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[infowar.de] WPO 27.03.03: The CNN Factor
March 27, 2003
The CNN Factor
By Jim Hoagland
In Biafra, battlefield resistance collapsed with the speed of air escaping
a punctured balloon. In Iraqi Kurdistan, I awakened one morning to learn
that the rebellion I had been covering had essentially ended while I slept.
The camp cooks had cleared out overnight without saying goodbye. Commanders
who had been vowing the night before to fight on quickly followed them down
from suddenly besieged mountain posts.
Similar scenes at the end of a half-dozen other conflicts I covered years
ago suggest that modern wars end not so much with a bang as with a
desperate quick crash. The smell of fear and futility blows in quickly from
front lines that are being chewed up by armor, artillery or air power. No
dash is quicker than the race for survival.
This is not a prediction that such a scenario will unfold soon in Iraq. By
arriving on the doorstep of Baghdad, U.S. forces are most likely to be at
the end of the beginning of this war, not the beginning of the end. My
point is that time itself is a different, more erratic and more highly
compressed commodity when war rages.
We used to speak of "wartime" as duration -- as nationally or
internationally shared moments, weeks or years shaped or controlled by the
fortunes of fighting armies. But war "time" has become something entirely
different in an era when television audiences around the world watch
battlefield action as it occurs and are tempted to make instant judgments
about the meaning of what they think they are seeing.
Today's television viewer is an electronically empowered Fabrizio, the hero
of Stendhal's "The Charterhouse of Parma." Fabrizio wanders about the
battlefield of Waterloo seeing puffs of smoke and hearing bullets whiz by
without knowing anything of the course of the battle or of Napoleon's
impending final loss of empire. He doesn't know what he doesn't know. We
run the same risk by impatiently mistaking war "time" for finality.
U.S. forces have encountered Iraqi units capable of tactical surprise and
also have been hit by an unexpectedly fierce and howling sandstorm. These
developments have sparked suddenly pessimistic reporting about the ability
of the American forces to endure battlefield setbacks. "Vietnam" and
"quagmire" have become instant coverage staples, in question form at least.
That's the price of an open society, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said
Tuesday. But it is also the other edge of the sword the Pentagon grasped
when it decided to let the world media travel with its forces and file live
from the battlefield. It was an audacious effort to take advantage of the
CNN factor, which carries its own risks and rewards.
The U.S. units in Iraq can rely on surprise less than any fighting force in
history. The Iraqis have been able to watch lines of 3rd Infantry Division
tanks stretch back beyond the horizon as the tanks and ABC crossed into
Iraq, or learn from CNN that the sandstorm has grounded the 101st
Airborne's helicopters. Iraqi intelligence's best sources are named Sony
This cannot come as a surprise to the Pentagon's war planners. In this part
of Operation Iraqi Freedom, they are conducting a brave-new-world attempt
to use the media not in classic news management terms -- to sway opinion
back home or hide facts -- but to convince the Iraqi military that it has
no chance. "Give up now before you and a great number of Iraqi civilians
die needlessly" is the subliminal message those images flash.
"This was the world's first $100 billion television commercial," says a
business executive I know. "President Bush and his team couldn't get the
message across on al-Jazeera or Egyptian television. This is Uncle Sam's
way of buying airtime to tell Iraq that change in an iron fist is coming."
In this sense the journalistic "embeds" and the media at large are not "a
weapon of war" for the Pentagon, as an op-ed writer claimed in the New York
Times on Tuesday in egregious overstatement, but a method of trying to
avert destruction. It has not worked instantly. But that does not mean it
will not eventually, or should not have been tried.
The effect of immediate coverage on the home front is even more
problematic. A letter from Stalin and a pension were thought to be enough
to console a grieving family in "wartime" Moscow. In the war "time" of
modern and impatient America, consolation is a near instantaneous telephone
call from Katie Couric or Paula Zahn and airtime to grieve. Progress this
may not be.
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