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[] NY Times: Reporting Reflects Anxiety,

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March 25, 2003
Reporting Reflects Anxiety

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 
going superbly."

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 
so far?"

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 
wrong turns.

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 
by it."

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 
guerrilla tactics."

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, 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, 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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