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[infowar.de] WPO 28.04.03: In Iraq, Too Much Coverage, Or Just Right?
April 28, 2003
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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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