BROOKE GLADSTONE: For the last month we've been keeping tabs on NPR's John Burnett, embedded with the First Marine Division. Currently they're at their 3rd command headquarters in Iraq, somewhere between the Euphrates River and Baghdad. When we spoke on Thursday he said that as the war heats up, his division commanders have become increasingly stingy with logistical information, and tension has developed between the reporters and the Marines.
JOHN BURNETT: Let me give you a, a prime example of this. There was an incident between a Christian Science Monitor reporter and the Marines. He was in a convoy on the highway headed north toward Baghdad, and they started coming under mortar fire. This was a unilateral journalist -- a freelancer. He was not embedded, but the Marines, you know, had invited him to go along with this convoy, so he stops, and he was apparently stringing for CNN. He gets on his satellite phone and calls CNN and starts saying here we are on this and such highway, this many miles south of Baghdad, heading in this direction with this Marine unit, and this is happening to us, and this is being broadcast simultaneously on CNN which is being monitored by the United States military, and they freaked! They sent a, a humvee screeching out there on the highway; within 30 minutes of his broadcasting live from this battle zone, he was being taken in to quote "see the colonel." He was kicked out of the theater, and I, I think it tells you just how hyper-sensitive the military is about, you know, giving away any information that can be construed as giving away their position.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:When you're asking for information and not receiving it, do you take it on faith that they have good reasons to deny you that information or do you think they've gone overboard?
JOHN BURNETT: I think it's the same old Pentagon routine of just telling you as much as they want to tell you and not telling you any more. We're getting somewhat more in the field, but still it's the same people and we're the same journalists, and we've just moved the entire press conference into a combat zone. So yes, it has gotten very frustrating this, this last week for all of us, all five of the journalists here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So you aren't getting the information that you think you ought to be able to get -- the tension is riding high -- the access, even while you're sitting there, seems to be limited. Do you have some questions then about what your role is vis-a-vis the military or what the Pentagon seems to believe your role to be?
JOHN BURNETT: Well all along this has been -- the Pentagon is using us and we're using them. We're using them because war is an incredible story. It's the ultimate story, and we want to tell that story, and that's why we're here. But it's becoming very apparent also that, I mean we are clearly being used by the Pentagon and in some cases for propaganda purposes, and let me give you an example. We talked with the head of the intelligence section a week or so ago, and he was telling us all about the fearsome fire power that the Marines were going to bring to bear in this battle, and, and how you know they were going to overwhelm their opponents with air power and, and ground forces and really send a message to Baghdad that it's pointless to fight. And I commented it sounds to me like you're using the journalists as your mouthpiece for this, and he said, you know, well yes we are. At this point John Kifner with the New York Times who's with us just kind of leans back in his chair and says I think I'm getting queasy. So there's that sort of covert use of us, and then also it's kind of an ongoing commercial for the U.S. Marine Corps. We sat down with Captain Joe Plensler [sp?] who's sort of in charge of the embeds for the Marines, and he was showing me all these color pictures in Time Magazine showing the Marines preparing for war and all the bold face quotes. He was so pleased, because it was this amazing advertisement for the U.S. Marine Corps that money can't buy. And so at the same time that you know, we're covering a war, you know, we're also giving them you know that publicity. But also, understand that they're taking a chance in letting the journalists in here. There are a lot of, you know, old guard Marine officers who don't think we belong here. So it's a very sensitive thing that the Marines are doing within their own culture as well. I, I want to stress that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right.
JOHN BURNETT: Does that make sense?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:It makes absolute sense. In order to bring this slice of the story to your listeners, you've had to reconcile the various roles you are being made to play either willy-nilly or in the course of doing your job. You are a reporter, reporting on what goes right and what goes wrong. You're also a tool of propaganda inadvertently and the provider of free advertising -- not you specifically but obviously all the embedded reporters. You know I think that all the news outlets have decided that this is a compromise well worth making in order to bring this story to Americans. From where you stand, do you agree?
JOHN BURNETT: Oh yes, absolutely. I, I still think that it's a tradeoff that's worth making because I'm getting ready to get closer to the front and to the action and to talk to some of the guys who are actually doing the fighting, and I wouldn't be able to get that close otherwise. I know that, because there's two carloads of journalists, freelancers, sitting on the highway about 200 yards from me right now who can't get to the front, and I will be able to. And it's a great story, and I want to be there. And I want to tell that story. I mean anyway, Brooke, every journalist who works in the culture of news knows that - I mean we're constantly used! We're used by press flacks. We're used by city hall. We're used by congress-- congressional aides --everybody who sits in a press section who does public relations is using us. We have to be completely aware of that, and we still have to, you know, get out a legitimate story and, and know that we're being spun. It's the same game; it's just played rather elaborately out here in the war zone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And with higher stakes.
JOHN BURNETT: With, with much higher stakes. You betcha.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And so basically as you go about the newsgathering job you -- do you contend with the same kind of queasiness that Jonathan Kifner expressed?
JOHN BURNETT: I'm mindful that parts of what I am reporting serve the interests of the war planners, and that gives me pause. But it's also happening. It's news. The Marines preparing for war with their firepower is one of the things that's happening here, and so I report that, knowing they want me to report that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You can live with this as long as what you're reporting is the truth.
JOHN BURNETT: That's right. I think you just said it much more succinctly and importantly than I did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thanks a lot, John.
JOHN BURNETT: Talk to you later.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bye. NPR's John Burnett is embedded with the 1st Marine Command Division in Iraq.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, how the war plays on the small screen and how a TV drama series looks increasingly like reality.