April 8, 2003
By Michelle M. Pulaski, Ph.D. Pace University
“War Diary Spins Web of Intrigue,” “Searching for Foes Door to Door,” “Shock and Awe,” “Are Iraqis Flipping Us Off?,” and “Rumsfeld’s Calibration Fetish,” …. What do these phrases have in common? No, they are not part of network TV’s latest ratings ploy to lure audiences in with promos for the next reality TV show, they are headlines from the news media’s coverage of the War with Iraq.
Persian Gulf War II, as some media outlets are hailing it, is a combination of Reality TV and soap opera delivered to American audiences via play-by-play sports dialogue. The media coverage is complete with a cast of characters including politicians, military personnel and reporters along with a complex plot and its getting high ratings.
What exactly is the news media covering in this war? Broadcast, print and online media give us a mix of hard and soft news stories ranging from military strategy to exposés on the lives of those killed in combat. Much of the coverage of the current conflict differs greatly from previous war coverage specifically the Vietnam War and the first Persian Gulf War.
Vietnam was coined the first “living room war” as animated images of war were brought into American homes for the first time from 1961 to 1973. Most television news coverage from Vietnam did not show the blood and gore we are now accustomed to viewing. Professor Lawrence Lichty of Northwestern University points out that only about 3 percent of “heavy fighting” was shown on the major networks during the Vietnam War. “Heavy fighting” included incoming artillery fire and dead or wounded soldiers.
The New Yorker ‘s Michael Arlen described what appeared in America’s living rooms instead of the heavy fighting: “… a nightly stylized, generally distanced overview, of a disjointed conflict which was composed mainly of scenes of helicopters landing, tall grasses blowing in the helicopter wind, American soldiers fanning out across a hillside on foot, rifles at the ready, with now and then [on the sound track] a far-off ping or two, and now and then [as the grand visual finale] a column of dark billowing smoke a half mile away…” Again a much different picture compared to what we see daily with Gulf War II coverage.
Many media experts argue that the news media greatly shaped public opinion during the Vietnam War, however there is no hard evidence to back this argument. Experts hint that media coverage of the war was favorable at the start but then turned negative and influenced how the public viewed U.S. involvement. There are many other factors that also influence public opinion of a war like the casualties list.
In support of the public influence argument, Walter Cronkite, on February 27, 1968, upon returning from a short trip to Vietnam declared that he felt all the U.S. could do at that point was negotiate. President Lyndon B. Johnson acknowledged that when he lost Walter Cronkite he lost the war and his own presidency. At the very least, the president’s comments illustrated how important television and the news media had become in war.
On August 8, 1990 President George Bush ordered American forces into the Persian Gulf. At this time reporters were not allowed to accompany the troops. Several journalists did arrive about a week later and more than 1,400 press and media technicians eventually were accredited by the U.S. military during the Gulf War.
The Persian Gulf War was the first satellite-fed, real time war and coverage was almost continuous. Increased telecommunication technologies allowed for 24-hour coverage and thrust CNN into the spotlight. There were direct-to-satellite phones but they were very expensive and only a few media outlets could afford to use them. Many stations including CNN had to make arrangements in advance for use of telephone lines to transmit information. Americans were able to see the fireworks display of SCUD missiles over Baghdad, which gave the Desert Storm media coverage a new look.
There were many restrictions on American reporters in the Gulf War. The Pentagon prohibited reporters from disclosing sensitive military information including movements or location of troops, details of future military plans, intelligence collection activities and information about vulnerabilities that could be used against allied forces. All stories needed to be reviewed before they were printed or broadcast. Many journalists found ways to get around these restrictions.
There was a great deal of government censorship and as a result, many things the American people did not see. Many images were deemed too upsetting for public consumption including mass graves created for Iraqi casualties and were not aired or printed. Only now have some of these images come to light in the form of photographs from independent journalists. The American people were protected from many the realties of war in the Persian Gulf.
Unlike Vietnam and Desert Storm reporters were ready and waiting for weeks this time around in Iraq with Gulf War II. Other differences in war coverage include many advances in broadcast technologies, cyberjournalsim and embedded reporters. Never before has American been able to view the war as we are now.
Advancements in video satellite telephone technologies have allowed journalists to send images and audio easily to international audiences. The technologies have shrunk in size and price making TV coverage more affordable and accessible than in previous wars. Other technologies including “Tank Cams” and animated maps give the war coverage a video game feel.
Cyberjournalism has played a major role in the War in Iraq. News websites like CNN.com scrapped their normal format for the first week of the war and devoted the front page solely to war coverage. “WarBlogs” or “blogs” have emerged on many sites. “Warblogs” is a play on weblog and contain details in an online journal format of news and opinion from the front lines. Many “bloggers” have a front row seat to the fighting in Iraq but many do not and just offer commentary on the conflict. A recent warblog recounted an MSNBC reporter being kicked out of Iraq under threat of arrest.
Perhaps the most striking change in news coverage is the embedded reporter. The Pentagon has been much more generous than previous wars in allowing reporters unprecedented access to the battlefield. It is estimated that over 350 journalist have gone through some type of military training including chemical attack preparedness to ready themselves for travel and missions with Coalition forces. This arrangement was made prior to the war between the U.S. military and heads of many news organizations.
The embedded reporter brings up many issues of objectivity as journalists seem to be “losing themselves” in battle. Several journalists have run into problems with objectivity. The most notable is NBC’s Peter Arnett who was fired over comments he made on Iraqi television criticizing the American war plan.
Other criticism of the media’s war coverage include broadcasts of unconfirmed stories. There have been countless instances where a news anchor will announce an unconfirmed claim and critics say this is misleading the public. Relaying information about POWs and casualties has also come under fire. There has been at least one instance in which a family found out their son was a POW before the government had a chance to contact them.
In a March 21, 2003 news briefing Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld cautions that “[w]hat we are seeing [on TV] is not the war in Iraq; what we’re seeing are slices of the war in Iraq. We’re seeing that particularized perspective that reporter or that commentator or that television camera happens to be able to see at the moment.” It is important to keep this in mind along with the fact that there is government censorship of media in this war as well. Every story will have some type of bias and it is up to the individual media consumer to be critical in gathering news information on the war.