Opening government?

Commentary: What if reporters were 'embedded' in civilian agencies?

Late last month, CNN reported that Gen. Tommy Franks remained enthusiastic about "embedding" members of the press corps with U.S. military units in and around Iraq. Certainly the practice enables the world to read about and view the war in more detail than ever before. But, as usual, more information does not equate to higher quality information or decisions.

In the short term, the war effort benefits from an embedded press. First, the up-to-date nature of the stories helps the military inform its own far-flung forces. Troops rely on the open media to help them understand the overall course of the conflict, their part in it and the fate of their comrades.

Second, the "facts-travaganza" generated by 600 journalists from around the world creates a blanket of "hot" news that reduces the bandwidth for writing, publishing and reading longer analytical pieces. The public is caught up in the play-by-play and color commentary, reducing its appetite for asking where the effort is leading.

Third, the human-interest element in many stories paints our forces in a sympathetic light, building public support. This aspect — that some stories have a "boosterish tone," in the words of the Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz — is beneficial in the short term.

In a way, the military is applying its doctrine of "net-centricity" to its public affairs mission. Net-centricity, as I learned when I chaired the review panel for a Defense Advanced Research Proj-ects Agency-funded study conducted by the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, is the organizational response to decentralized computing power and high-bandwidth communications.

In warfare, net-centricity is empowering local commanders by ensuring they have both the information (situational awareness) and the authority to respond flexibly to local conditions. It is transforming the way battles are planned and fought.

In public affairs, net- centricity means that a global story is emerging from local points — embedded reporters and their technology. In this context, integrating the diverse details into a whole is the hard part.

The press is an uneasy partner in this venture, craving the up-close access but fearing a loss of independence. It knows that if the coverage turns sour, the embedding policy will lose support in the administration. Yet, absent serious leaks of sensitive information, the government is unlikely to send reporters home. Embedding has set a new standard for access.

What if embedding was taken into the civilian agencies? What if reporters roamed the halls of government, bonding with federal officials and building trust and accountability? Might greater access promote more effective partnerships with private industry and better citizen understanding of programs and policies? Or would the press become captive and lose its independent perspective? This is one of the many lessons we will learn from Operation Iraqi Freedom.

McConnell, former chief of information policy and technology at the Office of Management and Budget, is president of McConnell International LLC (www.mcconnellinternational.com).

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