Thursday, June 01, 2006

Domestic embedding

Hurricane season starts today, and I’m wondering what’s come of plans to embed reporters in disaster zones. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff made the announcement during RTNDA in late April, but I’ve heard nothing about it since. Has DHS contacted any assignment desk types in hurricane-prone areas to make contingency arrangements?

If not, it's just as well. The concept raises all sorts of troubling questions.

As we all recall, reporters covering Katrina often seemed to know more about what was happening “on the ground” than government officials. How ironic, then, that the government is devising a system that would have the effect of keeping reporters just as ignorant as government officials.

And then there are the disturbing parallels to Iraq. While even the embeds are risking their lives (as we saw this week with the CBS crew), the few journalists who go “unilateral” multiply that risk manifold. Not only are they potential targets for insurgents and warlords and bandits, but the U.S. military has made it pretty clear that it will make little effort to guarantee the safety of unembedded journalists in hostile territory. (Philip Knightley, author of The First Casualty, elaborates on this phenomenon in a piece written three years ago that still holds up pretty well.)

Now picture this phenomenon within U.S. shores. With an embed program in place, what become the ground rules for journalists who are not embedded -- which I assume would be the overwhelming majority? Bluntly stated, will they run an increased risk of being shot if they happen to be standing between National Guardsmen and looters?

Granted, the answer is probably “no.” But these are questions that both DHS and media outlets on the East and Gulf Coasts need to think through before a domestic embed program is launched, and I have a feeling that's not happening.


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