops) and for optional things like immunizations, helmets or body armor. This is pocket change, however, compared to expenses for a non-embedded reporter – $16,000 to $35,000 for everything from tents to gas masks to hiring drivers, estimates a Columbia Journalism Review story.
While news editors and producers boast about how much they spent on Iraq coverage, the more important issue is how much embeds saved by taking military favors. In future military conflicts, will this many journalists embed if they have to pay?
During media boot camps, for example, the Journal Sentinel’s Skiba spent six days at Fort Benning, Georgia, and Toosi five days at Quantico, Virginia. The Pentagon’s Lt. Col. Gary Keck, who coordinated the camps, says the training is worth “thousands and thousands of dollars.” By comparison, the private firm Centurion Risk Assessment Services offers a similar five-day course for $2,300 per person, according to The Weekly Standard.
If embeds traveled with their units to the Gulf region, the trip was free. Skiba hitched a ride with soldiers on a chartered Boeing B-747; a similar commercial flight from Chicago to Kuwait City has a $1,400 ticket price.
To provide a minimum daily ration of two meals-ready-to-eat (MREs) and two 16-ounce bottles of sterilized water for a month, the cost to the military is more than $500 per journalist, based on figures from the Defense Supply Center in Philadelphia.
Free shelter saved embeds the cost of a tent ($130 retail), sleeping bag ($100 retail) or hotels in Kuwait City and Baghdad ($100 nightly minimum). They also took no-cost loans of gas masks ($179-$329 retail) and nuclear/biological/chemical suits ($45-$59 retail).
And, yes, protection courtesy of the U.S. armed forces. To hire a former British Royal Marine from Centurion to escort you to Baghdad, the charge is around $400 a day.
Embeds kicked out of their units for rules violations were then responsible for themselves, a powerful incentive to play along.
Media analysts say journalists should have insisted on paying a fair-market price for as many expenses as possible. After all, reimbursement could have potentially netted the military – and taxpayers – more than $1 million.
“It’s as much a matter of principle as it is tax dollars,” says Philip Seib, Nieman Professor of Journalism at Marquette University. “In fact, as a taxpayer, I resent it. News organizations can afford it.”
“Journalists seem to be failing to practice what they preach. They’re outraged when government officials accept travel and gifts from private interests,” says Jeffery A. Smith, author of War and Press Freedom and a UW-Milwaukee journalism professor. “Clearly, the news media have some explaining to do.”
Journal Sentinel Editor Marty Kaiser did not respond to interview requests for this story.
Milwaukee Magazine asked Blair if the Journal Sentinel or any other embedded news organization insisted on paying more than the military required. Blair: “Not to my knowledge.”