ABC anchor Ted Koppel returned from Iraq just over a week ago to appear on the Kalb Report at the National Press Club Monday night, telling stories about what he said is the last war he will ever cover.
Koppel commended military officials for keeping their promise of full disclosure to the embedded media in Iraq and outlined his views on the purpose of reporting from the front lines.
Kalb, a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, which co-sponsors journalistic ethics panels and discussions, interviewed Koppel one-on-one.
Kalb called embedded reporting the “highlight of international coverage” during the war in Iraq.
Koppel, who anchors ABC News “Nightline,” said he was “very skeptical” of the military’s pledge to allow Koppel and other embedded reporters journalistic freedom in the Iraqi desert before he left the United States.
He said Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, who commanded the Army’s 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division, with which Koppel traveled, included him in briefings and left it up to Koppel to comply with the embedded journalists’ guidelines not to report any information that would endanger troops’ security or plans.
The “rules of embedment,” Koppel said, could be summarized as: “don’t jeopardize the lives of American troops.”
Koppel, who has covered nine wars in the last four decades, compared the campaign in Iraq to Vietnam, in which “broadcasts required almost a ton of equipment.” For almost a month, Koppel traveled with four other people, including National Journal and Atlantic Monthly editor Michael Kelly, who died reporting from the front lines early this month. The team rode in an unarmored Humvee and a Land Rover. He said a person could single-handedly beam a broadcast home with such technology as portable satellite dishes and videophones.
Koppel said prior to his death, Kelly and he would sit in on any intelligence briefing they chose.
“When I said, ‘what’s the plan?,’ (Blount) told me,” Koppel said.
This presented correspondents with a rare responsibility to choose what to report. Koppel called the trust military officials placed in him and other journalists “tremendously inhibiting.”
“Nothing is more difficult for a reporter than for a general to say, ‘here’s the plan.'”
Koppel described being able to just drop in to a tent where Blount and other top-ranking officials often discussed strategy over maps of the desert.
“The only inhibition was ‘please don’t show the map,'” Koppel said.
Embedded reporters did not come without benefits to the Pentagon, Koppel said, and recounted a few situations in which his position helped him better understand the climate of the military operation.
He recalled seeing a tank commander use restraint when immobilizing a vehicle that attempted to cross American lines but open fire on 30 armed civilians the next day. Koppel said he was “more apt to believe” U.S. officials were striving to follow procedure after witnessing such events, a reason why he said “some very smart people in the Pentagon” decided to embed journalists.
Koppel also spoke about fearful times, such as when the division funneled through the Karbala Gap about 40 miles south of Baghdad. Officials feared Iraqis would employ chemical weapons as troops were squeezed into the one-mile wide space.
“Did I have butterflies? That’s an understatement,” Koppel said, adding he was especially concerned because his group was traveling in unarmored vehicles.
He said he received one day of biochemical, first aid and landmine training at Fort Meyer before departing for the desert.
“If you ever have a gaping, sucking chest wound, I’m your man,” Koppel said. “Psychologically, I think (the training) helped me a bit.”
Monday’s Kalb Report, co-sponsored by GW and produced by Vice President for Communications Mike Freedman, marked the last of the year. Koppel will also join a panel of journalists including Assistant Secretary of Defense Victoria Clark at the Press Club May 6.