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[] WPO 28.04.03: In Iraq, Too Much Coverage, Or Just Right?,

Washington Post
April 28, 2003
Pg. 1

In Iraq, Too Much Coverage, Or Just Right?

Battle Assessment Begins For Saturation Reporting

By Howard Kurtz, Washington Post Staff Writer

They reported from the trenches, hitched rides in tanks, slogged through 
sandstorms, dodged enemy fire and used whiz-bang technology to bring the 
war, live and unfiltered, into living rooms around the world.

And yet, despite the investment of tens of millions of dollars and 
deployment of hundreds of journalists, the collective picture they produced 
was often blurry.

"The fog of war makes for foggy news," said Robert Lichter of the Center 
for Media and Public Affairs. "War is too messy to package into sound bites 
and two-minute stories."

Now that the shooting is over, these questions hang in the air: What did 
the media accomplish during the most intensively and instantaneously 
covered war in history? Did the presence of all those journalists capture 
the harsh realities of war or simply breed a new generation of Scud studs? 
Were readers and viewers well served or deluged with confusing information? 
And what does it portend for coverage of future wars?

Just as laser-guided weapons enabled the United States to wage the most 
precise military conflict ever attempted, the media's combination of 
near-total access and advanced technology produced a chronicle 
fundamentally different from that of every other war. Mobile satellite 
dishes and videophones brought viewers an unprecedented look at the front 
lines, with soldiers donning chemical suits, firing at Iraqi forces, 
steering tanks through the desert, even granting interviews after being 

The work was nothing if not dangerous. Twelve journalists, of perhaps 1,500 
in the war zone, died in three weeks, a far higher casualty rate than that 
suffered by U.S. forces.

Most of the public liked what it saw, with 74 percent of those in a Pew 
Research survey early this month giving excellent or good marks to the war 
coverage. Bush administration officials are pleased with the Pentagon's 
program of "embedding" 600 journalists with U.S. and British forces, 
although they lashed out at the parade of retired generals sounding off on 
television. President Bush praised the coverage at a media dinner Saturday 
night, and Vice President Cheney said recently that "the troops have come 
to know reporters who are willing to accept the hardships and dangers of 
war in order to get the story right."

But just as the war in Iraq divided the country, the nation's news 
organizations are being assailed from the left and the right. Some critics 
say they served as cheerleaders for the Pentagon propaganda machine. Other 
critics say they were too negative about a stunningly successful war 
effort. Still others say they glossed over Iraq's civilian casualties. And 
even some news executives say the real-time reports from the field provided 
misleading snapshots of how the war was going.

The Pentagon Plan

For months, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke had been telling anyone 
who would listen that this war would be different.

Forget the mutual animosity of the past quarter-century, she said; 
reporters would be welcomed into the front lines and given the freedom to 
do their jobs.

Unit commanders got the message, Clarke said, because Defense Secretary 
Donald Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Myers sent the troops a 
rare "P-4" memo -- personal for those receiving it -- urging cooperation 
with the press. "We put the same planning and preparation into this as 
military planners put into the war effort," she said.

When U.S. soldiers killed families who refused to stop at checkpoints, "you 
just felt horribly for everybody involved. But because we had embedded 
reporters there, it was represented in a way that recognized the 
difficulties involved."

Initially, the embeds, as they were called, produced more or less what the 
military wanted, a stream of upbeat features that served to humanize 
America's fighting men and women. Even some journalists conceded it would 
be hard to write critically about their units because, as ABC's John Donvan 
put it, "they're my protectors."

But when things started to go wrong, some of the embedded reporters filed 
raw and unflattering accounts, such as New York Times reporter Dexter 
Filkins quoting a sergeant as saying he shot an Iraqi woman because "the 
chick got in the way."

Paul Slavin, executive producer of ABC's "World News Tonight," called 
embedding a "terrific experiment" but says Pentagon briefings failed to 
broaden the picture.

"We were looking at the battlefield through 600 straws," he said. "It was 
difficult to contextualize it. All of a sudden the operation was 'stalled.' 
The operation wasn't stalled -- some units were stopping and reassessing."

Most embeds concede that their perspective was limited. "I certainly did 
not get a clear picture of the war because we were so isolated," said ABC's 
Don Dahler, who was with the 101st Airborne.

Said CBS's Jim Axelrod, who was with the 3rd Infantry Division: "This will 
sound like I've drunk the Kool-Aid, but I found embedding to be an 
extremely positive experience. There was some initial mistrust and 
suspicion: 'Who are you guys and what are you gonna do to harm us?' But we 
got great stories and they got very positive coverage -- in large part 
because there were some very compelling stories to tell about the military."

As the debate swirled around them, the reporters increasingly got swept up 
by combat. An armed bodyguard with CNN's Brent Sadler returned Iraqi fire 
near Tikrit. Boston Herald reporter Jules Crittenden pointed out three 
snipers for his unit's soldiers to kill. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution 
photographer held an intravenous drip bag over a wounded civilian's 
stretcher. CNN correspondent and doctor Sanjay Gupta operated on a 
2-year-old Iraqi boy.

The embeds were complemented by so-called unilateral reporters not tied to 
any military unit, enabling them to travel with Northern Iraq's Kurds, as 
did NBC's Fred Francis, or spend time with British minesweepers, like CBS's 
Scott Pelley. But while they added another perspective, these hundreds of 
journalists were hampered by huge logistical challenges.

Whatever their mode of travel, correspondents raced to keep pace with a 
fast-moving war, which inevitably produced mistakes. Fox initially 
described a grenade attack at a base in Kuwait as the work of terrorists, 
as did a first-edition story in The Washington Post, although a U.S. 
soldier was later charged. Some cable networks trumpeted a report that 
chemical weapons had been found in Iraq, but the material turned out to be 

Critics, meanwhile, ripped the tone of the coverage as too hyper, too 
impatient, too speculative, too filled with what Rumsfeld called the 
media's "mood swings."

"There were moments when the general coverage got pretty negative and the 
people running the government got prickly about it," said MSNBC President 
Erik Sorenson, who tried to rein in the speculation. "There is a fog of 
propaganda, no doubt."

Kathryn Kross, CNN's Washington bureau chief, maintains that "journalists 
serve their audience by being appropriately skeptical. If viewers are after 
cheerleading, they're looking in the wrong place. It doesn't mean we're not 

Fox News Vice President John Moody faults the manic-depressive approach: 
"We maybe made some snap judgments, such as 'This is a cakewalk.' 'Oh my 
God, we're bogged down.' 'Will we ever reach Baghdad?' 'How did Baghdad 
fall so easily?' Some networks were a little down at the mouth and ready to 
declare unilateral surrender." At Fox, Moody said, "there were moments when 
I wanted to make sure we did not cheerlead," such as barring correspondents 
from referring to "good guys" and "bad guys."

At the same time, CBS News President Andrew Heyward dismisses criticism 
that media outlets were too "jingoistic" in their coverage. "American 
journalists are rooting for America to win," he said. "You're not going to 
find a lot of Americans rooting for Iraq. That doesn't mean they're not 
objective and fair in their reporting."

Digging Deep

This was not a war that could be covered on the cheap. Each of the major 
networks assigned 200 or more staffers and spent tens of millions of 
dollars on its coverage. The broadcast networks, however, offered little 
live reporting after the first two days of the war, leaving that to cable.

Newspapers devoted enormous resources to the war, with the biggest dailies 
publishing extra sections or pages stuffed with details and maps on 
military strategy, diplomacy, the propaganda battle and the impact on 
ordinary Iraqis.

They were also helped by technology. Satellite phones enabled print 
reporters to deliver scoops by filing their stories immediately from almost 
anywhere. The Post's William Branigin, for example, contradicted the 
Pentagon's account of the killing of 10 civilians at a checkpoint by 
quoting an Army captain as berating one of his soldiers for not firing a 
warning shot soon enough.

Not every print organization could afford to go all out -- Cox Newspapers 
gave five of its eight embedded slots to CNN in exchange for freelance 
contributions -- but even such small papers as the Knoxville, Tenn., 
News-Sentinel and Lakeland, Fla., Ledger sent a reporter to cover the local 

While print journalists also struggled to gauge the war's progress -- "War 
Could Last Months, Officers Say," said a March 27 Washington Post headline 
-- they offered calmer assessments in a noisy environment. That is, they 
tried to tie together the strands of military, diplomatic and political 
strategy, along with the war's impact on local families and around the world.

"I thought it was newspapering at its very best," said Ned Warwick, foreign 
editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "We were able to take a breath and 
sort out what happened, compared to the overwhelming immediacy of 
television, where there was no ability to step back and provide context."

Colin McMahon, the Chicago Tribune's foreign editor, said one of his 
reporters saw the limitations of television in the Iraqi town of Safwan:

"When the TV cameras were on, everyone was cheering, 'Saddam! Saddam!' When 
the TV cameras went off, they came over to the print reporters and said, 
'Please don't leave this time.' These people were scared to death about 
Saddam surviving."

Just as television replaced the week-old movie newsreels of World War II, 
the Internet made its mark on this war.

There were dozens of war "blogs," or one-person online journals -- the 
authors ranging from L.T. Smash, the pseudonym for a military officer in 
the field, to Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya. The most opinionated war 
bloggers criticized the mainstream media's coverage, providing an 
hour-by-hour check on those who once had the megaphone to themselves.

Lifting the Media Blackout

When the Pentagon invited media outlets ranging from the New York Times to 
People magazine to MTV to accompany U.S. and British forces, it was nothing 
less than an attempt to bury the ghosts of Vietnam.

That jungle war bred a generation of mistrust between the military, which 
felt that downbeat press reports had helped turn the country against the 
conflict, and the media, which felt misled by officials insisting that 
victory was around the corner.

No journalists accompanied U.S. forces in the 1983 invasion of Grenada. 
Reporters who traveled to the island in boats were turned away at gunpoint.

During the 1989 invasion of Panama, hundreds of reporters and film crews 
sat helplessly in planes parked in Miami and Costa Rica, despite Pentagon 
promises to help them reach the country. There were no pictures or 
eyewitness accounts of three battles the first day, in which 23 U.S. 
soldiers were killed and 265 wounded.

When the ground assault began in the first Persian Gulf War, the Pentagon 
actually declared a news blackout. "Pool" reporters were dispatched with 
some military units, but their dispatches were censored, delayed and 
sometimes blocked by military minders. On one aircraft carrier, journalists 
were detained in a small room when the war started.

During the war in Afghanistan, the Pentagon kept most journalists off the 
battlefield, saying there was no way to take them on risky Special Forces 
missions. Coverage came mostly from official briefings and from 
correspondents who tagged along with the Afghan rebels fighting the 
Taliban. Some journalists trying to report on civilian casualties ran into 
military roadblocks.

Media coverage of world affairs, meanwhile, has been withering on its own. 
Except in time of war or natural disaster, many news executives, 
particularly in television, concluded more than a decade ago that Americans 
had little interest in news beyond their borders.

Media analyst Andrew Tyndall says the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts 
plummeted from 4,032 minutes of coverage from other countries in 1989 to 
1,382 minutes in 2000, before rebounding to 2,103 minutes last year. 
Tyndall attributes the steep decline to the end of the Cold War and network 
budget cuts that slashed the number of overseas bureaus.

Newspapers stretched their limits during the war. At the Chicago Tribune, 
the space for foreign news increased by more than a quarter -- and the 
paper made good use of a foreign staff that has grown from 10 to 15 
reporters since 2001. "After 9/11, there was a sense of vindication at this 
institution for spending the money on foreign coverage," said foreign 
editor McMahon.

Could the modest rebound in foreign coverage continue? History suggests 
otherwise. "Within six months of the end of the first Gulf War, Iraq 
disappeared from the daily coverage," Tyndall said. The Tyndall Report 
shows 1,177 minutes of network reporting on Iraq in January 1991, when the 
war started, but just 48 minutes in August 1991.

The war in Afghanistan received 306 minutes of coverage on the newscasts in 
November 2001, but that dropped to 28 minutes by February 2002, and last 
month it was one minute.

Since Saddam Hussein's regime collapsed, the media's attention has started 
to drift. Two-thirds of the embedded reporters have left their units. The 
hot story on the cable networks in recent days was the murder of pregnant 
California woman Laci Peterson. NBC's "Today" did a segment on a miracle 
dog who survived being hit by a car. Time's cover last week dealt with 
women and heart disease, not war.

Numerous reporters have remained in Iraq to cover the postwar struggle. 
Television has continued to focus on arresting images, such as tens of 
thousands of blood-drenched Shiites marching after slashing themselves with 

But the Iraq narrative is now being driven by newspaper stories. The New 
York Times reported an Iraqi scientist's claim that the regime had 
destroyed chemical and biological weapons shortly before the war began. The 
Boston Globe cited criticism from arms-control specialists that no weapons 
of mass destruction have been found. The Washington Post disclosed that 
some senior administration officials are pushing for a fast U.S. exit from 

The major papers have also published detailed pieces on the culture of the 
Shiite majority and the war's lingering impact on ordinary Iraqis. The Los 
Angeles Times reported on the difficulty of identifying bodies that have 
piled up in urban dumping grounds.

But even newspapers are scaling back. The Wall Street Journal and USA Today 
had no front-page Iraq story Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.

While the Inquirer ran 20 stories a day during the war -- about a third 
more than usual for foreign news -- Warwick said that "when that statue [of 
Hussein] came down, the space began to contract pretty rapidly. Given the 
brutal nature of the combat, people are wanting to hunker down and get as 
far away from it as they can. I was hearing readers say, 'Enough! Enough!' "

Sniping From Both Sides

It seems like contradiction: news organizations simultaneously accused of 
being too negative and too pro-administration in their war reporting. Some 
critiques have been fueled by ideology, as underscored by the Pew finding 
that twice as many of those opposed to the war are unhappy with the coverage.

 From the right, Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and a longtime 
proponent of ousting Hussein, called the downbeat coverage in the war's 
early stages "close to disgraceful."

"The people sitting in Washington and New York who were supposed to provide 
perspective were the ones who got most carried away by the predictable 
daily ups and downs of war," Kristol said. "There was a lot of silliness 
there for a few days. . . . There was a debunking spirit that ended up 
looking foolish."

 From the left, Katrina vanden Heuvel, the Nation editor who opposed the 
war, said the media lost sight of the administration's original rationale: 
"It quickly became a war of liberation in the coverage. Only late in the 
war was more attention paid to the professed reason we went to war, weapons 
of mass destruction."

On television, she added, "we haven't seen the other side of the war that 
the Arab world saw -- the anger and humiliation that millions of Americans 
won't understand, emanating from the Arab world."

Images of civilian casualties have also been handled gingerly. Juan 
Vasquez, the Miami Herald's foreign editor, said he noticed many Latin 
American newspapers playing up pictures of dead and wounded Iraqis, while 
at home "there were a lot of pictures of U.S. soldiers moving forward, U.S. 
soldiers being shot at, tanks and the machinery of war. The issue was 
discussed within the newsroom: Are we sanitizing the war?"

His answer was no. In the Latin press, he said, "a lot of it is simply gore 
for the sake of gore, done to make a point that this is a bad war."

Television is traditionally more cautious about showing dead bodies. "We 
were reluctant to run graphic images of any casualties, civilian or 
military," said MSNBC's Sorenson. "Antiwar activists have complained to 
MSNBC, 'You're made war seem like fun. You cleaned it up.' We saw and 
experienced a lot of the power and horror of these weapons. I didn't need 
to see the body literally chopped in half."

Whatever its flaws, the war coverage was so close-up and relentless that 
there was no time for a credibility gap to develop, either for the Pentagon 
or the media. There was, instead, a comprehension gap, as viewers and 
readers drowned in information and struggled to make sense of the blur of 

But there's no going back. Ever since the telegraph was used to carry Civil 
War dispatches, every scientific advance has raised the bar for the next 

"This is going to change American war coverage forever," said CBS's 
Heyward. "The alternative -- lack of access -- is clearly far worse. People 
got to see the human side of war in a way that really hasn't happened since 

While the military has launched an official review, Pentagon spokeswoman 
Clarke sees no reason to abandon the embedding process in a future war.

"You've got hundreds and hundreds of journalists who have now had a very 
real and enlightening experience with the U.S. military, and that's a good 
thing," she said. "I'm sure there are still some skeptics on the military 
side, but they're smaller in number."

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