BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put his foot in it following an unexpected question from an unexpected quarter. [TAPE PLAYS]
SOLDIER: Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles, and why don't we have those resources readily available to us? [CHEERS, APPLAUSE] [TAPE ENDS]
BOB GARFIELD: To which Rumsfeld replied: [TAPE PLAYS]
DONALD RUMSFELD: It's a matter of production, and, and capability of doing it. As you know, you go to war with the Army you have, and not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time. [TAPE ENDS]
BOB GARFIELD: For us, it offered more than insight into the mind of the Secretary of Defense. It demonstrated an unexpected benefit of embedding reporters with our troops. In this case, the reporter, Lee Pitts of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, had embedded that question with the soldier. On Wednesday, he sent this letter to a colleague at his paper.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He wrote: "I just had one of my best days as a journalist today. As luck would have it, our journey north was delayed just long enough so I could attend a visit today here by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. I was told yesterday that only soldiers could ask questions, so I brought two of them along with me as my escorts. Beforehand, we worked on questions to ask Rumsfeld about the appalling lack of armor their vehicles going into combat have." Pitts wrote his colleague that he'd been trying to get the story of inadequate armor out for weeks, and in fact, his paper had printed two stories about it. But now the national press was all over it, and that, he said "Felt great." Quote: "This is what the job is all about. People need to know. The soldier who asked the question said he felt good because he took his complaints to the top. When he got back to his unit, most of the guys patted him on the back. But a few of the officers were upset, because they thought it would make them look bad."
BOB GARFIELD: Or maybe that the soldier was manipulated by an embedded reporter. Did this transaction amount to journalistic subterfuge, tricking a government official into answering a question in a forum from which journalists were barred, or was it merely a natural, if unconventional, response to the Bush administration's avowed determination to avoid the "filter" of an independent press? Maybe a little bit of both. But it does show that sometimes ordinary people can and will conspire to ensure that the filter doesn't filter out what the public needs and wants and has the right to know.