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Sand, Smoke, and Fog

Unprecedented coverage provides captivating images, incomplete picture.

by Mark D. Johnson
March 28, 2003

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Sand, Smoke, and Fog_Mark D. Johnson-Unprecedented coverage provides captivating images, incomplete picture. Now that the war is in its second week, the vivid television images from Iraq are starting to settle in our minds, but the big picture is still pretty unclear, like the otherworldly orange sandstorm scenes we saw earlier this week. As with the 1991 Gulf War, which gave us our first look at the green night-vision shots of anti-aircraft fire over Baghdad, live air raid sirens, and hasty donning of gas masks, this conflict marks a number of firsts in television war coverage that we will recall for years to come. Yet however earnestly news divisions work to bring us an accurate report of events, the dense “fog of war” still leads to a lot of inaccuracy and wild speculation.

A number of intriguing developments have unfolded before our eyes in real time:
  • The surprising start of the war, with the “target of opportunity” attack on Hussein instead of the expected “shock and awe” heavy bombardment, which lead to several days of debate on whether the Iraqi leader was still alive. The stock market soared.

  • Precision strikes of key buildings in Baghdad. Huge explosions, billowing smoke. These early attacks spared civilians, left the city’s electricity intact, and gave us hope for an efficient, bloodless victory.

  • The immediate aftermath of the grenade incident involving a disgruntled American soldier.

  • Live combat. I was up past 2:30 AM Sunday morning watching U.S. Marines successfully fight the battle of Umm Qsar. Fortunately, we did not see any blood shed. The day would pan out poorly for the Coalition, with rising casualties and mistreatment of American prisoners of war, causing many Americans and analysts to reevaluate the war’s status.
Having undoubtedly the biggest impact on war coverage is the embedding of reporters with coalition troops. During the first Gulf War, the news media was kept at a distance by the military, but this time, in the interest of providing the world with undeniable proof of events to counter Iraqi propaganda, the media was granted front line access, though the military still lays down the law regarding what gets aired to prevent giving important information to the enemy.

With the advancement of technology, reporters near the action can speak live with studio anchors at home via video phone. While the image quality is primitive and choppy, it enables us to see live events we would not otherwise see. (The added bonus is that we are seeing far less still images of reporters against an Iraq map backdrop while talking with news anchors.) The first memorable video phone images from the embedded reporters, carried by all cable news networks, was the first push into Iraq from Kuwait in a convoy of moving vehicles. We could only just make out a barren, bland landscape and one or two other armored personnel carriers, but the people in the studio were giddy with excitement on that historic television occasion. Though we might be closer to the battle than ever before, we are seeing events unfold out of context, as Defense Secretary Rumsfeld pointed out recently. We only see random pockets of the war without a grasp of the whole, incredibly complex situation, yet public opinion, on which so much importance is placed, is mostly based on what is shown on TV.

We are also seeing the media struggle with ethical issues that arise from having reporters alongside troops, such as the risk of showing death during live combat coverage, scenes of dead Iraqis, and showing faces of POWs. Before American POWs were disgracefully shown on Iraqi TV and the Arab network Al-Jazeera, MSNBC showed the faces of Iraqi POWs as they kneeled on the desert sand under a blanket, while the reported reached beside one of them to show us an empty food ration wrapper. That’s a far cry from the Iraqi parading of POWs that some say violates the Geneva Convention, but can be considered disrespectful all the same. ABC digitally obscures the faces of Iraqi POWs. When it comes to showing dead bodies, ABC veteran Ted Koppel has said that it is the media’s responsibility to show the reality of war as graphically as possible while his colleague Chuck Gibson would give priority to respecting the dead and the privacy of their families. As far as I know, a live death has not yet occurred on camera, but there is no guarantee it will stay that way. And as with the first Gulf War, there is the concern that our saturation coverage will tip off the enemy, though many would argue it’s not a real problem.

That said, the war coverage seems fairly solid to me overall thus far. I have not caught any major lapses in judgment, though one could certainly nitpick all day long. A considerable amount of confusion is expected, given the difficulty of gathering facts during war. CNN, which rose to prominence during the first Gulf War and perennial breaking news ratings winner, has been outdrawn by rival Fox News Channel, which exhibits a decidedly patriotic attitude. With public support for the war beginning to erode, it will be interesting to see if viewers prefer CNN’s more skeptical approach. ABC’s steady and eloquent Peter Jennings still manages to slip in brief comments that reveal his liberal leanings. CBS anchor Dan Rather’s trademark poetically dramatic language, delivered in an ultra serious tone, seems to work well for him during war as it did during his coverage of September 11, though everybody knows how silly it sounds in less dire times.

Personally, I like to divide my time among the news channels, ready with the remote whenever I get tired of a particular subject or guest. There is such a thing as overdoing it with graphics. Kudos to MSNBC for showing the most restraint in cluttering up the screen. Fox seems to be the most eager to jump to anything that might turn out to be breaking news, but they're all anxious to put something on the screen to keep viewers from flipping. Each cable news network has one or two so-called “armchair generals,” or ex-military experts, to provide some explanation and analysis of military behavior, and they have proven to be, by and large, a valuable resource. However, though they displayed great pride and loyalty to the armed forces when the operation started, when things took a turn for the worse some started to question the war strategy, angering top brass. Since these generals don’t know war plan details, they would be wise to refrain from criticism.

The American public may be more informed about this war than any other in its history. But that’s not saying much. Visibility might increase, but the fog still remains.

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