AJR logo     

 AJR  Features

From AJR,   May 2003  issue

May issue:
The Television War   

Unparalleled access and breakthroughs in technology produced riveting live coverage of the war in Iraq. But how complete a picture did TV deliver?

Related reading:   Airing Graphic Footage
  The Rise of Arab TV

By Jacqueline E. Sharkey
Jacqueline E. Sharkey is head of the University of Arizona Department of Journalism and author of "Under Fire--U.S. Military Restrictions on the Media from Grenada to the Persian Gulf."     

On March 19, CNN reporter Walter Rodgers told viewers about "a charming vignette." It involved members of the U.S. Army 7th Cavalry, who learned about the start of the war in Iraq not from their superiors but from Rodgers, who was embedded with the unit. When the correspondent told the troops that the U.S. had launched airstrikes at Baghdad, marking the beginning of the war, they were "dumbfounded," Rodgers said.

"CNN viewers in the United States and around the world actually knew about the attack on Baghdad...before any of the soldiers here in the field," Rodgers said.

Another symbolic moment came the next day, when Rodgers and cameraman Charles Miller provided some of the first real-time images from the battlefield. "These are live pictures of the 7th Cavalry racing across the deserts in southern Iraq," Rodgers announced. "What you're watching here...is truly historic television and journalism."

Rodgers was right. The images that television news crews transmitted to viewers showing the U.S. invasion of Iraq were unprecedented. The networks were able "to bring this war into the living rooms of Americans," says Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president of news coverage for CBS News. "It's the first time you can actually see what's happening."

But the coverage, while often spectacular, raised a number of vexing questions about the responsibilities of the press in wartime, journalistic values such as objectivity, and the relationships among the press, the public and the government.

Some of these questions arose from advances in video technology and ample access to the battlefield, which "very much changed the reporting in this war," says Paul Slavin, executive producer of ABC's "World News Tonight." Others stem from attitudes about patriotism and the press that have come into sharp focus in the wake of September 11.

Addressing these issues is crucial as American journalism enters a new era, when it no longer has unquestioned dominance in the global information marketplace. During the war in Iraq, television news operations in Arab countries provided viewers throughout the world with an alternative view of the conflict.

"Arabs and Muslims are getting a dramatically different narrative from their American counterparts," says Fawaz Gerges, who holds a chair in Middle Eastern studies and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College and is an ABC news consultant on the Middle East. The U.S. networks have focused "on the technologically advanced nature of the American military armada," he says. "The Arab and Muslim press tend to focus on the destruction and suffering visited on Iraq by this military armada."

Reaction to the war coverage on Arabic-language television indicates that the emergence of transnational news networks in other parts of the world will have a profound influence on public perceptions and policy formation. This presents new challenges for the ways in which the major U.S. networks frame and present events that have an international dimension. (See "The Rise of Arab TV")

Alternative U.S. networks already are offering viewers images and analysis that differ markedly from those on the mainstream broadcast and cable networks.

C-SPAN presented newscasts from stations in the Middle East and Canada, and ran hours of call-in programs during which viewers could express their opinions about the conflict. Free Speech TV (FSTV), which runs on dozens of cable channels, provided in-depth coverage of the antiwar movement and documentaries about U.S. policy in the Middle East. The public TV and radio program "Democracy Now!" produced segments for FSTV that included other countries' perspectives on the war.

MTV showed news programs and documentaries that included interviews with young people in Iraq before the conflict began. When the staff called one of their interview subjects, Walid Gafa, shortly after the war started, the conversation was interrupted by bombs falling on Baghdad. The announcer later said MTV had re-established contact with Gafa, noting that he sounded "absolutely petrified."

Although these alternative media saw an increased interest in their programming, tens of millions of viewers tuned to war coverage on the major networks, according to Nielsen Media Research. Cable, with its 24/7 coverage, was a big ratings winner. A Los Angeles Times national poll in early April showed that nearly 70 percent of Americans were getting most of their news about the war from cable. The Nielsen data showed that the number of average daily viewers for MSNBC and CNN increased more than 300 percent, while those for Fox rose more than 288 percent during the first two weeks of the war. Fox was the most-viewed cable news channel, averaging 3.3 million viewers per day. The highest-rated news program was "NBC Nightly News," with more than 11.3 million viewers.

The fact that so many Americans depended on television for news about the war is a major reason why TV is widely considered the most influential of the news media that covered the conflict. The pervasiveness of the medium was another. Businesses around the country had TV sets tuned to cable news networks day and night.

Television was so powerful largely because of new video technology, including communications systems that provided instant battlefield coverage, and satellite imagery and software that enabled the networks to swoop in from space and "look at sites that have been hit" by bombs and missiles, Slavin says.

This sophisticated technology has produced startling coverage and serious criticism.

Some journalists believe technology led television to focus on images instead of information. Cable news is "such a hungry beast that they just shovel stuff in," says Joseph L. Galloway, Knight Ridder senior military correspondent and coauthor of two books on war coverage. When a correspondent can provide a live report, "they break into whatever they're doing and put him on whether it is serious or silly, without much chance of figuring out which it is until the guy is already on the air."

Jack Fuller, president of Tribune Publishing Co. and a Vietnam veteran, expressed similar views in an op-ed piece. "Television's coverage of the war...has been utterly riveting," he wrote. "Yet it also demonstrates that there is a difference between seeing and understanding."

One problem is that the reports from correspondents in the field provide only "tiny microviews of the war," says Mark Burgess, a research analyst with the Center for Defense Information, a think tank founded by former military officers. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld warned journalists that presenting such "slices" from the field could lead to misunderstandings about the big picture.

Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, says the "biggest challenge" for television news is to "put those slices, those moment-to-moment vantage points, into some kind of overall perspective." Cochran, CBS News' Washington bureau chief during the first gulf war, says that handling huge amounts of up-to-the-minute information "requires really a lot of care." She adds that the situation underscores the need not only for experienced reporters, but for experienced editors capable of "standing back and taking a broader view."

Television did a good job, Cochran says, considering it was coping with "a view of the conflict that we've never had before."

But some journalists and media critics fear that this new view of the conflict actually distanced viewers from the reality of war. "[T]elevision reports soften war and allow it to penetrate even deeper into the living rooms and minds of America," wrote Anthony Swofford, author of "Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles," in a New York Times Magazine essay. "War can't be that bad if they let us watch it."

Some journalists were especially critical of the way the networks handled the intensive bombing of Iraq. Night after night, rooftop cameras linked to satellites beamed long shots of explosions and fires to viewers around the world. Networks supplemented these visuals with intricate graphics of the bombs and missiles in the U.S. arsenal. The technological display "contributes to this notion of war as a video game and strips the war of its humanity," says Christopher Dickey, Middle East regional editor for Newsweek.

Network executives disagree. "War wasn't just the video we were getting in, just the computer-generated graphics," says NBC News President Neal Shapiro. "War has a very human dimension" that NBC and other networks worked hard to show.

Some were concerned about the toll that the up-to-the-minute coverage took on military families. Nancy Chamberlain, the mother of a Marine who died in a helicopter crash, said in an NBC interview that every time family members saw a tank or a helicopter, they wondered whether their loved one was inside.

"I truly admire what all of the network news and all the new technology is doing today to bring [the war] into our homes," Chamberlain said. "I just need you to be aware that technology is--it's great, but there are moms, there are dads, there are wives out there that are suffering because of this."

Technological advances in newsgathering are "a double-edged sword," acknowledges Sharri Berg, vice president of news operations at Fox News Channel. She sympathizes with the families who continually wondered whether they were watching their loved ones on the battlefield, but says that the journalist's role is to "tell and show the viewer what's happening on the front lines."

But television limited what viewers saw on the front lines by sanitizing the coverage, media commentators say. The debate about the extent to which the networks were willing to use graphic footage became the most intense of the war, reflecting longstanding controversies about this issue (see "Airing Graphic Footage").

Television can "give us some evidence of what took place, but we don't hear of the shrieks and groans and see the suffering and the maiming that goes on as a result of our precision bombs," said retired Adm. Gene La Rocque, a founder of the Center for Defense Information, at a March teach-in sponsored by Veterans Against the Iraq War.

A study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism of 40.5 hours of coverage by ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox early in the conflict found that about half the reports from embedded journalists showed combat action, but not a single story depicted people hit by weapons.

As the war continued, the networks did show casualties, usually from afar. The footage was much less graphic than still photographs shown in newspapers and magazines; Time magazine columnist Joe Klein accused the networks of showing a "PG-rated" war.

News executives dispute the notion that the coverage prevented the American people from seeing the reality of the conflict. "I don't think it's sanitized," says CBS' McGinnis. "There's some pretty nasty stuff that you see."

Network spokespersons say correspondents in the midst of firefights couldn't obtain casualty footage, and video of civilian casualties provided by Arabic-language stations was difficult to verify. Critics counter by saying casualties could have been photographed after battles were over, and U.S. crews in Baghdad should have shot their own casualty footage at local hospitals.

The debate intensified when Iraqi TV released a videotape showing dead U.S. soldiers in a building. U.S. networks, which had access to the tape through the Arabic-language network Al Jazeera, declined to show it. CNN and Fox aired still frames after making sure individuals were not identifiable.

The networks said their decisions were dictated by issues of taste and viewers' sensitivities. "We take very seriously our responsibility to tell the story as accurately and comprehensively as we can," says CNN spokesman Matthew Furman. "At the same time, we're mindful of the sensibilities of our audience." Lester Crystal, executive producer for "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," says, "For taste purposes, you don't show people in agony on the air. You don't show a lot of dead bodies."

Al Jazeera--which broadcast the video--strongly defends its decision. Spokesman Jihad Ballout told National Public Radio that television "would be deceiving its audience" if it were to "censor any of the information that actually makes people aware of all aspects" of the conflict.

Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, says the impact of decisions not to show casualties is "to grind the grit of war into a fine powder" that "makes the war more palatable." Such a decision "hurts our understanding of the war and the credibility of journalists," he says.

McMasters found it ironic that "we're willing to send young people over to experience the reality of war, but we're not willing to look at it."

Another dispute about graphic images involved video of American POWs. Iraqi TV released a videotape of the interrogation of the prisoners, which U.S. networks and the Pentagon learned about when Al Jazeera aired it. The Bush administration sharply criticized Al Jazeera, but one U.S. prisoner of war during the first gulf war, Jeffrey Zaun, said such tapes might provide protection for POWs by putting international pressure on the Iraqis to keep them safe.

CBS used several seconds of the footage showing the faces of the POWs when the network first obtained the tape. Then CBS and other U.S. networks agreed to a Pentagon request that the video not be shown until families had been notified. The networks then used brief excerpts from the tape.

Some media analysts criticize U.S. networks for exercising a double standard about prisoners of war, taking great care to preserve the dignity of the U.S. POWs, but showing repeated shots of Iraqi prisoners with their hands tied behind their backs, lying face down in the road or kneeling with bags over their heads.

The treatment seemed to depend "on which side the prisoners happened to be on," says Christopher Simpson, an associate professor of communication at American University and author of "The Science of Coercion," which deals with the relationship between psychological warfare and communication research.

The debate over showing casualties is linked to a deeper concern that television was overly focused on covering U.S. military activities and failed to paint a comprehensive picture of the conflict.

The coverage "is very much filtered through a military lens," says Rachel Coen, a media analyst with Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, a liberal organization that tracks trends in media coverage. "There was too much focus by far on the technical details of warfare" as well as "gadgets and military hardware." Television, she says, did not provide enough information concerning "bigger questions, about why the war is happening, what its long-term impact will be politically in the region and around the world."

News executives and some commentators say the networks had good reasons to focus on the U.S. military. "Certainly we've been concentrating on the war," "NewsHour" Executive Producer Crystal said in an interview in early April. The program did provide some coverage of the impact of the war, but that "isn't central at the moment," he said.

Network spokespersons say their organizations made an effort to bring viewers other perspectives. Matthew Furman says CNN instituted a segment called "Voices of Dissent," which focused on the antiwar movement, weeks before the conflict began. CNN later started a segment called "Arab Voices" and a wrap-up of what the Arab media were saying about the war. NBC News President Shapiro came up with the idea for "Listening Post," which covered international reaction to the conflict.

Syndicated columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says that "in an ideal media world we would link policy and war coverage constantly. But I think it is not surprising that over a short period, policy gives way to stories about the military."

Some critics say that if the news media had covered policy more effectively before the war, the conflict might have been averted. "It is highly unlikely that a more informed American public would support this war...or so willingly sacrifice its sons and daughters," said University of Michigan professor Kevin Gaines at a meeting of the Organization of American Historians in April.

Ret. Air Force Col. James Callard, who taught national security policy at National Defense University, believes most news organizations "totally missed it" when it came to informing the public about some major political and military issues. These included whether strategies to contain, rather than "roll back," nations with weapons of mass destruction could be effective in the long term, or what types of unintended consequences might result from a U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Some commentators believe one reason that many news organizations didn't provide more complete coverage is that after September 11, opposition to the administration became widely regarded as unpatriotic. This made it difficult for the press to carry out its constitutional role of acting as a check on government.

University of Missouri professor Lee Wilkins, who teaches journalism and public policy, says the news media may have been affected by the fact that other institutions, such as Congress, the courts and the foreign-policy establishment, have been "profoundly silent" about many political issues in the past 18 months. The establishment press has a "symbiotic relationship" with these institutions, Wilkins says. Its willingness to air pluralistic points of view has been "very muted" since 9/11, which may have influenced some coverage.

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, says another factor may be that the Bush administration "has been aggressive...at trying to intimidate the press."

It was not difficult to determine where two cable news networks, Fox and MSNBC, stood: Their overtly patriotic approach was patently obvious. Both used the U.S. government's name for the conflict, "Operation Iraqi Freedom," as the title for their coverage, eschewing the more neutral language adopted by their competitors. They used the flag as a backdrop and footage of U.S. troops to promote their coverage.

Fox provided time for individual soldiers to say hello to their families and had military personnel urging viewers to watch Fox. MSNBC created a segue featuring a montage of still photos of military personnel and the slogan "May God bless America. Our hearts go with you."

Fox anchors and correspondents expressed their views about many aspects of the conflict. One anchor reporting on the search for Saddam Hussein asked, "Did we get him?" Commentators made disparaging remarks about guests and news organizations that raised questions about the conflict.

Fox News declined to comment on issues involving patriotism and war coverage.

Shapiro defends the MSNBC strategy. "It's crazy to suggest that you can't on the one hand show pictures of the brave men and women serving our country, and on the other hand ask all the tough questions that any good reporter should," he says. "I don't think there's any suggestion that at MSNBC we didn't ask those questions or explore every part of this war."

Other networks allied themselves with the U.S. forces to some degree, although executives at CBS and ABC say overt displays of patriotism were not appropriate for their newscasts.

Peter Jennings choked up while reading a letter from one U.S. officer to his troops. Diane Sawyer comforted the troops at a U.S. medical facility in Germany. Anchors offered expressions of sympathy and support on behalf of the entire country to U.S. military families whose loved ones had been killed.

Television news executives and some media analysts say these displays of patriotism are not inappropriate. "It's not inconsistent to say you are a patriotic American and a journalist," Shapiro says. "It's not inconsistent to say that you believe in our troops and want them to come home safely, and on the other hand, you're a reporter and it's your job to ask questions of everybody you meet and try to explore every angle of the story."

Marvin Kalb, a longtime broadcaster now with Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, says "some tilting toward a sympathetic view of the American soldier at war" is "a natural phenomenon in this context," one that had not prevented the public from getting "very good coverage on television."

But Mark Hertsgaard--whose books about U.S. foreign policy include "On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency"--strongly criticizes what he calls the "false patriotism" of the networks.

"It is not our role to revere or applaud the government or the military. Our role is to inform the public and thereby serve the country," he says. "The government is not the country, and so when you see reporters talking about 'we' and essentially following the good-guy script, they are...betraying the real principles of journalism and American democracy."

Aly Colón of the Poynter Institute is concerned that when a news organization "becomes an ally," the "challenge to hear other points of view becomes greater." Journalists may "begin to adhere firmly to a particular political or social ideology that causes them to always frame their issues from that perspective," Colón says. This can make it difficult for a news organization to "present a multitude of people and perspectives."

Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs says the important thing is that "the issue of objectivity and war coverage this time around has actually turned into a financial one."

The patriotism strategy enabled Fox to become the first news network since 1991--the year of the first gulf war--to win the most recent ratings quarter for cable, Felling says. The ascendance of Fox indicates that "portraying events of the war in a patriotic fashion was drawing in more viewers than a just-the-facts approach," he says.

This has enormous implications for television journalism, he and other media analysts say. The mammoth ratings increases for Fox and MSNBC during the war mean that viewers are "dictating the news presentation by tuning in to more patriotic viewing outlets," Felling says. "Decisions that used to be made in the newsrooms are now being made in the boardrooms in terms of what to put on the screen."

Colón says this development may indicate "a possible shift in how journalism may begin to emerge in this new century." He thinks the media could revert to the way journalism was practiced in an earlier time, when news outlets presented information in ways that reflected specific political viewpoints and agendas.

McMasters says the fact that viewers are "showing a preference for the news that they perceive reinforces their bias" is the latest indication that the American people don't understand that the role of the press is to provide them with objective information so they can make informed judgments about their government.

He points out that polls in recent years have shown declining support for the First Amendment and that viewers' responses to coverage of the war in Iraq may signal a further erosion in the future.

Once the major phase of the war ended, journalists and media commentators searched for lessons from the coverage and looked to the future.

Missouri's Wilkins hoped that with the fighting largely over, there would be a shift "from the supportive role that journalism plays in times of disasters or national crises to more of a watchdog role." And she saw encouraging signs: Some reporters were beginning "to ask more tough questions. Was this level of destruction necessary? Did anybody stop to think there might be anarchy?... Who are these companies that are getting all the contracts to rebuild?"

Callard, the retired colonel, hopes some of the reporters who had little previous experience covering defense issues will continue to focus on them. "If you study the military in peacetime and you really understand them, you'd be better prepared to report on them in wartime," he says.

Many commentators have said the big test for the United States was not defeating the Iraqi forces and ousting Hussein, but what happened in the country once the shooting stopped. Rebuilding a nation's infrastructure and paving the way for representative government in a land with no democratic tradition are no easy tasks.

A similar challenge awaits the American television networks and the rest of the news media.

Will they maintain a heavy presence to chronicle progress in Iraq, or will it soon go the way of Afghanistan, largely ignored by much of the media? News organizations, like the country, are not known for their long attention spans.

Budgets for coverage of Iraq will dry up within a matter of weeks, predicts one pessimist, Christopher Dickey of Newsweek.

"At the end of the day there will be a few lone voices writing for a few conscientious publications and getting on air on a few radio stations and some television networks, occasionally, about the aftermath of this war," Dickey says. "But basically," he fears, "Americans are going to change the channel."

Jeannine Relly, Kimberly DeVault and David Schaenman provided research assistance for this story. William H. Wing provided research and technical assistance.