In Raleigh, N.C., WTVD(TV) News Director Rob Elmore had just gotten off the phone with one of his reporters, Keith Garvin, embedded with the First Marine Expeditionary Force which flew to Iraq from Camp Lejeune. "He told me '2000 Iraqis are hearing in our direction. We're preparing for battle,' " Elmore said. "That's one phone call I never thought I'd be taking."
Last Thursday, viewers of WTVD and other ABC stations could hear explosions in the background as Garvin, one of hundreds of journalists embedded with allied troops at or near the war fronts, reported via telephone.
"For the first time in my career," noted John Harris of Raleigh rival station WRAL-TV, "I've been buying gas masks, Kevlar body armor and chemical suits." WRAL-TV does not have an embedded reporter, but like many stations has kept a crew in Kuwait since February. The war in Iraq is a big local story in a state like North Carolina which has a large military population.
Reporters and their news directors lauded the embedding program and the accompanying access, although reports are sometimes delayed for security reasons. "I know exactly where I am," noted WFAA-TV Dallas's Byron Harris, stationed with Combat Service and Support Group 11, "but I can't tell you."
It can be challenging, say some embedded reporters, to keep up with the overall war news while reporting the many stories in their own purview. Harris said he sometimes has to listen to news reports over the radio to see where his own reporting fits into the larger picture.
Aaron Katersky, a reporter with KTRH-AM Radio in Houston said he listens to the news over the phone while on hold with several of the 40-some Clear Channel stations for which he reports.
For viewers, the task of balancing the reports falls to the home front. "The challenge for the local news director and for the producers and editors," said Elmore, "is to provide the big picture. We're trying very hard to add the context."
But at the bottom line, the war for local newscasts is a local story. When the first Marines were killed, many local and network news crews moved quickly to Camp LeJeune where some family members could be found.
"In television, we tend to focus on the emotion of a story," Elmore offered. "Television at its best is about real people and real emotion. We have to balance that, and that's a huge challenge for us."
Balance is necessary in the field as well, said 27-year-old Katersky, who's with the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 533, out of Beaufort, S.C. "Sometimes I feel like one of the guys, sometimes not. I like kicking back and smoking a cigar and being a part of their conversation. I live in a tent with 10 aviators all about my age. We talk about where I am in life, where they are … it's an odd place for a reporter. I have to catch myself, keep a little bit of distance. When they wanted to give me a flight suit, I declined. I'm not an aviator. I'm not a Marine."
Back on the home front, Indianapolis TV stations believed they could somewhat mitigate local pain by minimizing their own competition. In an unusual agreement, four TV stations there created a pooling arrangement where only one reporter will pursue interviews with the family and friends of any central Indiana soldier killed during the war.
It's a way to report the news and acknowledge the sacrifice without creating a frenzy of competition to "get" the big interview with grieving families. "We don't want to be the kind of vultures that people often see us as," said WXIN (TV) News Director Karen Rariden.
In this situation, WTHR(TV) news director Jacques Natz said, "We don't want to compete, we just want to report. The families at home are the people we live with every day. Once this agreement's over we'll be back at each other's throats."
In Iraq, said photographer Mark Martin, "[The Department of Defense] got it right this time. Rather than one big cluster of media in one area fighting for one story, they spread everybody out and it's working."
And through the sandstorms, lack of electricity, absence of showers—"I can't take a shower or wash my hair," noted WTVF(TV) Nashville's embedded reporter Dana Kaye, with the Second Batallion 187th of the 101st Airborne "so I wear a lot of hats"—embedded reporters say it's the experience of a lifetime.
Martin, operations manager at WTVF, said that when he found no takers among his cameramen to go to Iraq, "I decided to go myself. I told my wife it's my last hurrah."