Uneasy evolution of war coverage
WASHINGTON — The Iraq war and a revolution in communications technology may have opened the way to reconciliation between the American military and the American news media.
I can remember back to World War II when journalists, in the language of the day, were not "embedded" but "accredited." They wore Army and Navy uniforms, they ate in mess halls and officers' clubs, and they lived comfortably with official censorship in the interest of the common cause called "the war effort."
A generation later, the Vietnam War, with its "body counts," "news management," and "Five o'Clock Follies," turned a cooperative arrangement into an adversarial relationship. The generation of military leaders that came out of Vietnam resented the perceived role of the press in eroding support for the Vietnam War. They took active measures to keep news people away from operations like the invasions of Grenada and Panama in the 1980s.
An officer to whom I complained about the lid put on the Grenada invasion replied, "Next time we invade we'll put you in the front wave - alone."
During the first Gulf War, reporters, still suspect, operated under onerous restrictions as they tried to get where the action was and the soldiers were. But the development of highly mobile cameras and satellite transmitters opened the way to a totally new dimension of war coverage.
In planning for the invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon decided to make the news media an offer they would find hard to refuse - a front row seat at the battleground. Some 500 news people were offered the opportunity to be "embedded" in fighting units, witnessing what the warriors witnessed for instantaneous transmission to America. Frequently live on camera, the reporters were given a vivid opportunity to become the hero journalists of this war.
However dramatic the pictures, they are only a small part of the war - "slices of the war," as Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld termed it. But they tend to make the combat reporters true comrades-in-arms. And, if at times these reporters are asked to withhold their location and their movements, that is generally accepted as part of the package. However, differences of judgment are already emerging. At press time yesterday, the Monitor's contract reporter, Phil Smucker, was being evicted from Iraq by the US military for being too explicit about his location with US troops in a broadcast interview with CNN. [See page 6 for details.]
The new-age-war live coverage also presents other new problems of professional ethics about how far to accept official dictation. Last Sunday a dozen American soldiers were captured near a Euphrates River bridge. The Arab Al Jazeera network broadcast some grim scenes showing dead soldiers and others being interrogated.
The tape was available to American networks, but most of them acceded to urgent Pentagon requests to withhold broadcast out of regard for relatives not yet aware of what had happened to their loved ones. Suddenly live coverage had become something more than a video game.
On his website, Matt Drudge asked the obvious question, "If anchormen and others in the media have viewed it, why can't the average citizen?" It is one of many professional questions bound to arise in this era of Live from the Battlefront.
And there is no easy answer.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.