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[infowar.de] NY Times: Reporting Reflects Anxiety
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March 25, 2003
Reporting Reflects Anxiety
By DAVID CARR
War coverage that was speeding along on good news and victorious imagery has
bumped into hard realities.
Sparked by word of significant American casualties, the tenor of the coverage on
television, in newspapers and on the Internet reflected increased anxiety about
the conduct of the war.
A public accustomed to continuous updates and instant analysis watched in real
time as the bad news came in and the mood of reporters ? and the tone taken by
their employers ? seemed to change overnight.
Until yesterday, Pentagon briefings had been well mannered, even genteel affairs
in which generals documented the day's successes and reiterated their confidence
in the outcome. That has now changed.
"What about all the bad news that U.S. and British forces got over the weekend?"
asked one reporter yesterday afternoon at the Pentagon briefing, which was
covered by the cable news networks. "How does that fit into the statements that,
you know, everything's going according to plan?"
Maj. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, vice director of operations, Joint Staff, said,
"If you step back and look at the bigger picture, like on this campaign, it's
Another reporter asked, "Can you bring us up to date on your latest
understanding of additional ones today and the total number of U.S. casualties
When Victoria Clarke, the Pentagon's chief spokeswoman, said she did not have a
current tally, the reporter pressed her: "And don't you have an obligation to
share that with the American people?"
The quick end to the honeymoon is not without precedent. One week after the
United States entered Afghanistan and encountered a surprising level of
resistance, the word "quagmire" began to appear in news reports. But within a
month, most of the military objectives had been achieved.
The coverage of the Iraq war, especially on television, began in a glow of
shared purpose. "I can tell you that these soldiers have been amazing to us,"
said David Bloom, an NBC News correspondent traveling with the Third Infantry.
While pledging objectivity, he added, "They have done anything and everything
that we could ask of them, and we in turn are trying to return the favor by
doing anything and everything that they can ask of us."
Now, the skepticism has returned. The Daily News wrote on Saturday that Baghdad
was under assault by American-led "birds of prey." By Monday, the paper reported
on the "bloodied American bodies."
During the run-up to the war, the Pentagon created expectations that any
military force would have trouble matching. As Donald H. Rumsfeld, the secretary
of defense, has since pointed out, war is a difficult, unpredictable business.
Missiles will go awry, helicopters will go astray, and military units will take
It could be argued that the images of dead and captured American forces were far
more damaging than the awful reality they portrayed. An image of awesome
American firepower had been replaced by pictures of vulnerability.
Ed Offley, editor of the online Defense Watch Magazine, said that the presence
of young, inexperienced reporters led to "shrill and nervous coverage."
"It is far too early to say whether these separate, little setbacks are a
failure in the war plan," Mr. Offley added. "Because of the way in which it is
being fought, this is shaping up as a savage little war that may or may not end
quickly. And that's a different story than what was first reported."
Television: Bidding to Reflect a Shift in Action
During the first few days, war seemed so easy on television, and it was covered
with no small degree of pride in the display of American power.
"Amazing pictures as U.S. troops push into Iraq," Anderson Cooper, a CNN anchor,
told viewers early Friday morning. "Tanks with the Seventh Cavalry roll
virtually unopposed deep into the Iraqi desert."
But by early Sunday, it was as if somebody had changed the channel.
"This was a very bad day," said Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd, a CNN military analyst.
"I am reminded to not beat your breast and clap your hands early."
Television news went into this conflict with significant access to the troops
and technology that allowed it to show the action live. When the early successes
came, television amplified the seeming effectiveness of the battle plan. But as
the news turned darker, television painted the opposite picture.
Last night there was even some early criticism of the news media. Fred Barnes,
the executive editor of The Weekly Standard and a commentator for the Fox News
Channel, said the news media was overstating how easy the war would be and then
panicking as fighting got rough. "The American people," he said, "are not as
casualty-sensitive as the weenies in the American press are."
In the days leading up to battle, the networks and local affiliates dedicated
plenty of time to the military hardware. On WABC in New York, N. J. Burkett, a
correspondent stationed with troops in Kuwait, described how they "tuned up
their weapons like an orchestra on opening night."
After the first bombs dropped on Wednesday, all of the networks carried similar
pictures: An American soldier ripping down a portrait of Saddam Hussein with the
help of an Iraqi villager; tanks cruising at 40 miles an hour up the Iraqi
desert toward Baghdad, unopposed; surrendering Iraqi soldiers smiling behind the
barbed wire fence penning them in.
The passage into southern Iraq was so effortless that at one point Aaron Brown,
the CNN anchor, connected a tank commander in the desert, Clay Lyle, to his
wife, Stephanie, in Georgia. "We've gone a long way, and we've dealt with
anything we've encountered. We hope to come home real soon," the commander said;
"I love you. Be safe," his wife replied.
On Saturday, Chip Reid, an NBC correspondent traveling with tanks in southern
Iraq, reported that the Americans were, indeed, welcomed by the Iraqi people:
"The people were out there waving, giving thumbs up. They were blowing kisses to
the troops and the troops were waving back," he said.
But on Sunday morning viewers were faced with a new reality, one that included
reports of heavy Iraqi resistance, fierce firefights and pictures of dead and
wounded American soldiers. And those images kept coming yesterday, along with
urgent reports from the front line.
Jason Bellini on CNN reported yesterday that the battle at Umm Qasr, was,
"another messy, frustrating combat situation."
All of the networks carried video from Iraqi state television of a downed United
States helicopter and two soldiers' helmets on the ground beside it. Later, some
briefly showed the American pilots in Iraqi custody.
Anchors said they were simply going where the story was taking them while trying
to keep the larger picture ? one of general battlefield success ? in mind. They
acknowledged that the amount of battlefield video could be overwhelming. "It's
like drinking from a fire hydrant," said Tom Brokaw, the NBC News anchor. "We've
got to stand back from that a little bit. I go home at night mentally exhausted
Mr. Brown of CNN acknowledged that in the beginning of the conflict, "There was
certainly some gee whiz about the technology." But, he added, "At the same time
I tried to say to people: don't expect that these tanks racing through the
desert is like a car chase on L.A. TV brought to you live. This is not the war;
this is getting to the war."
Bill O'Reilly, the Fox News Channel commentator ? who is especially popular
among conservatives ? had some advice for his viewers. He told them not to watch
too much television. "If you watch too much TV news coverage, your perspective
can get warped."
Newspapers: Words Reflect Changing Report
The clues that a newspaper is fine-tuning its tone in the early days of a big,
ongoing news story are often more nuanced than on television. It could be a
shift in word choice from one day's banner headline to the next day's that
heralds the change, or which articles are selected for the front page.
But a spot check of a dozen newspapers from across the country and of various
sizes revealed shifts in emphasis over the past several days that were as subtle
as a roller coaster ride.
"Air, land war in high gear" was Saturday's banner headline in The Sacramento
Bee, joined by articles titled "Talks urging surrender stalled attack" and "Joy,
anxiety in liberated Iraqi village." In the lead article, two reporters from The
Bee's Washington bureau and a third reporting from Qatar wrote that "towering
fireballs" filled the Baghdad sky as American forces were "racing unopposed
across a wide swath of Iraqi desert."
On Monday, however, any buoyancy on the American side had been tempered by
phrases in headlines like "Iraqis put up a fight," "Fake surrender," and, over a
news analysis from The Los Angeles Times wire service, "Hope for easy victory
Rick Rodriguez, the newspaper's executive editor, said he could understand if
readers of Saturday's paper were jarred by the change of tone when they picked
up Monday's paper. Indeed, he said, he had received a number of e-mails messages
from readers on Monday to that effect.
But in transmitting their own sense of surprise, the paper's editors and
reporters were only reflecting the feeling of having been caught off guard that
American troops experienced, Mr. Rodriguez said.
"We are learning and growing with the news of the day," he said. "The
contrasting front pages reflect that reality as well."
Mindful that the fortunes of each side in a war can change suddenly, Edward
Kosner, the editor in chief of The Daily News, commissioned an essay to run on
Page 3 each day of the war. An idea borrowed from the news magazines of the
1960's and 1970's, the essay, which Mr. Kosner refers to as "the violin," is
intended to be "the tone-setting introduction to the paper," one that eases the
passage of the reader from one day to the next.
Thus, on Saturday, under the headline "Awesome!" the essay described war planes
descending on Baghdad like "birds of prey" with a ferocity not seen "since A.D.
1258, when the grandson of Genghis Khan sacked Baghdad." Monday's contribution,
under the headline "A day of awe and sadness," warned readers that "gone were
the scenes of cowed Iraqi soldiers flapping white flags" and "muted were the
spectacular images of Baghdad ablaze," all replaced by "a grim photograph of
bloodied American bodies."
At times, articles written by the same reporter on different days can show how
quickly the first draft of history can change.
For example, in a front-page analysis in The Washington Post on Saturday, under
the headline "A daring race to Baghdad; military leaves reputation for caution
in the dust," Thomas E. Ricks wrote that vanguard units in Iraq were moving at a
speed "almost unprecedented in war."
But by Monday, in another analysis on the front page, Mr. Ricks concluded that
there were "risks inherent in the fast-moving Pentagon war strategy," which had
been exploited by Iraqi troops and militias using "ruses, ambushes and other
Having to report the setbacks experienced by American soldiers can be
particularly painful for the editors of newspapers that are closely read on
American military bases.
The Northwest Florida Daily News, which is in Fort Walton Beach, near both Eglin
and Hurlburt Field Air Force Bases, used the banner headline "Bombs pummel
Baghdad" on Saturday and "Tightening the noose" on Sunday. In Monday's paper,
the tone had changed slightly ? "Rising resistance" was the dominant headline ?
but there was no mention in the headlines of any prisoners or casualties. A sub-
headline above an Associated Press article ("Troops locate chemical plant") even
offered cause for some optimism.
Colin Lipnicky, the paper's managing editor, said that its largely upbeat tone
was being maintained, at least in part, in deference to the emotions of many of
the military families in its readership of 40,000.
"There are lots of people deployed," said Mr. Lipnicky, the son of a retired
lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. "There are lots of loved ones worried."
Weblogs: Facts Are in, Spin Is Out
Even if Sean-Paul Kelley, the mastermind and lightning-fast typist behind the
Weblog at agonist.org, had changed his mind about the war in recent days, his
rapidly growing audience would not know it. In a shift that appears to reflect a
growing distrust of mass media, the most popular Web journals to emerge in
recent days are simply reporting the news.
"My readership has grown 350 percent over the last five days, and I really think
it's a function of the fact that I am providing the news without the media hype
of CNN and Fox," said Mr. Kelly, 32, of San Antonio, who has devoted the past
week to transcribing news from dozens of sources and posting it nonstop on his
Web site. "The most important thing is that people know what is going on."
Until now, Weblogs, or blogs, have mostly been platforms for their owners to
spout their opinions on any given subject.
But media experts say the rapid evolution of the form over the last week
underscores a popular thirst for information that at least appears unfiltered by
the anchors and editors of the traditional media. Bloggers are casting a wide
net for information, drawing from radio, television, newspapers and even other
bloggers from around the world.
"The backdrop of the popularity of these war blogs is a sense of cynicism and
distrust of any kind of gatekept mainstream media," said Patricia Aufderheide,
director of the Center for Social Media at American University. "The impression
at least is what you've got is one person with integrity sharing what they
The desire for raw information without any spin appeared to be fueled over the
weekend by the refusal of most major American media outlets to publish the
photographs or video footage of American prisoners of war that were shown on
Iraqi television Sunday afternoon. Links to the material immediately began
circulating on e-mail lists and Web sites.
"Amazing how television refuses to show all of what Al Jazeera showed," wrote
one participant in an e-mail discussion list, Gulfwar-2, on the war. "So here
are some more links."
Michele Catalano, 40, started the Command Post, a blog that describes itself as
a "Warblog Collective," last week when she had to stay home with her son, who
was sick. Almost immediately about 50 people around the world began contributing
items based on what they heard from whatever news source they were listening to
at the time.
In a medium where a high value is placed on the quantity and immediacy of
information, the Command Post quickly moved to the top of many favorites lists.
Opinionated Weblogs still abound, but because they are largely defined by their
second-guessing of mainstream media, they may be less prone to shift their tone.
"It's standard Weblog style when everybody's enthusiastic to say, `Wait a
minute, war is ugly,' " said Nick Denton, publisher of Gawker, a Weblog devoted
to New York news. "So when talking cable heads start to get gloomy, the Weblogs'
natural tendency is to say, `Well, it was always going to be difficult.' "
Perhaps the most widely read war-related Weblog remains Where is Raed?, at
http://dear_raed.blogspot.com/, a diary written from Baghdad under the pseudonym
Salam Pax, who says he is a 28-year-old Iraqi architectural engineer educated in
Austria. The author, who has made clear that he does not support Saddam Hussein,
conveys a sense of dismay at the destruction of his city that many Web readers
seem to find more powerful than the pictures on the news.
"The images we saw on TV last night (not Iraqi, Jazeera-BBC-Arabiya) were
terrible," the blog read today. "The whole city looked as if it were on fire.
The only thing I could think of was `Why does this have to happen to Baghdad?'
As one of the buildings I really love went up in a huge explosion I was close to
To feed the appetite for more information from more sources, the Web magazine
Salon has started a feature called "War of Words," which was the first to
highlight an item from The Sydney Morning Herald that reported the use of napalm
by United States troops.
"It's the instantaneous barrage of information that makes the Web so powerful,"
said David Talbot, editor in chief and founder of Salon. "If you're a concerned
citizen and you're not into waiting for the pool report from Kuwait, you go
online and get your news from overseas and independent reporters and bloggers
who have a million and one different opinions."
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