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Al Eisele

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The Man Who Helped Shape War Coverage

Posted: 01/04/11 11:19 AM ET

As one of hundreds of journalists who were able to accompany U.S. fighting forces in Iraq under the Pentagon's embedding program, I feel a special sense of gratitude to Barry Zorthian, who died in a Washington hospital on Dec. 30 at the age of 90.

That's because Zorthian, the chief spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Saigon during the massive American military buildup in Vietnam from 1964-68, was instrumental in persuading the Pentagon to adopt the practice of embedding journalists into frontline combat units in Iraq -- and now Afghanistan -- based on his experience in Vietnam.

I met Zorthian, a swarthy Armenian who emigrated to the U.S. with his parents as a boy, graduated from Yale and served in the Marine Corps during World War II, in April 2003, two years before I made the first of two reporting trips to Iraq.

It was at a memorial service at a Catholic church on Capitol Hill for Michael Kelly, the Washington Post columnist and Atlantic Monthly editor who was the first American journalist killed in Iraq when the Humvee he was riding in with soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division came under fire and plunged into a canal during the invasion of Iraq.

I invited Zorthian to lunch and, after admitting I was one of the many Vietnam era reporters who held him partially accountable for contributing to the credibility gap that undermined public support for that war, asked him why he felt it was necessary to change the way reporters covered combat operations, as he did in a series of op-ed articles and speeches in 1991, after the first Gulf War.

"What is needed to avoid future acrimony is agreement by both the military and the media that each has a legitimate and essential role in informing the American public about the conduct and progress of combat operations, and each has legitimate needs and concerns that must be taken into account by the other," he said.

And he gave me a copy of an op-ed he had written for The Washington Times in which he described the embedding program that allowed unprecedented access for reporters to combat operations in Iraq: "Despite any temptation, the military must avoid deception or dissembling because... credibility is critical in maintaining public support."

And in another article he The Washington Post at about the same time, he wrote that the military has to "realize that it is better served in the long run by putting out an accurate and candid report of information, both good and bad, sooner rather than later, complete rather than selective."

Zorthian, then a partner in a Washington public relations firm, was a member of a high level commission that urged then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to allow a more open policy on war coverage. He credited Rumsfeld and Pentagon spokesperson Torie Clark for doing "a hell of a job" in that regard. "I think overall this is the military's best performance -- candid, informative, factual," he said. "And access for the media is virtually complete."

And although he conceded that the embedding program was not yet perfect, Zorthian made it clear he believed it was the best yet devised.

"The military and the media have different roles and different cultures," he said. "And there will always be some adversarial elements between them. But the present 'embedded' system seems to be the best formula to reduce this tension to a minimum and meet the interests of both."

Based on my experience covering the late Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy's 1968 anti-Vietnam campaign that helped drive President Johnson from office, and as an embedded reporter in Iraq, I found myself in total agreement with these words from his obituary in The Washington Post:

"Mr. Zorthian shrugged off the suggestion that the failure of American policy in Vietnam could be blamed on damaging media reports. Sure, the press was a discomfort then," he said in 1986. "But the postwar charges that the press lost the war were completely unwarranted. Our efforts on the ground lost the war, not the press."