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Picture imperfect
From bombs away to embedded reporters, the media war has provided some striking images — but not much context

IT TOOK THAT noted media critic Jon Stewart to put into words what I — and no doubt millions of others — were feeling.

The host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show was interviewing Jim Kelly, the managing editor of Time magazine, on Monday night. They were discussing whether the US media ought to broadcast video of American POWs and dead soldiers, footage that the Arab news service Al-Jazeera had already shown. But Stewart could have been talking about coverage of the war in general when he asked Kelly, " Isn’t it the job of the journalist to put these things in context, not just point a camera? "

Indeed it is. But that hasn’t always been apparent in coverage of the war in Iraq during the past week, especially on television. From the moment that US bombs blasted Saddam Hussein’s bunker shortly before 10 p.m. on March 19, we’ve been deluged with greenish night-vision images of downtown Baghdad, the carnage of the US " Shock and Awe " campaign, an endless parade of generals and maps, and — in this war’s principal innovation — reporters who are " embedded " with military units, covering battles as they happen. Some of this has been truly astounding. But what it all means is another matter altogether.

What we’ve seen has been a fragmented whole that adds up to considerably less than its parts. There’s been some outstanding journalism on display during the past week. I was riveted on Sunday night as CBS News reporter Scott Pelley, on 60 Minutes, covered a firefight that was taking place just a few yards from where he stood. Some outstanding newspaper coverage has been offered as well. From Baghdad, the New York Times’ John Burns and the Washington Post’s Anthony Shadid have filed stories full of substance and nuance. From the West Bank, the Boston Globe’s Charles Radin wrote a piece for Monday’s paper that documented in depressing detail how the war is driving even well-educated Palestinians into reluctantly supporting Saddam.

But as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said at one of his testy briefings, each reporter is offering only a " slice " of a much bigger picture — and that picture can barely be glimpsed. Which leaves me full of admiration and frustrated at the same time. The unrealistic optimism of Saturday gave way to the (probably) unrealistic pessimism of Monday and Tuesday. But what winning the war truly means — for the US, for its relations with the world, and for the people of Iraq — well, that will have to wait.

" I think by and large the coverage is excellent, " says Robert Zelnick, who chairs Boston University’s journalism department and who is a former war correspondent for ABC News. " The balance among field reports, Pentagon analysis, military experts, and reports from such capitals as Amman and Cairo has been reasonable. " Zelnick complains, though, about " a bit too much boosterism, particularly on Fox. " And he points, too, to " occasional gaps. " By way of example, he notes that " one heard much about the violation of Geneva Convention rules by the Iraqis, but nothing on the basis under international law for the coalition’s undeclared war. " That’s a gap big enough to fly an Apache helicopter through.

Adds Steve Rendall, senior analyst with the media-watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR): " When I turned on the TV the first night of the bombing, I thought martial law had been declared in the US; there were generals everywhere. There is also too much unprocessed information. Too little analysis. There is especially too little reporting and analysis of nonmilitary aspects of the war: humanitarian questions, questions of international law, and political questions are too important to be left to the ex-generals. "

WITHOUT QUESTION, the Pentagon’s decision to embed reporters with military units (the " pre-Grenada norm, " Zelnick observes) has done much to shape the tenor of the coverage. The reporters know only what’s happening with their little " slice, " but by God, they’re there, they’re costing a ton of money, and the networks are going to run with what they’ve got. No less a figure than ABC’s Ted Koppel, who’s at least three times older than most of the soldiers he’s covering, jumped into the action. Overall, it’s been a plus, but cool field reports from the back of a jeep are no substitute for understanding. Perhaps the low point came late last week, when CNN, the Fox News Channel, and MSNBC all ran with endless live pictures — via jerky videophone — of their units speeding through the Iraqi desert. What viewers learned was that there sure is a lot of sand in Iraq.

What’s emerged, too, has been an extraordinarily positive and sympathetic portrayal of the fighting men and women. On Monday’s NBC Nightly News, for instance, we watched as reporter Kerry Sanders helped a soldier who’d been shot through the hand call his mother via his satellite phone — a moment that was recycled in far more treacly fashion later that evening on MSNBC. As Jack Shafer observed in Slate this week, " By prepping reporters in boot camps and then throwing them in harm’s way with the invading force, the US military has generated a bounty of positive coverage of the Iraq invasion, one that decades of spinning, bobbing, and weaving at rear-echelon briefings could never achieve. " This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s far from the whole story.

" I suppose the embedding is useful overall, and occasionally — as with the tragedy at Camp Pennsylvania — it has resulted in on-the-spot coverage of hard news, " says University of Virginia government professor Larry Sabato, referring to a fragging incident that took place over the weekend. " But embedding has also resulted in a loss of the big picture during a good bit of the coverage, with loads of soft, human-interest coverage that actually tells the viewers nothing of importance. Seeing a TV reporter riding in the back of a dust-covered jeep with his gas mask on makes for great video. But when he tells us, as one did, ‘We’re on the move, but I can’t say where we are or where we’re heading or what we’re going to do when we get there,’ what’s the point? To prove there are soldiers on the ground moving toward Baghdad? I think we knew that. "

This focus on the human-interest angle has led to some weird moments. On Monday night, CNN broadcast a piece on Shoshana Johnson, one of the American prisoners-of-war and the first woman to be taken captive in this conflict. Reporter Ed Lavandera, at Fort Bliss, near El Paso, interviewed Johnson’s sister, an Army captain, and her father, a retired military officer.

It was a nice piece — until anchor Aaron Brown decided to bat it around a bit with Retired General Wesley Clark, who was in the studio. Brown noted that only one woman was taken prisoner in the Gulf War, and he asked if she had been treated any " differently " from the men. Clark replied that such " different " treatment was always a risk. An uncomfortable pause. Then Clark expanded on what he’d said, explaining that, yes, there were some " sexual connotations " regarding the female POW 12 years ago, but that she’d been " badly injured. " He added: " That may have kept it from being worse than it was. " Brown awkwardly closed a segment he probably wished he hadn’t started by expressing the hope that Johnson — who, judging from photos, was clearly not injured, at least not seriously — would be treated " decently. "

At least Brown’s tabloid moment appeared to be inadvertent. No such luck at the other two cable news channels, Fox and MSNBC. By Monday, Fox had abandoned the brain-suck of continuing coverage during prime time in order to bring back its regular programs. And the network’s biggest star, Bill O’Reilly, was in rare form, attacking documentary filmmaker Michael Moore for his angry criticism of George W. Bush during the Oscars ( " This guy truly despises America " ), Arab critics of US policy ( " We’re going to have to blow up these mosques, and you know what those Al-Jazeera idiots are going to do with that " ), antiwar protesters who break the law ( " Well, they hate America " ), the Senate minority leader ( " I believe that Tom Daschle’s career is pretty much over " ), and the French (US troops need to find Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, he said, so they can " ram ’em up Chirac’s nose and go home " ).

Yet O’Reilly’s calculated, hourlong rant was bracing compared to the icky sentimentality that is MSNBC’s flavor of the month. Having gotten creamed in the ratings with every other approach, the network’s latest shtick is to cling to " America’s Bravest. " Kerry Sanders’s report on the soldier with the shot hand was expanded beyond reason. And I watched as the perpetually leering anchor, Lester Holt, interviewed a California mother and her new baby, who’d been able to talk with her military husband thanks to — yes, MSNBC! " We talk about America’s Bravest here on MSNBC, " said one reporter, walking through a sea of yellow ribbons at a military base. There’s even an " America’s Bravest " wall in the studio, filled with photos of military men and women sent in by their families.

Of course, if this doesn’t boost ratings in, say, three weeks, the geniuses who’ve run the network into the ground will rip down the photos and move Michael Savage’s show into prime time.

Ashleigh Banfield’s post-9/11 stint in Afghanistan is looking more and more like MSNBC’s golden age.

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Issue Date: March 27 - April 3, 2003
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