Who's Paying for those Embedded Journalists?

by Alice Cherbonnier

If somehow a conflict of interest does arise in an otherwise valid story, the journalist is duty-bound to reveal it so the public will know what hangs in the balance.

Worthwhile investigative reporting comes from formulating original and important questions and identifying the best potential sources for the answers. Then the writer has to track down and question these sources, double- or even triple-check the information, do background research, ask follow-up questions and check those answers out too, and finally frame and write the story. Obviously, though, if the all-important questions aren't asked, the story never gets written.

Well, here's a question that occurred to me, and should have occurred to every journalist on the planet: Who's paying for those embedded journalists in Iraq? And here's another: Is there an official signed agreement between the Department of Defense and the participating news organizations that stipulates not only the allocation of costs for the "embeds" and the terms and conditions of their reporting, but also the apportionment of risks? I did a search on Google. Checked the American Journalism Review site. Searched the online archives of various mainstream news organizations. Watched for the answers to my questions in daily news reports. No results. Très curieux, I thought (readers will pardon my French). I persisted. Asked my intern at the graduate school of journalism at the University of Maryland College Park to ask his professors about this. Wrote an email letter of inquiry to the Society of Professional Journalists. Wrote another to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Waited. No reliable information came back-only assumptions: it was assumed the news organizations were paying their own way. For certainly, that is what journalism ethics require. This is only natural and right. If a reporter reviews a restaurant, and it turns out that the restaurant paid for the meal, how reliable would that review be? For the news to be untainted, it's got to be free of any whiff of money passed under the table or special favors received. If somehow a conflict of interest does arise in an otherwise valid story, the journalist is duty-bound to reveal it so the public will know what hangs in the balance. I tried to content myself with this assumption, but the question still festered until, through a chance encounter, I learned what may be the answer. This past Saturday night, as a volunteer at a local theater, I was handing out playbills. A tall thin guy with curly hair dashed in at the last moment, still eating some rice out of a ceramic bowl. "You an emergency room doctor or what?" I wisecracked. And he joked back, "Something like that!" I rejoined, "Well, what other profession would have such a desperate deadline?" And it turned out he was a section editor at the Washington Post. "Great!," I enthused, identifying myself as a fellow journalist. "Maybe you can answer a question that's been bothering me. Can you tell me who's paying for the embedded journalists?" I was expecting to hear that the news organizations are, but just wanted confirmation. But no! He said that so far the Department of Defense is footing the whole bill. He said news organizations had sought to pay their own way, but the DOD refused to accept payment--ostensibly because no price could be set because there were too many unknown expense factors involved. He said no one in the news organizations even knows how much the bill would be if they did have to pay it.

He added that it's possible the DOD may later submit a retroactive bill to the news organizations, or it could be that they're getting a free ride for now, but later on they may be asked to kick in for costs.

He said he hadn't seen whatever contractural agreement may have been established between news organizations and the DOD, but acknowledged that such an agreement probably does exist somewhere. He believed that this agreement stipulates that the DOD will not be responsible for any risks undertaken by the journalists and their entourages.

I asked if he knew of any news report detailing the financial arrangements of the embedded journalists and the agreements between the DOD and the news organizations. He said he couldn't think of one, but thought 'someone must have reported it somewhere.' Not in the Post, though, he believed.

The agreeable and rushed editor didn't ask that our conversation be off the record, but I don't have the heart to identify him further. I have not--indeed, cannot--substantiate what he told me. Our quotes here are approximate, reported here in good faith. And heck, maybe this guy was just pulling my leg about being a Post editor. So I'll continue to wait for responses to the feelers I've put out there, and make additional inquiries, before making a real news story about this.

One more important angle to explore, if the Post editor's information proves correct, is how much the US public--not the DOD, but each and every taxpayer--is paying for the "embeds." And since we're the ones paying, shouldn't there have been more openness--and cost limitations on this odd exercise?

For now, however, the real story is that who's-paying-for-what-and-why-in-Iraq, and the potentially grave implications of the answers, hasn't been a story.

Bonus: I also asked the editor another question that's been on my mind. "Do you know if our troops' tanks and trucks are air conditioned?" Off the top of his head, he knew the answer: "No, they're not." This was worrisome confirmation now that temperatures in Iraq are pumping toward 100+ degrees. You'd think that this information, too, would be widely disseminated. Is there just an assumption that everybody knows this? Or is such information not reported because of some clause in an [alleged but unsubstantiated] agreement between the "embeds" and the DOD?

Note: If we were a big news organization, we could blitz through to answers to our questions using Lexis Nexis; but we don't have that service-can't afford it. The big guys do have it-but what good is it if you don't even have the initiative or curiosity to ask the questions? By publishing this commentary, we're hoping someone who knows more than we can learn will provide accurate, substantiable answers once and for all to the questions posed here. Please let us know!

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This story was published on April 14, 2003.