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Felling Interview - 2003-04-02


MR. BORGIDA:
Now joining us to discuss the role of the media in this war, Matthew Felling, of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonpartisan group that studies the media. You're studying us as we go. Let's talk a little bit, Mr. Felling, about the role of these embedded reporters. Embedded is the word that is used for the Defense Department allowing these reporters to actually live, sleep and eat with the soldiers every day. Has this been, in your view and in the view of your organization, a successful technique? Has it enlightened the public more, or has it had a negative impact?

MR. FELLING:
Well, certainly it has been a clash of cultures. I think that the journalistic culture in America has always been naturally antagonistic towards the military and, vice-versa, just the same. So, if anything, it has definitely warmed the relationship between the media and the military, in which they are actually starting to understand each other, the military understanding deadlines and terminology and the media are understanding the bravery and the commitment that is required of these men. Whereas they used to just go with stereotypes of Midwesterners, now they actually have some intelligence to them. One of the best parts -- I mean, the soldiers are of course the star of story, but if there was an Oscar for best supporting actor, it would have to go to the embedded journalists. They have actually succeeding in bringing the war home to all the Americans, and they have provided the most captivating coverage of the war thus far. It's a little bit myopic, unfortunately, because all the viewer sees on television is what is happening in front of them at that moment, and it doesn't give you a better idea of what's going on all around the country. Iraq is the size of California, and just because something has happened on one side doesn't make it so on the other.

MR. BORGIDA:
Let's talk about a couple of points you've raised in that answer. One is, are these reporters too close to the soldiers? They're actually looking to them for securing their evenings and days and protecting them, and so they do get very close to the soldiers with whom they're working. Is there a danger that -- as you said in the beginning, there is this push-pull of the media and soldiers -- is there a danger that they can get too close?

MR. FELLING:
Well, certainly. I just think it's natural human nature for the journalists to become a member of that team, when they are joining them, alongside them. They share their interests. They share their stories. They find out more about each other. And the relationship warms. And just from the journalistic standpoint, you're not going to be 100 percent objective, as we like our journalists to be in America, on somebody who just saved your life or somebody who is committed to seeing you return home safely to your family.

So, to the critics who say that it has become less objective because they are a little bit more on the side of the military, we have seen what happens when you don't have access to the military, and it's just happening three miles down the road and you have to take the military's word for it. So, there is going to be some give.

And I think that it is not accidental that this happened. I think the Pentagon knew that they were going to get a more positive -- not all the time positive -- but a more positive tone to the stories, and that's why they allowed the journalists to intermingle.

MR. BORGIDA:
One criticism has been that, because they are so close, they are giving a slightly tainted, stilted view of what is really going on. This blow-by-blow sense of what's going on out there gives you the sense of what's going on with that armored division or that unit, but not really the big picture, which has led some to suggest that this war should be over faster. And so there have been some criticism of the media for fueling this notion that this should be a week or two, and why has it gone as long as it has? Any comment on that?

MR. FELLING:
Oh, sure. Well, I've been likening it to watching an American football game with a camera mounted on the helmet of one of the players. You can see only what is happening from that person at that one time. You don't get an idea of the flow or the pace or the tone of what is happening all over. And I think that that needs to be addressed through the Pentagon spokesperson and through the news media. They need to make sure that the viewers, that the readers, get the big picture of what's going on, instead of just getting addicted to the real-life war footage that we see every day. And of course, it's tempting, because TV is a medium of images. And if you can give them compelling video, you're going to put that on the TV much more often than you will an analyst. But the analysts are a vital cog in this machine, and they need to be gone to much more often than they are.

MR. BORGIDA:
It does in a way, Mr. Felling, kind of glamorize the profession to some extent. After the first Gulf War, there were a number of journalists who came out of it with their careers skyrocketing because they were on the television so long. That's a danger, too, isn't it, the glamorizing of the profession of journalism, which is really supposed to be about observing what is going on, not being a part of the story?

MR. FELLING:
This is true.

MR. BORGIDA:
We'll get to the Peter Arnett story if we have time. That's part of that, isn't it?

MR. FELLING:
Yes, definitely. But this is true of anybody who steps in front of a camera in America right now. Even in the worst economy that we've seen in quite a while, celebrity is our sole growth industry. We can have people on reality television. We can have people as journalists. We can have people as spectators. They take their moment in the sun and they go with it.

The journalists -- at least the journalists in this conflict -- have actually signed on the line and put themselves at risk of bodily harm to get this fame. And you have to take the good with the bad in terms of the media. And it's our media-saturated culture in America.

MR. BORGIDA:
A quick exit question, as some are fond of saying. Is this, in your view, a net plus for the informing of the American public and the rest of the world about what's going on, or is it a net negative?

MR. FELLING:
There are some serious negatives that not a whole lot of people are addressing but, for the most part, this is a positive trend in the media. And the Pentagon would probably prohibit it or create some more restrictions on it if it weren't giving them the storylines that they were looking for.

MR. BORGIDA:
A very interesting topic. We'll have to discuss it some more on our program but, for now, thanks. Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs here in Washington. Thanks to much, Mr. Felling, for joining us.

MR. FELLING:
Thank you.

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