Do Embedded Photojournalists Actually Work for the Pentagon?

Is the work of embedded photographers in Iraq the kind of journalism we should expect — and demand — in a democracy?

Conflicts always arise when an embedded photojournalist crosses the line from what the military deems acceptable to what the photographer believes is an underreported truth. Inevitably, the military wins these conflicts.

The Case of Zoriah Miller

This comes to mind after Zoriah Miller, a freelance photographer, was removed from his embedded assignment in Iraq for making pictures of U.S. soldiers killed in combat. Miller’s graphic images of dismemberment and grotesque disfigurement — posted to his personal Web site — stirred up controversy within the ranks of Marines responsible for managing the conduct of journalists under their watch.

Miller’s experience reminds us that the rules governing a photographer’s conduct in Iraq are still very much managed by the Pentagon. It is hard to argue with Miller’s professed motivation of making the war appear more real, but his disregard for protocol after accepting the terms of the embed could lead to problems for future journalists.

At this stage in the war, with the public focusing on rising oil prices, the housing slump, and the presidential election, there appears only minimal media interest in tracking U.S. casualities in Iraq or Afghanistan unless the losses are significant. Miller’s crusade in reporting the human costs of the war seems to be, for some, self-serving, ideological, and way too late to make a difference.

Nevertheless, this case does raise important issues about military/media relations and the future of journalism. Reporting from the Middle East has become nearly impossible for most Western media, especially freelancers. Access to the conflict, without the assistance of the military minders, is both extremely dangerous and expensive.

Avoiding Eye Contact with Reality

Throughout the war, the American public has seemed willing to accept the coverage restrictions. Although the media has made occasional attempts to fight for more latitude, the military has had its way in controlling the hearts and minds of Americans. While some members of the public did protest the military’s ban on media coverage of soldiers’ funerals, their demonstrations failed to capture the nation’s interest.

It’s fair to ask whether the American public really wants to see the realities — the blood and guts — of this conflict. If the public were faced with daily pictures of dead U.S. soldiers, I suspect the war would have been called on account of gore a long time ago. Clearly, the media has acquiesced to the military’s demands to keep offensive images off our breakfast tables. In the end, it can be argued that the American public has not been given a candid view of the war.

Not surprisingly, Miller’s case has received only cursory coverage in the mainstream press. It appears that Miller’s crusade to speak truth to power will inevitably do little good in a culture that is well-practiced in avoiding eye contact with reality.


One Response to “Do Embedded Photojournalists Actually Work for the Pentagon?”

  1. Hi,
    I agree to a point with your column. What I take exception to is this:
    "It is hard to argue with Miller's professed motivation of making the war appear more real, but his disregard for protocol after accepting the terms of the embed could lead to problems for future journalists."
    Zoriah didn't do violate any of the military's embed rules. The only thing he appeared to violate was their sense of decency. Since that's not in their rules, what happened to him was pure and simple censorship.
    I spent two years in Iraq, first as a military photojournalist (and dealt with the civilian media on a daily basis) in southwest Baghdad and later as an embedded journalist throughout the country.
    What happened to Zoriah is wrong and we as a community - and industry - need to take the Pentagon to task for changing the rules without speaking to us about it.
    Bill Putnam.

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