The first-person pieces ( New York Times, Boston Globe, CBC, MTV, Slate, et al.) by reporters who've completed "media boot camps" in preparation for covering the Iraq attack should prime us for the sight of gut-wagons wheeling back from the front piled high with journos. In piece after piece, combat-inept reporters undergo multiple simulated deaths as their trainers attack them with mock mustard gas, grenades, and bullets.
"You just ran into a mine field!" a soldier/instructor hollers at a network correspondent in the San Francisco Chronicle's account. "You're dead!"
The Pentagon is "embedding" more than 500 journalists—including an Al Jazeera crew—in U.S. units in hopes of countering Iraqi wartime disinformation. A week of boot camp is supposed to make these journalists "field-safe"—that is, prevent them from doing something stupid that will get them, and the soldiers they're covering, killed.
Skeptics surmise that the boot camps are designed to break reporters psychologically before the first cruise missile is fired. By demonstrating to journalists that they're physically unfit for the rigors of the battlefield (most are) and that war can kill them in a thousand ways they'd never expect (it can), the military will reduce cynical reporters to pacified puppies. Once in the war theater, the thinking goes, even a seasoned reporter will hug his favorite lance corporal's ankle for protection and file patriotic fluff.
Such military conspiracy isn't necessary: You'd be hard-pressed to find any neutral, objective reporters in a foxhole—especially when a cloud of hot metal is streaming in. Historically, journalists have automatically empathized with whatever troops brung 'em to the front, making indoctrination redundant. Iraq will be no different.
It's heretical, of course, to suggest that war correspondents don't practice the objective brand of journalism brought to bear on politics, business, culture, religion, science, and other beats. After all, journalists don't follow the cult of objectivity grudgingly; they embrace it like a monk embraces silence: "Don't take sides"; "remain neutral"; "be open-minded"; "check your bias"; "you're not the story; you're just reporting it." Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., the high priest of journalistic objectivity, hasn't voted since becoming the paper's managing editor in 1984 because he doesn't want to make up his mind, "even in the voting booth, about candidates or issues."
But war reporting is clearly the great exception from the cult of objectivity—if only because a reporter who disengaged himself emotionally from a skirmish's outcome would be inviting death.
"It's hard for reporters to turn loose of a paradigm that is so thoroughly drummed into them," says the Miami Herald's Glenn Garvin, who covered the troubles in Central America for more than a dozen years, often hiking the high country with the Contras. "But it's inconceivable to me that anybody who goes out into a combat situation is not sympathetic with the guys they're traveling with."
"The closer you get to war, the less practical it is to write a balanced story. While traveling with a Marine patrol, you can't get comments from Iraqi troops," Garvin says. "It's not journalism at its finest."
The New Yorker's Jeffrey Goldberg recalls the "overwhelming warmth and solidarity" he felt for Azerbaijani troops when they—and he—were attacked by Armenian soldiers. "It's more than male bonding. They're literally in charge of keeping you alive," he says. That the Azerbaijanis weren't the "good guys" in the war didn't matter to Goldberg at the time.