Practically everybody is dismissing Katie Couric's trip to Iraq as a ratings ploy for the chronically unwatched CBS Evening News, and I certainly don't disagree. That said, there are a couple of other points worth making. One is that while it's perfectly absurd to imagine that she's going to dig out any story that the network's regular beat correspondents in Iraq couldn't do (and do much better), a trip to the country could conceivably improve the CBS Evening News by making Couric and her producers more familiar with the situation there.
Several years ago -- this was long before Couric took over the CBS anchor chair and the discussion had nothing to do with her -- I asked NBC's Brian Williams if sending anchors to set up shop at the scene of a big news story really generated anything useful. "Well, it's useful for me," he said. "It gives me a feel for a story that I can't possibly get in the studio in New York." That paid dividends later, he felt, in helping him evaluate and shape stories that would appear on the evening news for months to come. It's a reasonable argument, especially on foreign stories: Newsroom bosses -- and it's as true at newspapers as it is at television networks -- don't always have a good perspective on foreign stories. A visit to the scene can improve it immeasurably.
The flip side of that is that the reporting of journalistic paratroopers who drop in on a story briefly before flitting is sometimes maddeningly superficial. The danger of that is compounded in a situation like the one in Iraq, where security measures impose draconian limitations on a reporter's ability to do the job. In this insightful piece for National Review Online, Internet military columnist Jeff Emanuel argues that too many reporters in Iraq use too much third- or fourth-hand information.
"Hearsay is relied upon far more often than is eyewitness accounting when reporting events in Iraq’s cities and at the battlefront,'' Emanuel writes. "At a time when reporting that is both honest and accurate is more badly needed than ever, reporters are traveling all the way to Iraq and are, in the end, still settling for little more than the hearsay they could have access to at home." (It's important to note that Emanuel is not repeating the old canard that I've heard about war correspondents so many times I want to scream -- that they cover the war from their hotel bars. As he notes, more than 100 journalists have died in Iraq, and it wasn't from poisoned olives in their their martinis.)
I don't agree with everything he says, particularly the extraordinarily high value he places on the reporting of journalists embedded with military units. Embedded reporters play an important role in helping us understand how the war looks from the grunt's-eye-view. But the world of the embedded reporter is necessarily small, limited to what's going on within range of his own eyeballs. It doesn't necessarily reflect the wider reality of the war. Ironically, one of the most widespread criticisms of Vietnam war journalism -- that the U.S. news media made the Viet Cong's 1968 Tet offensive look like an American defeat when it was actually a crushing defeat for Communist forces -- arose precisely from grunt's-eye-view reporting. Reporters covering individual attacks like the Viet Cong assault on the U.S. embassy in Saigon assumed that because their own situation was shaky, so was the entire security of South Vietnam.
The other problem with embedded reporting is that, as Emanuel notes, it's practically impossible for reporters to retain much objectivity when their lives depend on the soldiers they're covering. "When one is being shot at, or seeing children going back to school for the first time in years, or witnessing mutilated bodies being pulled from freshly filled graves," he writes, "ideology, and the ideas one arrived here with, is far less important than is the raw human experience."
There's certainly a place -- a large one, as Ernie Pyle and countless other war correspondents have proven -- for raw human experience in war reporting. But it's not the whole picture, just one piece of a larger jigsaw puzzle. Embedded reporters like Emanuel are giving some pieces. Katie Couric, whatever her larger motive for going to Iraq, may give us some others -- if not next week, maybe somewhere down the road.