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Foxhole Journalists

The views of Americans about whether to go to war, as in Iraq, can be influenced by they way the US media has covered - or couldn't cover - past wars.

In Vietnam, for instance, wide-open access for journalists helped expose inherent problems in that war and made Americans gun-shy of more wars - for a while. In Somalia, they saw US soldiers humiliated by local thugs. In the Gulf and Afghanistan wars, however, the Pentagon had learned to keep reporters away from fighting units.

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Americans now have grown accustomed to what seem like relatively "clean" wars - usually just flashes on CNN. Many of war's tragedies go unheard and unseen, like a tree falling in the forest.

But in its plans for war in Iraq, the Pentagon has decided more media coverage is better than less. It hopes journalists will present the "facts" and counter misinformation. It's started to "embed" some 500 journalists inside military units and will allow them to record almost any action that won't compromise a US victory. The journalists have had to agree to pages and pages of rules to gain that access. Local commanders will have much authority over what they do and can impose blackouts.

This experiment bears careful watching. While Americans may benefit from reports of frontline action, they must also ask if journalists will become too "embedded." How much will reporters compromise impartiality and their freedom to roam to maintain such access?

A journalist's first rule is not to become part of the story. Yet by relying on the military for protection (and room, board, flak jackets, etc.), the media expose themselves to being targets, as well as being codependent on their subjects. News organizations eager to cover the war (sometimes too eager) must alert their audiences to the conditions imposed on these journalists.