So, the news from Iraq is bad. But maybe we’re lucky we’re getting any news at all. The Associated Press has a story today on the number of journalists now "embedded" with U.S. troops in Iraq. From a high of 600 at the war’s glorious beginning, participation has dropped recently to 11. Eleven. Fewer than a dozen reporters and news organizations out with the troops to find out what’s happening on the streets and in the countryside. The rest of the news gets reported out of the Green Zone in Baghdad or secondhand through Iraqi stringers.
Not that the embed system is wonderful. It’s not. It puts reporters in an impossible position if their aim is to report events with some sense of independent clarity. As the AP story notes, the military doesn’t censor journalists’ work; but reporters whose coverage upsets commanders have been reprimanded or kicked off their embed assignments altogether. Unfortunately, the situation in Iraq–the omnipresent violence, the insurgents’ tactic of targeting reporters–makes embedding the only way journalists can do something akin to in-the-field reporting without committing suicide.
So: Why are so few reporters embedding now? The story offers three reasons: Declining public interest in the story; news organizations’ unwillingness to spend what it takes to get reporters into embeds; and the bureaucratic and logistical hurdles news organizations must overcome to just get a reporter into an embedded situation. (I find the "declining interest" argument unpersuasive; if people aren’t paying attention to Iraq, then why is Bush working overtime to persuade us all what a necessary thing it is? The other two reasons both hold water.)