An Aug. 10 Newsmax column by Ken Timmerman highlights a "group of eight citizen-soldier-reporters" who "returned to Iraq last week as civilians to embed as reporters with their former units, to tell the story of recent successes in the war they believe the media is not accurately reporting to the American people."
That's the closest that Timmerman gets to hinting at the agenda of the "citizen-soldier-reporters" he is featuring. The group is associated with Vets for Freedom -- which, as Salon details, not only supports the Iraq war but "has a remarkable number of ties -- some previously unreported -- to Republicans generally and John McCain's campaign specifically. And it has run attack ads against Barack Obama." Timmerman quotes VFF leader Pete Hegseth as part of the group but fails to note, as Salon did, that Hegseth has campaigned for John McCain. Salon adds:
Under the Pentagon's standards for Iraq embeds, the people that Vets for Freedom is sending to Iraq qualify as journalists. Six of them have impeccable military credentials but no reporting experience, with clippings largely limited to Op-Eds. A would-be embed, however, needs only to provide the military's public affairs officers with three samples of published or broadcast work, and proof that he or she is credentialed by a publication. Three conservative media outlets -- the Weekly Standard, National Review Online and BlackFive.net – have provided the eight members of VFF's Iraq team with credentials.
From the mission statement that appears on VFF's Web site, it's also clear that the purpose of what it has dubbed the "Back to Iraq" trip fits within the bounds of journalism, albeit advocacy journalism of the foregone-conclusion variety, strident conservative division. "Its [sic] essential for the American people to know the facts about what is happening in Iraq. Some media outlets, and certain politicians, still fail to assess the situation objectively; so Vets for Freedom is heading Back to Iraq to let them know what has been accomplished, what still needs to be done, and how we should proceed in order to attain sustainable security in Iraq."
But VFF's representatives in Iraq are political activists first, and journalists second. Or third.
VFF's decision to embed reporters does raise concerns for experts in media ethics. Christopher Hanson, an associate professor at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism who researches media-military relations and who covered the first Gulf War, says that "subsidized journalism" funded by nonprofits "is on the rise across the political spectrum." He doesn't think that's necessarily a bad thing as long as there's full disclosure of the funding. But he also thinks that VFF's case brings with it a different set of issues. "If essentially you have reporters who are the founders and the activists in the organization, then getting credentialed and going with preconceptions ... and then going out and campaigning, that's highly questionable, and that deserves scrutiny. It seems to me that to some extent the question is, Is there any chance that any of them change their views or is it simply a kind of a fraud?" Hanson said, cautioning that he doesn't know the group's intentions and is not accusing them of fraud.
"It's not independent journalism," says Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute. "If I were [VFF], I'd be saying, 'Gosh, the Army should be paying me PR fees.'"
Timmerman reports none of this about the VFF "citizen-soldier-reporters" he features in his article.