BACK TO : MILITARY-MEDIA RELATIONS
The Real-Time War (Iraq 2003) by T Smith
THE REAL-TIME WAR
In The Middle East
BY TERENCE SMITH
It was April 9th, the day Baghdad fell to U.S. troops. Martin Savidge and his CNN crew were riding in an armored column approaching the city from the southeast. In the center of the city, a worldwide television audience was watching as exhilarated Iraqis and U.S. soldiers toppled the giant statue of Saddam Hussein.
Savidge, and the marines, had been listening to cheers from Iraqi residents lining the road into the city until suddenly, as they passed the campus of Baghdad University, they came under small-arms fire. "We're way beyond sniper fire," he said via videophone to Paula Zahn back in the studio in New York. "This is an all-out engagement here, this is warfare," he continued in his cool, seemingly unruffled baritone over grainy but incredibly dramatic pictures of the action. "That sounds like more tank fire or more missile fire," he said, his breath coming a little more quickly now. "We're being warned - hang on - about small-arms fire coming at our position. As you can hear, this is a far cry from the jubilant crowds we left - it's just hard to imagine - two blocks away!"
Savidge's riveting account was vintage war reporting, delivered firsthand in first person in real time to an audience that listened as the marines took fire, returned it tenfold, and after forty-five minutes of fierce fighting subdued one of the last pockets of resisting Iraqi fighters.
It was a perfect example of how the Pentagon's bold experiment with embedded reporters was supposed to work and how, in some cases, it did work.
Embedding - assigning 700-plus U.S. and foreign reporters to train, travel, and share danger and hardships with American military units - was the most innovative aspect of the coverage of the second gulf war. It made possible a kind of intimate, immediate, absorbing, almost addictive coverage, the likes of which we have not seen before. In the twenty-one days between the first air strike on Baghdad and the collapse of Saddam's regime, a new standard was set for war reporting. It is impossible to imagine a future U.S. military campaign without reporters embedded in frontline units, without instant transmission from the battlefield, without "tank cams," "lipstick cams," satellite phones, grainy-green night-vision cameras, and all the high-tech paraphernalia that brought war in Iraq directly into our living rooms and collective consciousness. There is no going back.
That does not mean the coverage was flawless. Far from it. As the media correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, I watched, listened to, and read the coverage, preparing segments for the broadcast and frequently talking with correspondents, embedded and otherwise, throughout the theater. On balance, I thought it was remarkable work: courageous, honest, and largely accurate. But some important questions need to be asked about the way the war was reported. For example:
Did the media get it right, or at least more right than wrong?
Mistakes were made, as the White House likes to say, especially in the excitement and chaos of the early going. The strategic southern city of Basra was reported taken on March 23, when in fact it took British troops another two weeks to subdue the resistance there. Scud missiles were said to be striking in Kuwait that same day, when in fact they were not. An entire Iraqi division was reported to have laid down its arms and surrendered, when in fact it had not. A fast-moving convoy of Republican Guards in 1,000 armored vehicles was repeatedly reported to be moving south from Baghdad on March 26 to confront U.S. forces, when in fact it was busy scattering under relentless U.S. air strikes.
On the positive side, there were occasions when the embedded media got the story straight, in contrast to the version of events offered by the briefers in the million-dollar press center in Doha, Qatar. When U.S. soldiers tragically killed women and children in a van that approached a checkpoint without stopping, for example, Centcom described an orderly, by-the-book process in which the sentries fired warning shots, then fired into the vehicle's engine, and finally fired on the passenger compartment when the van refused to stop, killing seven.
In the next day's Washington Post, William Branigin, who was embedded with the unit involved in the incident, described a far more chaotic situation, with the commander screaming in frustration into his radio because he thought the sentries failed to respond to his order to fire the required warning shots. Branigin quoted the commander as shouting, "You just [expletive] killed a family because you didn't fire a warning shot soon enough!" In all, ten civilians died, not seven, Branigin reported.
In another incident, Dexter Filkins of The New York Times was there to quote a sergeant's chilling explanation of why his unit shot and killed a woman who was standing near some Iraqi soldiers. "I'm sorry, but the chick was in the way," the sergeant said.
There is no substitute for up-close reporting like that. But at the same time, the embedding procedure poses obvious risks. There is a real danger of getting too close to your subject. It's a "professionally treacherous" situation, Jim Dwyer of The New York Times said in an interview from the field. "You are sleeping next to people you are covering. Your survival is based on them." The examples of this were not generally egregious. There was no misreporting of facts, but rather an empathetic tone in a lot of the embedded reporting that was understandable, I suppose, but lacked the skeptical, hard edge it might otherwise have had. Judith Miller of The New York Times, for example, was attacked by Slate's Jack Shafer and other media critics for her credulous coverage of MET-Alpha, the weapons inspection team to which she was attached. When the team interviewed an Iraqi scientist who said that the Hussein regime had destroyed its weapons of mass destruction days before the war began, Miller, who never interviewed the scientist herself, described it as a "silver bullet" in the search. Shafer and others accused her of functioning, effectively, as a spokeswoman for the unit.
The veteran war correspondent Chris Hedges wrote in The Nation that the embedding process induces reporters to perpetuate the myth of war as an ennobling exercise. "They depend on the military for everything, from food to a place to sleep. They look to the soldiers around them for protection. When they feel the fear of hostile fire, they identify and seek to protect those who protect them. They become part of the team. It is a natural reaction."
So the reviews on embedding are mixed and will be debated for some time. But overall, on the issue of accuracy and fairness, I would give the media a grade of . . .B+
Did the Big Picture emerge from the soda-straw views of the fighting provided by the embedded reporters?
It is generally true that the embedded reporters were able to describe only the narrow slice of the battlefield that they could see or hear. The National Journal's George Wilson described being embedded with a Marine artillery unit as akin to being the number-two dog in a sled dog team. "You saw an awful lot of the dog in front of you," he said, "and a little to the left and right."
More broadly, the television coverage provided by embedded reporters was often long on image and short on detail. You saw and heard some of the bang-bang, but the larger narrative was often missing.
Newspaper coverage, by contrast, tended to be more comprehensive. Readers who followed the daily lead-all articles written by Patrick Tyler in The New York Times, and similar summary pieces in The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, got a good picture of the overall progress of the war. They were aided immeasurably by the full-page maps that charted the troop movements, most of which were simpler and easier to comprehend than the high-tech studio sand-tables favored by the corps of television generals. So the big picture, at least in terms of the fighting, was there to be had. Overall grade . . .B+
Was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld right when he accused the media of lurching from positive to negative in reporting the war?
"We have seen mood swings in the media from highs to lows to highs and back again, sometimes in a single, twenty-four-hour period," he said at a Pentagon briefing about ten days into the fighting. "For some, the massive TV coverage - and it is massive - and the breathless reports can seem to be somewhat disorienting."
Rumsfeld is right on this one. In the first days of the war, when U.S. units were racing almost unimpeded toward Baghdad, many news organizations described the fighting as the proverbial "cakewalk" that some of the war's supporters had predicted.
Dexter Filkins of The New York Times was so impressed with the way the first units broke through the Kuwait-Iraqi border and overran the town of Safwan, he predicted in an off-air interview with the NewsHour that he would be filing from Basra the next day. Instead, stubborn Iraqi resistance kept British troops at bay for two weeks.
A week later, as Iraqi irregulars were harassing and slowing U.S. units in Nasiriya's "ambush alley," commentators back in Washington were describing a Vietnam-like quagmire. The "operational pause," when units stood in place and waited out a vicious sandstorm, was widely reported as a sign of a flawed battle plan and overextended supply lines. Then, after the sandstorms had cleared and the U.S. units resumed their northward march, many organizations were caught by surprise by the speed with which the Army and Marines took Baghdad. In hindsight, more patience and a longer view would have produced better reporting and analysis. Overall grade for consistency . . .C-
Did the media fall for the Pentagon's spin?
In a word, yes. Remember "shock and awe?" Given the advance billing, news organizations played the Pentagon's game by suggesting that the first phase of bombing in Baghdad would be decisive.
Beyond that, too many reporters accepted the military's description of the Republican Guard as a formidable force, when in fact those units rolled up like a cheap carpet in the face of the U.S. advance. News organizations accepted without much question the Pentagon's forecast that Baghdad would be fiercely defended. When it fell with only spotty resistance, the American performance seemed all the more impressive. Amid all the reports of success, major battlefield lapses were insufficiently reported and analyzed. The first major assault by Apache helicopters was one example. The raid was a disaster, with one aircraft downed, its crew captured, and the rest of the choppers so badly shot up by ground fire that the entire unit was rendered incapable of fighting. But it was reported as just one more development in a busy day of war news. Overall grade for gullibility . . .C-
Did media jingoism compromise objectivity?
Again, guilty as charged. It was not just the flagrant examples: the on-screen flags and lapel pins, the breathless embedded television correspondent describing how "we" went on patrol. It was the cheerleading, can-do tone that infected too much of the reporting as U.S. forces advanced against an overpowered, overwhelmed enemy. After all, it was never going to be a fair fight between the superbly equipped, precision-guided U.S. military machine and the rag-tag Iraqi units. The U.S. had been bombing Iraq for a decade, destroying its air defenses and grounding its air force. Too little of the reporting pointed out those realities.
Also, the war had an almost sanitized quality as it came across on U.S. television screens. In part, this was due to the long-distance nature of the fighting; Iraq was a huge, spread-out battlefield. But news organizations also were concerned about the impact back home, and thus showed few if any American casualties and only occasional Iraqi victims. European and pan-Arab channels showed far more. The contrast was striking. The concern for the sensibilities of the U.S. audience and the troops was understandable, but the net result was a "clean" war, rather than the gory mess it was.
In addition, few questions were asked when the much-advertised weapons of mass destruction failed to materialize, and the larger political goals of the war were not subjected to hard-headed analysis. The rise of anti-Americanism in Europe and the Arab and Muslim world was muffled once the shooting started. News organizations described how "freedom fries" had replaced French fries on some menus, but spent little time examining the actual content and motivations behind the French position. It was as though the powerful images from the battlefield drowned out more thoughtful evaluation of what was really happening. Overall grade for balance . . .C
Even larger questions arise for the media in the postwar period.
Will news organizations be willing to commit the staff and airtime and space to cover the complex but less sexy task of rebuilding Iraq? Or will the bean-counters compel most journalists to abandon the field? Here, the early signs are not good. The networks moved quickly to call most of their reporters home. It remains to be seen how many will be deployed in the region six months from now.
Will the hard questions be asked about what the war accomplished and what it did not? Or will the media move on to the next crisis, as with Afghanistan? Again, the signs are not encouraging. As the fighting subsided, and we learned more about the Hussein regime, there should have been more pieces analyzing whether, in fact, Iraq had posed a national security threat to the United States, as President Bush repeatedly contended. What, exactly, were the links between Iraq and international terrorism? Did Iraq really play any role in September 11? All good questions, awaiting answers.
Will news organizations hold the administration accountable to its promise to vigorously pursue an Israeli-Palestinian settlement? Or will that commitment be ignored?
Will the cable channels switch their famously fickle focus to more tabloid fare? Will it be wall-to-wall Laci Peterson rather than the aftermath of the biggest U.S. adventure overseas since the first gulf war?
Gulf War II, the real-time war, it seems, has so far posed more questions for news organizations than it has answered.