NEW YORK — When Pentagon officials decided to allow hundreds of reporters to accompany forces fighting in Iraq, the result could have been a public relations bonanza. Some media executives, though welcoming the extraordinary access, were concerned the reporters might become a propaganda tool of the military.
It hasn't quite worked out that way. An increasing number of reporters have produced raw stories that convey the ghastly realities of war and sometimes contradict official versions of events.
The U.S. military shooting of Iraqi citizens at a checkpoint this week is a vivid example. It was either an unavoidable accident of war or a troubling failure of command and communication, depending on whose version is believed.
Pentagon officials have said that an approaching vehicle with 13 passengers failed to stop after warning shots were fired, and that soldiers fearing a suicide bombing had no choice but to shoot, leaving seven dead. But a Washington Post reporter deployed with the unit said soldiers did not obey orders to fire warning shots and blasted the car with cannon fire at the last second, killing 10 civilians, including women and children.
The Pentagon insists that it is pleased with the experiment. But two weeks into the war, the more than 600 "embedded" journalists have provided a window on the conflict that military public relations strategists may never have scripted.
"The moral is, be careful what you wish for," said Byron Pitts, a CBS-TV correspondent traveling with U.S. forces in Iraq. "The Pentagon wanted their story to be told, so they granted access on the battlefield to all these reporters. Yet there have been moments, and there will continue to be moments, when the story told is not one they feel good about."
When the war began, the Pentagon was expected to play a powerful role in shaping media coverage. By deploying journalists with U.S. forces -- and putting guidelines on what they could report -- officials hoped to get their story out to the world and counteract Iraqi propaganda. The plan seemed to be working in the first few days of the war, when these embedded journalists had relatively little bad news to report.
The embedding program represented a major shift for the Pentagon, which set much stricter rules for media coverage during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Back then, most reporters were kept miles from the battlefield, and only a handful were given a daily glimpse of the military action. Most journalists had to write their stories based on briefings given by Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and other officials.
By granting access in this conflict, Pentagon officials said, they wanted reporters to convey the "heroism and hard work" of American troops to a worldwide audience, and also to discredit Iraqi propaganda, according to Army Maj. Timothy Blair, who helps coordinate the embedding program.
"We are pleased with the coverage, and it's all been going pretty much as we expected," he said. "Anytime, day or night, you can tune in and get an embedded journalist's report from his little piece of ground."
Yet the extraordinary access has yielded eyewitness stories chronicling episodes that might never have been covered -- or known about -- in the 1991 war.
Embedded reporters helped break stories about Army Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, the top U.S. infantry commander in Iraq, who created a stir in Washington by saying he was surprised by the tenacity of Iraqi guerrilla forces and believed the war might last longer than expected. Reporters in the field also generated stories about the suicide bombing attack that killed four American soldiers, complaints that some military units do not have enough food and chilling accounts of attacks on U.S. supply lines.
Other reports have been more upbeat, giving readers and viewers a glimpse of daily life on the front lines and inspirational portraits of U.S. troops. These softer stories have stirred concerns from some critics that the embedded reporters might find it hard to be objective about the troops who protect them.
Others feared that Pentagon restrictions on what could be reported -- such as the exact location of units and their future logistical plans -- might throttle independent reporting. But "you don't hear too much of that kind of criticism anymore," Blair noted.
"The fundamental job of embedded reporters is to tell the truth as they see it, whether it's bravery, heroism or failure," said Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.
Blair and others say embedded reporters were never intended to provide anything more than a slice of battlefield action. Americans can get the bigger picture from daily briefings in Qatar, he said.
But journalists who gather for the daily briefings in the media center there have grown increasingly frustrated over the lack of hard news and any meaningful context about the overall war effort, according to James Smith, foreign news editor of the Boston Globe.
"There's no question that the formal briefing process has left us very short of information on major elements of the war effort, about what's happening on the ground in Iraq and Iraqi military casualties," he said. "I can only assume it's part of a deliberate strategy, that they don't want us to know these things, because they don't want Saddam Hussein to know through us."
The rise of Al Jazeera and other Arab-run cable news channels has further complicated the Pentagon's effort to shape war news, according to Robin Sproul, ABC News' Washington bureau chief.
"They [military officials] know it's a media free-for-all now, and in a sense, they probably had no choice but to put as many reporters in the zone with troops as they could," she said. "They probably realize now that, with the stories that come out, they'll win some and lose some."
Getlin reported from New York, Wilkinson from Doha, Qatar.