"Iraq" photo by <a href="http://flickr.com/photos/soldiersmediacenter/2357606823/" target="_blank">Army.mil</a> (CC)
"Iraq" photo by Army.mil (CC)

War Reporting as NBA Playoffs

Sep 3, 2010

This article was first published in The Providence Journal on September 3, 2010. It has been reprinted here with kind permission of the author.

Author's Note:
This essay was written in late March 2003, following the opening weeks of the war in Iraq, and it has been sitting in the dark recesses of my computer’s hard drive ever since. Now, as we read each day of the “winding down” of the Iraq war, I have looked once again at what I had written during those heady first days of war, and I find that it has as much resonance today as it did in 2002. Possibly more. Thus, I presume to offer these somewhat vintage musings:

When, at some time in future, the war in Iraq winds down and, with it, the daily media coverage of military events, the media community will surely once again turn their attention to that ancient ritual of self-examination and self-flagellation, as it has after virtually every major news issue in modern history. Members of the media have always been their own sharpest critics, which is not a bad thing. Indeed, in this instance the process began even as events were unfolding, such as the controversy surrounding the showing of American POWs on Al-Jazeera and around the dismissal from Iraq of high-profile correspondents Peter Arnet and Geraldo Rivera.

The real issue, however, is far more subtle than these obvious controversies, and ultimately far more important. Simply put, the real issue is whether or not the American public was well served by the news media during time of war. Of course, one's individual response to this question rests largely on one's beliefs and expectations—which, in time of war, are often affected (even determined) by emotions. Given that media outlets are themselves no more than the compilation of so many individuals, it is fair to ask what role human emotions played in the coverage of the war in Iraq.

Here, it is important to make a distinction between "coverage" as it refers to the work of the field reporters—the men and women who have supplied the images and words that we at home consume—and as it refers to the true guardians of the news, that is, the editors, publishers, and other senior decision-makers. It is this latter group who ultimately determined what Americans actually saw and heard of the war, what they did not see and hear, and (even more important) who determined the "tone" in which that information was conveyed. As to the first group, I believe the American public would largely agree that their work was brave and professional, perhaps even unprecedented. Indeed, the death and injury of so many journalists is an only too painful reminder of the price one pays for access to truth.

But what of the presentation of that truth? What of the people here at home making the decisions as to how we are to experience war reporting? What of the choice of visual images, such as unfurling American flags? Of stirringly patriotic background music? Of particular guest commentators? Of carefully scripted narratives and the "casual chatter" among studio news anchors that have become such a familiar part of our news broadcasts? Anyone old enough to remember the daily coverage of the Vietnam War will immediately recognize that there is a world of difference between the coverage of that war and the war in Iraq. Indeed, from the very beginning this latest U.S. military action had about it more the atmosphere of a campaign than a war—the expectation being that it would be reasonably brief and follow a somewhat predictable script.

So when coverage did begin, it is perhaps not surprising that many of the men and women sitting behind desks in New York, Atlanta, and elsewhere projected less the traditional journalistic persona of a Walter Cronkite or an Eric Sevareid and more the unbridled enthusiasm of sports fans cheering on their favorite team. The media template for covering the war in Iraq was less Vietnam and more the NBA playoffs.

While by no means was this true of all who came before the camera, in the early days of the war—as U.S. troops moved swiftly toward Baghdad—more than one prominent anchor conveyed the kind of indefatigable energy and perpetual smile that suggested to this viewer a team captain pleased with the way his players were doing on the field. Others were even more overt in their personal demonstrations of patriotic enthusiasm.

Again, was this appropriate? Was it professional? Or, to ask a more fundamental question, is this even an issue any longer, if we are to subscribe to the increasingly popular notion that the media’s role is to provide what the public wants, how it wants it? Is this what we get when we mix Reality Television with public opinion polls?

The discussion has only begun, and it will certainly continue for a long while to come. One need not seek an ultimate answer or even a general consensus, nor it is likely one will emerge. But if we are to remain a truly fee society, with a free and liberating media, it is imperative that we continue to ask ourselves these questions, however painful—or even futile—that might seem.

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