Zoriah the Embed

The Vision Machine was fortunate enough to conduct a candid conversation with photojournalist Zoriah Miller at a Manhattan cafe in September of 2012.  The following is a recording of that encounter, which focuses on Zoriah’s time in Iraq as an embedded reporter, the fight for institutional control of the image, and the series of events that led up to Zoriah’s disembedding.  Innerview by Seb Kaempf.

2 thoughts on “Zoriah the Embed

  1. POLS3512 alternative assessment

    Embedded journalism represents the latest method utilised by the American military to manage journalists in warzones. In this 2003 interview, Seb Kaempf interviews Zoriah Miller on his experiences as an embedded journalist in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. More particularly the interview focuses on Zoriah’s experiences in the second stint, when he found himself at the centre of the continuous struggle between press freedom and the interests of the military and government to control the message. As a result of publishing a photo of a dead US marine, Zoriah was eventually de-embedded by the military. After recounting Zoriah’s experiences, this post will focus on his core claims and criticisms of the existing regime. In particular, we will examine the nature of the controls Zoriah found himself subjected to and the relationship between his experience and the criticisms of embedded journalism more broadly.

    In 2008 Zoriah was embedded with a Marine battalion and captured the aftermath of a suicide bombing in the town of Al-Karmah. In the attack, which targeted a meeting of local sheiks, civilians and three high-level marines were killed. Zoriah captured a number of images showing the aftermath of the bombing, depicting Iraqi victims and also a number of American fatalities (Miller: 2008). In accordance with military guidelines, after the relevant families had been notified and after consulting other soldiers Zoriah decided to publish the photos on his blog and included a photo of a deceased (but unidentifiable) American soldier. These images were later circulated widely by media organisations. Subsequently, the army requested that Zoriah remove the photos from his blog citing the display of US Marine fatigues and this not being allowed. When Zoriah declined to remove the images, the army sought to de-embed him and to ban him from ever being embedded again. After challenging the claims of various individuals, the army unofficially admitted that Zoriah had acted within the rules, but de-embedded him and sent him home.

    Throughout his account, Zoriah consistently draws attention to a range of controls of journalists. On a macro level, he draws attention to the wide-scale use of “miscommunications” to restrict the movement of journalists into the field. He claims these miscommunications were endemic in 2008 (more so than 2007) and that they represent a top-down approach to confining journalists to the base. After the incident, Zoriah found himself subjected to a range of informal controls through individuals. For example, Zoriah was asked to hand over his memory card with the relevant photos prior to their publication. Though there were no grounds to justify this request Zoriah had to argue with the relevant individual and show that this was the case: the photos could well have been deleted if Zoriah had been cowed. At another point military officials argue that Zoriah did not wait until the relatives had been notified before releasing the photos; to disprove this Zoriah has to obtain timestamps from his blog hosting service to. On both occasions the military individuals in question act contrary to official policy on embedded journalists; however, their actions are either supported or not questioned institutionally, and action is certainly not taken against them. Although the official documents signed by embedded journalists do not infringe on their freedom, Zoriah’s case is illustrative of a range of informal controls used within the military to control the information distributed by journalists.

    In literature more broadly, a number of claims are made in criticism of embedded journalism. Cockburn (2010) argues that the regime fundamentally promotes a distorted view of war that focuses on the soldiers and their perspectives. This is supported by empirical analyses such as that of Lindner, who compared the content and tone of embedded journalists compared to independent and Baghdad-stationed journalists. He found that embedded journalists are far more likely to focus on the soldier’s experience and far less likely to discuss civilian casualties – only 12 percent of articles by embedded journalists discuss civilian deaths, versus 50 percent of articles for Baghdad-stationed journalists in the early days of the Iraq war (Lindner: 2008, p35). By virtue of forming deep relationships with individual soldiers the embed program also puts the journalist in a position where journalistic integrity and personal relationships can clash (Tusoto: 2008, p 25). Zoriah acknowledges this in the interview, and argues that “the imbed program forces you to become part of the [army] family, and you don’t want to do things that hurt your family”. Consequently, the regime can arguably exert an implicit control over the stories told by embedded reporters.

    Cockburn (2010) also argues that the regime restricts the location and movement of journalists to those of their assigned unit. Since journalists cannot travel independently they are essentially held “hostage” by the army, which can exert a great deal of influence over what stories are told and which are not. This issue became particularly concerning towards the end of the America engagement; by 2010, according to Army whistle-blower Chelsea Manning (2014), there were only twelve embedded reporters in Iraq, the movements of whom were effectively under the complete control of the military. Manning also raises the issue that these journalists were hand-picked by the military to produce pieces favourable towards it; by 2010 the Pentagon was publically stating that “embeds are a privilege, not a right” (Lapan: 2010). Criticisms of embedded journalism have been wide and deep, and the experiences of Zoriah are supportive of the broader attacks on the regime.

    The embed program enables a high degree of control by the military over the flow of news. This issue is magnified by the fact the regime is the easiest, safest and most efficient way of covering war; alternatives are far more expensive and risky (Cockburn: 2010, Lindner: 2010, p35-37, Tusuto: 2008). This is the case for two reasons. In ‘new’ wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan, it is simply not safe for independent journalists to freely roam: journalists are often targeted and embedding can be seen almost as a requirement. Secondly, however, embed programs have given news organisations a cheap, uncomplicated and relatively less risky way of covering wars. With the growing oligopolisation of media ownership, news organisations are increasingly engaging in competition for cheap news; embedded journalists suit this reality perfectly (Warf: 2007, Lindner: 2010). Consequently embedded journalists in Iraq dominated in terms of reporting: of all front-page stories produced in the early years of the Iraq war, embedded journalists penned 71 percent (Lindner: 2010, p 38). The embed program thus puts news organisations in a position where covering the war by any other means becomes relatively expensive and uncompetitive.

    Zoriah acknowledges these issues, but also argues that the embed program “takes away opportunities and provides opportunities”. That is, while the criticisms of embedded journalism more broadly resonate with him, he also acknowledges the practical difficulties in covering the Iraq war as a non-embedded journalist and the opportunities that being embedded with the army provide. From his perspective, he would not have been present for the aftermath of the bombing had he not been embedded. This represents a different view on the merits of embedded journalism.

    In conclusion, we can see Zoriah’s story as indicative of the military’s expectation that embedded journalists cover news that suits its interests. The outrage about his photographs is not so much about issues of sensitivity or national security, but more about Zoriah breaking away from the implicit contract between the military and the embedded media to tell favourable stories. The embed program has significant moral issues in terms of providing balanced wartime reporting, which is made worse by the fact it is rapidly becoming the most attractive way for media organisations to cover wars. While ‘new’ media is rising in influence, we still rely of traditional media for much of wartime reporting; embedded journalists, despite the issues, are still seen as more legitimate than non-affiliated amateur journalists on social media. ‘New’ media represents the next challenge for the military’s control of news, but at present the embed regime has enabled significant control while largely satisfying news organisations and the public’s need for news – regardless of its quality or bias.


    Cockburn, P. 2010. “Embedded Journalism – a distorted view of war”. The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/opinion/embedded-journalism-a-distorted-view-of-war-2141072.html accessed 25 October 2015.
    Lapan, Col. D. 2010. Quoted in: CNN. 2010. “Rolling Stone reporter denied embed after McChrystal piece”. http://edition.cnn.com/2010/US/08/04/rolling.stone.reporter.embed.denied/index.html accessed 25 October 2015.
    Lindner, A. M. 2008. “Controlling the media in Iraq”. Contexts 7(2) p 33-38.
    Manning, C. 2014. “The Fog Machine of War”. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/15/opinion/sunday/chelsea-manning-the-us-militarys-campaign-against-media-freedom.html?_r=0 accessed 25 October 2015.
    Miller, Z. 2008. “Anbar province suicide bombing – Zoriah’s eyewitness account – Iraq war diary”. http://www.zoriah.net/blog/suicide-bombing-in-anbar-.html accessed 25 October 2015.
    Miller, Z. and Kaempf, S. 2013. “Zoriah the embed”. http://thevisionmachine.com/2013/03/zoriah-the-embed-part-1/ accessed 25 October 2015.
    Tusuto, K. 2008. “The “grunt truth” of Embedded Journalism: the New Media/military relationship”. Stanford Journal of International relations 10(2) p 20-31.
    Warf, B. 2007. “Oligopolisation of Global Media and Telecommunications and its implications for democracy”. Ethics, Place and Environment 10(1) p 89-105.

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    Zoriah the Embed

    Zoriah Miller, or simply ‘Zoriah’, reached global fame upon his disembedding from the United States (US) media-pack covering the Iraqi war during the summer of 2008. Interviewed in 2012 by Seb Kaempf for ‘The Vision Machine’, Zoriah discusses his experiences of embedding, which emerged as the Pentagon’s preferred tactic of press control and censorship during the Iraq war. A summary of Zoriah’s experiences and opinions will be provided in order to assist in contextualising his recounts within broader academic discussions of embedding. The rationale behind, and mechanics of, the US’s embedding program will be discussed before turning to the way in which media conglomerates perpetuated a culture of censored reporting. An examination of counter-arguments finds Zoriah’s spotlight to be an academically-supported, convincing narrative of the state of affairs regarding the relationship between the media and the military, though some potential improvements are noted.

    Zoriah was embedded for the summers of 2007 and 2008 and notes their differences given the brutality of war subsided in the intervening period. In June of 2008 Zoriah accompanied a group of high level military personnel to a meeting in Anbar Province with local leaders where a suicide bomb exploded. Against military orders, Zoriah entered the building to capture the bloody aftermath which included the corpses of uniformed US Marines. Zoriah waited 3 days, an additional 2 of that required by the military to notify family members, and then posted the photos to his blog. The response from military officials was near immediate and citing a number of justifications, they called for Zoriah’s immediate removal. Zoriah contested and while the military ultimately agreed Zoriah had acted within regulations, his disembedding was nevertheless ordered. Zoriah goes on to label this event as demonstrative of a broader problem of censorship perpetrated by the Pentagon which is furthered by self-censorship of commercial media outlets, leaving the public misinformed of the reality of war. (Miller and Kaempf 2013)

    The US embedding program formed out of an understanding that changes in technology had increased the ability of journalists to act independently from fixed military telecommunications lines (Buchanan 2011: 109). As Zoriah notes, such advances limited the capacity of the military to physically control the speed and content of information disseminated to the public (Miller and Kaempf 2013). While other means of press control had been experimented with prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Pentagon’s implementation of a conditional embedding program was particularly innovative in ensuring a public depiction which favoured political interests (Myburg 2011: 91). Widely regarded in academic literature and by Zoriah, as a means of censorship, the Pentagon’s ‘control’ of the media through the embedding of over 500 journalists manifested itself directly and indirectly.

    The direct control exerted by the program pertains more to the events surrounding Zoriah’s disembedding, though Zoriah speaks of indirect control also. As Cortell et al. confirm, embedding was conditional on adherence to the military’s terms and conditions which regulated the content on which the media could report (2009: 669). Zoriah’s disembedding was legitimised by reference to these terms, which Zoriah contends could be construed flexibly to suit the Pentagon’s interests (Miller and Kaempf 2013). Military leaders attempted to seize Zoriah’s photos before claiming that embedding regulations prohibited the showing of US camouflage uniforms and then arguing that Zoriah had failed to sign an agreement specific to the Marines (Miller and Kaempf 2013). Such attempts are demonstrative of the Pentagons’s dedication to ensure a depiction of war free from the dead bodies of US soldiers (Stahl 2009: 26).

    Indirectly, the very nature of the embedding program allowed for the construction of interpersonal connections between the media and military personnel which produced reporting favourable to US interests (Cockburn 2013: 25). Zoriah notes how easy it can be for the media to form close ties to the troops (Miller and Kaempf 2013). Hiebert confirms, stating that this particular style of reporting tends to ‘humanise’ its subject (2003: 249). What eventuates is a ‘reality show’ of sorts, with the reporter inadvertently narrowing the ‘story’ to one which portrays the everyday experiences of soldiers in a favourable light (Buchanan 2011: 103). As a consequence, Zoriah explains, mirroring the term used by academic Susan Carruthers, the public is confined to receiving a ‘soda straw’ view of the realities of warfare (Miller and Kaempf 2013; 2011: 233). Embedding may allow for an in-depth experience of a specific military unit, but confined to a singular perspective, it can be incredibly difficult to understand the war in its entirety (Saran and Mangaladurai 2003: 158).

    This ‘soda straw’ view cannot be attributed solely to the controls exercised by the Pentagon. It is clear from Zoriah’s spotlight that he considers self-censorship by commercial media outlets to be equally influential in perpetuating the Pentagon’s goal of a ‘clean war’, and this is reflective of the position expressed within academia. There is a notable distinction between individuals operating independently (such as Zoriah) and those working for profit-driven media organisations. As Stahl argues, the commercial pressures placed on modern media outlets encourage assenting to the conditions of the embedding program to ensure continued access to the ‘action’ (2009: 43). Public sensibilities to truthful reporting have also demonstrated that profitability is not enhanced by displaying the bloody reality of war (Parry 2012: 180). The result is that commercial media outlets are far more likely, as Zoriah suggests, to self-censor, by silencing the elements of war which are particularly graphic.

    This distinction in reporting styles can be evidenced from an examination of the photos which led to Zoriah’s disembedding and those used by commercial news outlet, the New York Times (NYT) reporting on the same event. Of course it is important to note that Zoriah’s photographs were an exclusive of sorts, given his proximity to the situation, though it is worthwhile to consider just how ‘sterile’ the photos chosen by the NYT are.

    Zoriah (Miller, 2008):

    New York Times (Rubin, 2008):

    The NYT admitted to Zoriah that their journalists had experienced similar censorship, though they did not wish to publicly discuss it for fear of disembedding (Miller and Kaempf 2013). Banham confirms that critical journalism did exist during the Iraqi occupation, though the experiences of Zoriah and others are indicative of the severe commercial consequences which can flow from such action (2013: 609). Instead, the NYT chose to write a piece about Zoriah’s experiences to promote discussion about the ethics of media censorship during warfare (Kamber and Arango 2008).

    While Zoriah’s contentions are largely accepted within academia, some counter-arguments persist. Cockburn warns that critics should be careful not to attack the practice of embedding generally (2010). Zoriah notes, as Cockburn did, that the program actually had tangible advantages for those who participated, in the form of direct access to troops and physical protection (Miller and Kaempf 2013). Independent journalists noted that the security situation made it near impossible to report on events outside of central Baghdad and Zoriah agreed, stating that ‘if you wanted to report in Iraq in 2008 and survive, then you needed to be embedded’ (Ignatius 2010; Miller and Kaempf 2013). Nevertheless, questions persist regarding the legitimacy of such justifications for what is clearly an attempt at censorship. Similarly, Zoriah admits the incident which led to his disembedding actually killed the most high-level marines of the entire war (Miller and Kaempf 2013). It is plausible to argue that military interference in embedded reporting was confined to extreme instances. However, to contest Zoriah’s assertions in such a way would be to legitimise the act of government censorship of the ‘Fourth Estate’ at all.

    While Zoriah’s spotlight does well to evidence that the media situation was not static over the course of the war, the overall argument could have been deepened by a discussion of how the media-military situation changed from 2003-2011. For instance, the Pentagon’s early selection process embedded those likely to report in a manner deemed favourable to US interests, such that Fox News was given pride of place by the Bush administration (Manning 2014; Buchanan 2011: 110). Changes in public perception and within political discourse over the course of the war would have made for an interesting point of analysis.

    Kaempf’s interview with Zoriah reveals an embedding scheme executed by the Pentagon and perpetuated by commercial media’s self-censorship. This spotlight’s strength lies in its contextualisation of the subject matter through Zoriah’s personal experiences. The result is a critical reflection, consistent with views expressed by academics, on the media-military relationship as it existed during the Iraq war and of its broader consequences for the future of critical war reporting.

    Banham, Cynthia. 2013. ‘Legitimising war in a changing media landscape’. Australian Journal of International Affairs 67(5): 605-620.

    Buchanan, Paul G. 2011. ‘Facilitated news as controlled information flows: The origins, rationale and dilemmas of ‘embedded’ journalism’. Pacific Journalism Review 17(1): 102-118.

    Carruthers, Susan L. 2011. The Media at War. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Cockburn, Patrick. 2010. ‘Embedded journalism: A distorted view of war’. The Independent 23 November. Accessed 10 October 2016. Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/opinion/embedded-journalism-a-distorted-view-of-war-2141072.html.

    Cockburn, Patrick. 2013. ‘A bigger picture, barely glimpsed’. British Journalism Review 24(4): 18-26.

    Cortell, Andrew P, Eisinger, Robert M, Althaus, Scott L. 2009. ‘Why Embed? Explaining the Bush Administration’s Decision to Embed Reporters in the 2003 Invasion of Iraq’. American Behavioural Scientist 52(5): 657-677.

    Hiebert, Ray E. 2003. ‘Public relations and propaganda in framing the Iraq war: a preliminary review’. Public Relations Review 29: 243-255.

    Ignatius, David. 2010. ‘The dangers of embedded journalism, in war and politics’. Washington Post 2 May. Accessed 10 October 2016. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/30/AR2010043001100.html.

    Kamber, Michael and Arango, Tim. 2008. ‘4,000 U.S. Deaths, and a Handful of Images’. The New York Times 26 July: A1.

    Manning, Chelsea. 2014. ‘The Fog Machine of War’. The New York Times. 15 June: SR4.

    Miller, Zoriah. 2008. ‘Suicide Bombing in Anbar – Eye Witness Account – Iraq War Diary’. Zoriah: Photojournalist 30 June. Accessed 7 October 2016. Available at http://www.zoriah.net/blog/2008/06/anbar-province.html.

    Miller, Zoriah and Kaempf, Seb. 2013. ‘Zoriah the Embed’. The Vision Machine 16 March. Accessed 7 October 2016. Available at http://thevisionmachine.com/2013/03/zoriah-the-embed-part-1/.

    Myburg, Marietjie. 2011. ‘Media, Mediation and the War in Iraq: From Broken to Non-Existent Mirrors’. Global Media Journal 1(2): 88-95.

    Parry, Katy. 2012. ‘The first ‘Clean’ war? Visually framing civilian casualties in the British Press during the 2003 Iraq invasion’. Journal of War & Culture Studies 5(2): 173-187.

    Rubin, Alissa J. 2008. ‘3 U.S. Marines and More than 30 Iraqis Die in 2 Bomb Attacks’. The New York Times 27 June: A6.

    Saran, Pankaj and Mangaladurai, Suresh. 2003. ‘Embedded Reporting: War Against Truth?’. Media Asia 30(3): 154-160.

    Stahl, Roger. 2009. Militainment Inc. New York: Routledge.

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