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TV: A Missed Opportunity (Iraq 2003) by P Friedman
THE REAL-TIME WAR
TV: A Missed Opportunity
BY PAUL FRIEDMAN
After a week of war, a senior producer at one of the network news divisions was reduced to muttering darkly about a Pentagon conspiracy. Much had been said about unprecedented media access to the front lines, but with descriptions flowing in of bloody pitched battles in Basra and Umm Qasr, the producer complained, "I have yet to see decent video of a firefight."
Very little went as predicted. The war did not open with a bomb attack designed to reduce the enemy to "shock and awe," but with a focused attack aimed at Saddam Hussein and his leadership core. Not all Iraqi soldiers ran away, and not all that many civilians greeted their liberators with open arms. Broadcast networks quickly returned to basketball games and highly rated sitcoms and Oscar ceremonies, and were only mildly criticized. Then they left 24/7 coverage to cable news, and waited for a major battle for Baghdad that never took place. And news coverage of this war - even with the heralded "embedding" of more than 600 journalists in dozens of armed forces units - was less dramatically different than many had expected.
The embedding process was, in a sense, a bold return to the Vietnam War, the last time the government was willing to take its chances with giving reporters the freedom to cover military action up close, with few restrictions. For television, the combination of access and new technology meant the possibility of covering the war live from the battlefield. War meets the small video camera and instant transmission via computer, videophone, and satellite. How much more dramatic could it get? Yet embedding did not live up to advance billing, at least at the beginning. Still, as time went on, the impact of embedded reporters became very important, and a central part of the debate over the war. Of course, we should not have been surprised.
THE LONG-DISTANCE WAR
At first, the embedded television reports had a gee-whiz quality that overwhelmed the fact that very little information was being conveyed. NBC's David Bloom (later, tragically, to die of an embolism) traveled at high speeds across the Iraqi desert, broadcasting live from his customized "Bloommobile," and making other broadcasters drool with envy. The pictures were irresistibly fascinating, though perhaps not crammed with information. ABC's Ted Koppel gave viewers one of the first embedded reports to deliver on the potential of live television; he was able to bring together stunning pictures, information, and vivid descriptions from the scene of a massive column of armored vehicles breaching the berms into Iraq. It was hard for any viewer not to be impressed with the sight of the seemingly endless column of tanks and personnel carriers, unchallenged, starting the long trek toward Baghdad. Never mind that other units not too far away were crossing the berms and coming under fire; we would all soon learn (and some would complain) that the embedded reports, while largely accurate, could only supply small "slices" of reality, and might not reflect the overall picture. Never mind that Koppel's conversation with Peter Jennings, thousands of miles away in a New York studio, clearly showed how impressed they were with what was playing out before them; it may have provided the Pentagon with exactly what it wanted (as some critics predicted the embedding would do). But it was unavoidable, and it was early.
Many of the early reports from the embedded television reporters were of the standing-in-front-of-the-camera, chest-thumping, "look at where I am," and "we're ready to go but I can't tell you exactly where for security reasons" variety, followed by the anchors back home warning the reporters to "stay safe" and asking them to relay best wishes to the troops. (Fox's Shepard Smith to correspondent Rick Leventhal, embedded with the Marines: "Rick, Godspeed and our best to the men there.") On the move, the reporters and their cameramen followed a story they usually could not really see; it's the nature of modern warfare that much of it takes place with the enemy a long distance away. The embedded reporter and camera see weapons fired at an unseen enemy and, if they are lucky (or unlucky), they may see tracers of weapons fired back. But there is seldom the time or the mobility needed to reconstruct what happened and tell a complete story. Leventhal described one of the first Marine engagements as a "tremendous pyrotechnics display" of outgoing artillery fire, but "whether they're hitting their targets, we cannot tell you." Later, as American troops closed on Baghdad, there was video of destroyed Iraqi armor, pickup trucks with mounted weapons, and other vehicles. But nothing matched the reports of hundreds of tanks destroyed, and there was certainly no video to document reports of thousands of Iraqi soldiers killed. Either the bodies were removed before the embedded units caught up with the targets they'd attacked from miles away or they were steering around them. Or the reports were off base.
Some of the best live television reports came when the story found the camera: NBC's Bloom was on camera when a powerful sandstorm brought total darkness at 4:15 in the afternoon; CNN's Walter Rodgers was doing an otherwise routine live interview with an Army sergeant when the soldier turned and fear crept across his face as he heard incoming fire, and they both ran for cover.
THE TECHNOLOGY TRAP
Most of the pictures were not very special. Even though there was much tougher fighting than predicted, little of it was seen on video. (Anyone who doubts it should have spent an hour or two watching the same few seconds of footage repeated over and over again, often when it bore no relation to what was being discussed.) The reasons for the scarcity of great combat video will not be absolutely clear until the embedded reporters, producers, and cameramen are thoroughly debriefed after the war, but several factors seem to be involved (in addition to the long-distance nature of much of the fighting). The journalists embedded with American units had to stick close to them, both because they were on the move a lot, and because the military was worried about the journalists' safety and restricted their movements. (Several journalists who tried to go it alone got in bad trouble quickly; two died in the first days of the war.) Journalists embedded with British units were given somewhat greater slack; partially because of that and partially because of the close fighting the British forces did in southern Iraq, most of the "good" video in the first stages of the war came from the British agencies.
In addition, the American television journalists put enormous emphasis on making frequent live transmissions, which forced them to spend a great deal of time on the logistics and technology - time that could not be spent on gathering pictures and information for more complete stories. It turned out the technology was not quite ready for this war. The small cameras were great until the sand and general wear and tear ruined them; ABC's Mike Cerre took four cameras with him and complained he was down to the last one as his Marine unit neared Baghdad. New, small satellite transmission equipment either failed completely or worked less often than hoped. The "store and forward" technique of transferring video to the laptop and then by telephone to the States did provide excellent quality, but it took too much time - roughly thirty minutes to feed one minute. At least half of what viewers saw on television was transmitted by videophone, a relatively old technique that is fast and simple to use, but produces very rough video and ragged sound. The best pictures from this war were the still photos and, ironically, the video over which American journalists had no control. Until the troops reached Baghdad at the end of the third week, there were many days when the best video came from cameras abandoned by the networks on the roofs of Baghdad but still transmitting, or from the cameras transmitting from U.S. weapons and shown at Pentagon briefings to document direct hits, or from government cameras covering the nighttime rescue of Private Jessica Lynch and the nighttime invasion of a presidential palace.
Still, reporters who knew how to report and write and speak were able to use embedding to their advantage and ours. After three decades of tight control by the government, combat news actually was found and reported within minutes of its happening, and well before military briefers confirmed it and doled it out. The most dramatic early example of this, ironically, brought memories of Vietnam: a "fragging" incident in the headquarters tents of the 101st Airborne. Embedded journalists reported it quickly, and one of them - who said he was listening in on Army radios at the base - almost immediately was able to knock down initial reports of terrorism, and correctly identify the suspect as an American soldier. We are left to guess how soon, or even whether, the Pentagon would have revealed all this if there had been no reporters at the scene.
More important, it was embedded reporters who gave us the first indications that the campaign against Saddam Hussein was not going as predicted. CNN's Rodgers, talking to the camera, unaided by pictures, was able to paint vivid word pictures of the relentless small attacks on units of the Seventh Cavalry as they pushed north and across the Euphrates River - "Seventy-two hours of continuous fighting," he said. ABC's Koppel reported that all thirty-two Apache helicopters returning from a mission had bullet holes in them. CNN's Martin Savidge described a hazardous mission to refuel forward elements running dangerously low on fuel; others reported shortages of food and water, and cases of rationing. The BBC's David Willis, with U.S. Marines in central Iraq, reported that "we've got to the stage where some of the infantry here are down to one meal a day, so it's a pretty difficult situation supplying such a large and high-tech army." John Roberts of CBS was able to feed pictures of marines trying to protect convoys near Nasiriya, and raised questions about whether there were enough troops to protect the long lines of supply.
All of this was quite different from the initial pictures of rapid advances by U.S. forces, and the reaction was swift. After less than a week of war, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld complained that while the "breathtaking" minute-by-minute coverage was generally accurate, the "slices" of reported fighting lacked overall context and made people believe the fighting had been going on for weeks rather than days. The plan, he said repeatedly, was working.
Secretary Rumsfeld's argument had two problems. First, day after day the embedded reporters were gathering evidence at the scene. It turns out, of course, that while embedding runs the risk of some journalists' getting too chummy with soldiers, it also means that some soldiers get chummy with journalists - and they talk. They talk about bad decisions, malfunctioning equipment, dwindling supplies, and an enemy that wasn't rolling over the way it was supposed to. (Marine sergeant to reporter, on camera: "The United States was planning on walking in here like it was easy and all . . . . It's not that easy to conquer a country, is it?") That was Rumsfeld's second problem: before the war, when the administration was selling it, most background briefings predicted a relatively quick, easy fight, and minimized worries about troop levels and long supply lines. There were some public pronouncements - like those of some officials predicting a collapsing Iraqi "house of cards" - that helped create an overly optimistic set of expectations.
Still, there was merit in the objection raised by Secretary Rumsfeld and others that more context was needed. It got support from disparate members of the media.
CNN's anchor, Aaron Brown, said during one broadcast that the embedded reporters give us "snapshots" of what is going on, "and it's our job here to put it all together." ABC's George Will observed somewhat more elegantly that "today's problem - live television from journalists with units engaged in Iraq - is the problem of context. Up-close combat engagements almost always look confusing and awful because they are." Necessarily, it was up to the anchors, former generals, and other experts to provide context. They did, often ad nauseam.
What was really missing were the kinds of stories that came out of Vietnam: the up-close and detailed stories with beginnings, middles, and ends; the gritty, gripping stories about people and courage and fear and heroism. It did not matter that it took days for those stories to make it back to the States and onto the air. They gave us much more than tiny slices of war and they were, in their way, timeless - just the opposite of what was most prized by news executives who were driven to compete this time on terms dictated by the twenty-four-hour cable networks: put as many people as possible in as many places as possible, and use smaller, lighter gear to get them on the air live. That need dovetailed nicely with the Pentagon's tight restrictions on the number of journalists and the amount of television equipment it could or would accommodate with each unit. But it did not produce the kind of television journalism we deserved. While the embedded journalists were brave, and often endured conditions that well-trained soldiers ten to forty years younger found tough, it was unrealistic to expect two-person television teams working under such conditions with inadequate equipment to do much more than they did. Especially in tough situations, television journalists must be allowed to concentrate on the jobs they do best. It is the old-fashioned (and more expensive) model that allows reporters to report, producers to produce, cameramen to take pictures, and technicians to worry about sound and lights and keeping the gear working. It's not always necessary - different stories require different resources - but it is no coincidence that this war's most memorable pieces were turned in by strong reporters (ABC's Koppel and CBS's Scott Pelley stood out), who - whether embedded or not - had the benefit of working with a producer, an extra crew member, and sometimes a satellite technician. They also had the personal clout or the support from editors back home to take more time on their pieces and less on "live shots."
The ambitious experiment with embedding started to wind down as American troops took over in Baghdad, and embedded journalists began to leave their units to pursue their own stories. The triumph in Baghdad provided the war's most symbolic piece of video: the statue of Saddam being pulled down from its pedestal in Firdos Square. But it was not embedding that produced this demonstration of television's power to define a story. The scene played out in front of the Palestine Hotel, where many journalists rode out the war, and where the cameras waited.