Baghdad, Iraq The number of embedded journalists reporting alongside U.S. troops in Iraq has dropped to its lowest level of the war even as the conflict heats up on the streets of Baghdad and in the U.S. political campaign.
In the past few weeks, the number of journalists assigned to U.S. military units in Iraq has settled to below two dozen. Late last month, it fell to 11, its lowest, and has rebounded only slightly since.
During the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, more than 600 reporters, TV crews and photographers linked up with U.S. and British units. A year ago, when Iraqis went to the polls to ratify a new constitution, there were 114 embedded journalists.
"This is more than pathetic," said Sig Christenson, a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and president of Military Reporters and Editors, a journalists' group. "It strikes me as dangerous" for the American public to get so little news of their military, said Christenson, who recently returned from an embedded assignment in Iraq.
Some journalists blame the decline on Pentagon bureaucracy, the reporting restrictions journalists face and pressure by some commanders to avoid "negative" coverage. Both journalists and U.S. military officers point to declining interest in the long-running story, and the high cost, both in money and danger, of coverage.
Christopher Paul, a social scientist at the RAND Corp., said it was natural for the numbers of embeds to drop after the invasion, because when they could safely travel on their own journalists prefer "to act in a unilateral capacity" and pursue stories without military restrictions.
However, after the initial post-invasion lull the war picked up again - but not the number of embeds.
According to the United Nations, at least 6,599 Iraqi civilians were killed in July and August - a record high. U.S. troop levels have risen above 140,000, and September was the second deadliest month of the year for American service members. The war has emerged as the key issue in next month's U.S. midterm elections.
Yet in recent months no more than 25 journalists have been embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq.
"This is a canary-in-the-coal-mines statistic," said Josh Friedman, director of international programs at Columbia University's School of Journalism, about the decrease. "The statistic actually tells us much more about the investment the media is making in covering the war. It's off the front pages."
The figures on embeds do not provide a complete picture of American and other foreign news coverage in Iraq. Major U.S. news organizations, including The Associated Press, maintain multinational staffs including American reporters in offices in Baghdad, as well as part-time Iraqi correspondents in other cities.
But travel inside Iraq is severely hampered for Western reporters because of security, and the most effective way to cover U.S. military activities is to join American units, either as a long-term embed or on escorted day trips.
Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, director of the coalition media center, said there are fewer media overall in Iraq, where security needs have driven up costs.
"It is expensive and bureaus have downsized their operations. So they don't have enough people, often, to leave the bureaus" to embed with troops.